Building a stronghold for Gurney’s Pitta in Thailand
The critically endangered Gurney’s Pitta Pitta gurneyi has been rediscovered twice within the last 20 years. The recent news from Myanmar (Burma) has greatly improved prospects of survival for the species, but in the mid-1980s, the outlook was as bleak as it could be. 1986 was the fiftieth anniversary of what was then believed to be the last sighting in the wild, and the species was therefore eligible to be classified as extinct. So the discovery in that year of a small breeding population in Thailand was particularly momentous.
The birds were found at Khao Nor Chuchi (KNC), in a lowland, semi-evergreen rainforest region of Thailand. At the time of the rediscovery, the population was at least 39 pairs. However, the forest in this area was already fragmented, and was rapidly being cleared for rubber and oil palm cultivation.
A Non-Hunting area was immediately established at KNC. The Khao Nor Chuchi Lowland Conservation Project (KNCP) was set up in 1990, with the aim of promoting community participation in conservation and forestry management, and reducing pressure on remaining forest by encouraging sustainable agriculture. Partners in the KNCP included Mahidol University and the Danish Ornithological Society (DOF), the BirdLife Partner in Denmark. In the first half of the 1990s, support was provided by the UK’s Overseas Development Agency. From 1995 to May 1999, funding came from the Danish Ministry of the Environment (DANCED).
KNCP also set up a local education programme. A Thai-language newsletter was distributed to local schools, and a series of slide presentations developed for use with local communities and school children.
Part of the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1993, but this covered just five of the area's 21 Gurney's Pitta territories. The destruction continued: at least two square kilometres of KNC forest were encroached by rubber and oil-palm growers in 1996-1997 alone, damaging or destroying five Gurney's Pitta territories.
In response, BirdLife Partners and the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) worked hard behind the scenes to tackle these problems. Temporary intervention from a task force of the Thai Department of Forests and Parks resulted in the virtual cessation of illegal dry-season clearance in 2000. The OBC was also instrumental in instituting patrols by the Thai Border Police, which resulted in the curtailment of encroachments in the 2001/2002 dry Season.
In mid-2002 the RSPB, (BirdLife Partner in the UK), Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BirdLife in Thailand) and the Government’s National Park, Wildlife and Plant Department took the lead in saving the species from extinction through signing a Memorandum of Understanding. In November 2002, the partners held a Recovery Plan Workshop for the Gurney’s Pitta. Among those represented were the relevant government departments, NGOs and local communities. According to the RSPB’s International Officer, Steve Parr, the workshop succeeded in building positive relationships. "It was useful in that it enabled the various stakeholders to share responsibility for the continued need for action."
Although the smaller outlying populations of Gurney’s Pitta have been lost, Steve Parr says that the core area at KNC has remained reasonably intact over the 17 years since the rediscovery of the species. "Our first job is to hold onto what’s left and stabilise the forest boundary. At the same time, we recognise that to do anything longer term, we need to manage the species to increase the population."
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust have supplied a researcher, who is working with the RSPB’s research biologist to investigate species management issues and develop a species management plan. "There might be young or injured birds at KNC, or birds held in captivity elsewhere, that could used as the nucleus of a captive breeding population," says Steve Parr.
"With the discovery of the Myanmar population, captive breeding has become less of a priority, although it may be implemented in order to establish new pops in Thailand and as a last resort if habitat destruction at KNC is not halted." —Steve Parr, International Officer, RSPB
To add to its problems, Gurney’s Pitta has a low rate of breeding success. Studies by Phil Round of Mahidol University (OBC representative for Thailand) and others have found an average survival rate of one chick per nest. "We have a feeling that nests are failing because of predators like snakes," Steve Parr says. Indeed, a Dog-nosed Cat Snake Boiga cynodon, which was observed by researchers as it approached a nest, was found to contain a chick which had evidently been taken on the previous day.
"We could inflate breeding success by simple measures that have been used for many other threatened species elsewhere, such as nest protection," Steve Parr continues. "Earthworms may account for around three-quarters of the food that the pittas bring to nests, so we could provide an artificial increase in worm densities, or provide other food sources to improve breeding success. There’s a lot we can do to boost the population, while we’re getting the forest right."
This twin track approach - political and ecological - is essential. The RSPB is boosting the capacity of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand (BirdLife Partner) to take on much of this work, providing funding for a research officer and a conservation officer, who will form the core of a professional team. In fact, the RSPB has twin goals: to save Gurney’s Pitta, and on the back of that to help the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand grow stronger.
"When you see the wealth in Bangkok, and go to the national parks and see so many enthusiastic young birdwatchers, it makes you realise this is one of the most exciting places in South East Asia to help build a strong national bird conservation organisation." —Steve Parr
In time, financial support too should come from Thai sources, rather than Western NGOs and governments. "There’s plenty of funding to be gained locally and nationally, but it’s been difficult so far because of the perception of failure, and the acrimony that has sometimes accompanied it. If we’ve got a few sparks of success, or at least stability, I think we could raise lots of interest and funds. Companies and foundations will back programmes like this if there is a good feeling about them. A successful project could raise a wider awareness - just as the RSPB grew its membership on the back of its success with high-profile recovery of species such as Osprey in the UK in the 1960s."
The history of the KNC project to date is sometimes described as one of failure. Steve Parr strongly disagrees. "If it had failed, KNC would have disappeared like the rest of the lowland forest." The perception of failure has arisen partly because too much was expected too soon. "Species recovery anywhere is an incredibly long term process. For example, it’s taken 15 years to raise the population of the Seychelles Magpie Robin from 20 to 115 individuals and that has involved a high level of concerted action by Govt, NGOs and local people."
The discovery of the population in Myanmar raises new hope for the species, although these birds appear to be equally threatened with forest destruction. Thus for the long term survival and genetic viability of the species, it’s essential that the population at KNC is increased. Gurney’s Pitta is not back from the brink yet.
Credits: Nick Langley