Europe and Central Asia
13 Jul 2015

Protecting birds in ‘tropical’ Europe

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock © Maxime Dechelle
Guianan Cock-of-the-rock © Maxime Dechelle
By Sanya Khetani-Shah

Given the nature protection laws in the EU (the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive), it’s easy to believe that all European territories are well protected. But ironically, its overseas territories and départements, often teeming with biodiversity, are not covered by the EU’s environmental law framework. As a result, they are plagued by problems of invasive alien species, loss of habitat and extinction of endemic species.

Réunion Island, Martinique and French Guiana (all French overseas départements) are perfect examples. The Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), BirdLife’s Partner in France, has been working there with local ornithological partners to save endangered birds like Réunion Cuckooshrike (or Tuit Tuit) and the Guianan Cock-of-the-rock (Le Coq de Roche Orange) through their five-year Life+Cap DOM programme, which concluded in a seminar in Paris on June 30-July 1 this year. This was the first Life+ project involving the creation of a network of local ornithological NGOs and the protection of fauna in the French overseas entities.


The Reunion Cuckooshrike © Yabalex

Réunion Cuckooshrike has been listed as Critically Endangered since 2008. Their numbers had dropped drastically due to predation by black rats, an invasive species that thrives on picnic remains. When the Life+ project began in 2010, there were only 27 pairs of the species in the world, all present in the Roche-Écrite Nature Reserve (now part of the Réunion National Park).

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On islands like Réunion, species evolved without any predators or pathogenic agents, which left them particularly vulnerable to introduced predators. The extinction rate of bird species in Réunion is over 50%, and more than half the extinctions of island bird species are caused by the introduction of new predators.

Manual rat eradication in the core area of this site in the park, carried out all year round, with the Société d’Etudes Ornithologiques de La Réunion (SEOR), the Réunion National Park and the National Forestry Commission, led to the number of birds increasing to 40 pairs in 2015, with over 92% of eggs laid successfully fledging chicks. The species’ breeding area has also been increasing by about 9% per year.

Voluntary rescue rangers

Reunion Marsh-harrier © Yabalex

Réunion Marsh-harrier or ‘Papangue’ is the only bird of prey breeding and endemic to the Réunion Island. It is the last raptor nesting on the island. With less than 200 pairs remaining, it is an Endangered species. But despite this status, for years it has been killed illegally or kept in cages. Since it flies at a low altitude while hunting, it is prone to fatal collisions with electric cables. Feeding on rats poisoned by rodenticides also contributes to deaths.

To protect the species, not only were frameworks put into place after consultation with national and regional authorities, but a group of 77 volunteers – the Papangue SOS Brigade – was formed in 2012 to monitor the numbers of the species at three sites, report any hurt or poisoned bird, and create awareness among the local farmers, residents and veterinarians to the issue.

Orange is the new red

Monitoring cock-of-the-rock by telemetry © G. Feuillet

In French Guiana, the limited nesting sites of the striking Guianan Cock-of-the-rock are threatened because of their economic viability: gold mining, logging, poaching and illegal animal trade, and unregulated wildlife tourism.

Since the species is fruit-eating and primarily inhabits forests with caves, the Groupe d’Etude et de Protection des Oiseaux en Guyane is working with local tour operators and mining companies to provide information about the most sensitive areas for the Cock-of-the-rock.  Tour operators have also been informed about the vulnerability of the species to visitor disturbance. Visitor tracks have been reoriented to enhance the viewing of the Cocks at their lek (breeding display site) and a hide put up to reduce disturbance by tourists.

Read more about the project, and view videos on

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