The Príncipe thrush – flagship for Atlantic island forests

Principe island © Tariq Stevart

- By Laura Benitez Bosco and Berry Mulligan


When arriving on the remote island of Príncipe off the coast of West Africa, one is immediately struck by the uniqueness of the place. The steep, volcanic mountains are swathed in impenetrable, story-book jungle. This tiny tropical island jewel in the Atlantic Ocean is home to a remarkable diversity of species, and hosts a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Biosphere Reserve and Important Bird Area (IBA).

Spanning 136 km2 - roughly the size of Washington D.C. - the island is home to unique plants, birds, and animal, attracting more than 2,000 tourists and researchers annually. “During the day you can hear the loud noise of the Endangered Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). At night in the dark forest, laying down at your hammock after a long day of fieldwork, your lullaby will be the singing of the Kitoli, a new species of Scops Owls, just recently discovered” says Yodiney dos Santos, Fundação Príncipe Field Coordinator and member of the Tourist Guides Association.

At least eight of Príncipe’s birds are single island endemics, including the Príncipe thrush (Turdus xanthorhynchus). With a population estimated to be less than 250 mature individuals in 2010, it was assessed as Critically Endangered in 2018. Major threats identified included non-native species, habitat loss and opportunistic hunting. It was also the only terrestrial species with a dedicated Conservation Action Plan, developed in 2014. Protecting the thrush, has been a challenge, and the conservation plan was not implemented due to lack of capacity and resources. With Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) support, this has now changed. A project was launched to secure a future for the species, both to increase our understanding of and to take action to conserve the thrush.

Principe thrush ©  Yodiney dos Santos

Since 2018, Fauna & Flora International and Fundação Príncipe have been combining efforts with the Regional Government, communities and researchers to make this friendly and curious bird a flagship for conservation in Príncipe.

The first step was to learn from the best – the people of Príncipe. “We performed interviews in 15 communities to understand how they use the forest for their livelihoods, how these activities can impact the thrush, and if they knew about the species. Being such an important species, we were surprised that only 20% of the interviewees knew the thrush” said Mr dos Santos.

Using a brand-new monitoring protocol, intensive fieldwork and camera traps the team is uncovering the reproductive biology and distribution of the thrush. Days under the tropical rain climbing steep forested mountains were rewarded with the first footage of the species at the nest after more than 20 years of scientific research Island-wide systematic sampling confirmed that the Parque Natural do Príncipe is the stronghold for the species.

The data collected was submitted to further support Red List revision and will help update the existing Príncipe Thrush Action Plan and determine the future actions need to save the species. Of concern, are the records of introduced mammal species that are potential predators of nests and adults and share the same habitat (black rats, African civet, feral cat, and Mona monkey).

Mammals camera trap © Fundacao Principe

Upcoming work on the thrush will examine habitat associations, monitor population trends and implement crucial awareness raising, while the threat from invasive species is further assessed. “Unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis on the island temporarily delayed our engagement with communities and schools, part of our awareness activities to generate pride in the Príncipe thrush. We will nonetheless keep up our efforts”, said Mr dos Santos. “If together we can successfully protect our endemic thrush, we can protect all the forest on this unique island”.

This work is led by Fauna & Flora International and Fundação Príncipe and depends on the support and participation of several institutional partners including: Secretaria dos Recursos Naturais e do Ambiente; Departamento da Reserva da Biosfera e do Parque Natural do Príncipe; Parque Natural do Príncipe, Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA), BirdLife International and the University of Lisbon. The work has been generously supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and Le Fonds Français pour l'Environnement Mondial.