15 Jan 2019

Gurney's Pitta: lost and found - and lost again?

Once thought to be lost forever, the Gurney’s Pitta has dodged extinction several times over the decades. Now, confined to Myanmar and beset by habitat destruction and civil unrest, it may be running out of chances.

From 1952 - 1985, there were no confirmed sightings of the Gurney's Pitta © Boonchay Promjiam
From 1952 - 1985, there were no confirmed sightings of the Gurney's Pitta © Boonchay Promjiam
By Shannon Anstee

Gurney’s Pitta Hydrornis gurneyi (Endangered) has declined by a staggering 70% in just 13 years, its rapid population plummet a result of habitat loss. Following its relatively recent extinction from Thailand, the species now occupies a small range of flat, low-lying forests in Myanmar. Unfortunately, these same forests are being cleared to make way for oil palm and betel nut plantations.

This isn’t the first time this striking species has been in danger of extinction. Widespread in Thailand before 1915, Gurney’s Pitta was feared extinct after there were no confirmed sightings between 1952 and 1985. Rediscovery came with excitement in 1986, and populations were then discovered in five separate locations. However, by 1997 the species had again dwindled – occurring in only one of its previous five Thai habitats. By this time, the global population was estimated at a mere nine pairs and the pitta was believed to be one of the rarest species on earth.

Luckily, a search for the species in Myanmar in 2003 found the bird at several sites and estimated the population at between 5,000 and 8,500 pairs. Despite this encouraging discovery, since then the decline has been precipitous. Whilst it is currently listed as Endangered, civil unrest within the final stronghold of the range could increase rates of habitat loss and push the species to Critically Endangered. Without slowing this decline through habitat protection, Gurney’s Pitta may disappear from Myanmar just as it has from Thailand, except this time there will be no second chance.

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