The pink pigeon and echo parakeet are just a few of the animals that biologist Carl Jones has saved with his unconventional approach.
Ah, humans ... what a bunch of odd birds we are, so to speak. We are so smart – we just landed on Mars, for heaven's sake, but we're also remarkably short-sighted. We squabble about things as the planet is falling apart, thanks to climate change, pollution, and plummeting biodiversity, among other disasters. Did you know that in the last 50 years, humanity has wiped out 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles? According to WWF, as of now, one in eight bird species are threatened with complete extinction. You thought the loss of the dodo bird was bad? You won't believe what happens next...
As we are losing species at an alarming rate, however, there are happier stories; conservation efforts that have proven successful – and that's a wildly heartening thing. But as it turns out, there's squabbling in that department too. And here's where I introduce you to biologist Carl Jones.Jones is currently the chief scientist at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the charity founded by Gerald Durrell – and he has done a remarkable thing. He has rescued more animal species from extinction than anyone else. When there were just four Mauritius kestrels left, he brought them back. He saved the pink pigeon, the echo parakeet, the Rodrigues fody and the Rodrigues warbler, all of which had fewer than 12 known individuals left in the wild, and all of which are thriving now.
What's his secret? A terrific sense of optimism and a complete bucking of the traditional tenets of animal conservation. Or in his words about saving a species, "“It’s very easy. It’s no secret at all.".
As Patrick Barkham writes for The Guardian:
"Jones challenges the classic conservation wisdom that we must first precisely understand the reasons for a species’ decline and then restore its habitat. Instead, he argues that scientists must tweak the limiting factors on a species’ population – food, nesting sites, competition, predation, disease – with practical fieldwork. 'If there’s a shortage of food, you start feeding. If there’s a shortage of nest sites, you put up nest boxes. You don’t need endless PhD students studying a species for 20 years.' Conservation science, he argues, is often too remote. 'Do you sit back and monitor a sick patient or do you treat them and see what works? A lot of species have been studied to extinction.'"
He does things that are generally shunned by the conventional conservation school of thought. He uses captive breeding and “double-clutching,” in which a bird's eggs are removed and hand-reared so that the female is encouraged to lay a second brood. He is very hands on with the birds; he trained the wild Mauritius kestrels to take white mice hoping they would lay more eggs. “By stealing those eggs and putting them in incubators, I could get them to lay second clutches. When I’d hatched eggs in captivity, I put some of the youngsters back in the wild and I fed the wild parents so they could look after them.”
In talking about the kestrels, Barkham writes:
"Then, when he discovered that mongooses – brought to the island in 1900 to control rats – were raiding nests, he designed mongoose-proof nest boxes for safer wild breeding, trapped mongooses around nest sites and, if he encountered a mongoose during his fieldwork, killed it with his bare hands. His bosses were 'very sceptical', he says: 'Traditional conservation is all about preserving animals and being hands-off. Here I was doing completely the opposite.'"
He even went so far as to introduce a non-native species – the biggest no-no of all – to an island in a scheme to bring the ecosytem back ... and it worked. And in fact, most of his efforts have paid off. There are now hundreds of kestrels on Mauritius. His hands-on techniques were successful with the pink pigeon (photo below), now numbering 400 wild birds, and the echo parakeet, now numbering 750. There are now 14,000 Rodrigues fodies and 20,000 Rodrigues warblers.
While some conservationists find his work too controversial, Jones just keeps on saving animals and in 2016, was recognized for his work by winning the prestigious Indianapolis Prize, which is like the Oscars of the conservation world. “I know of no other conservationist who has directly saved so many species from extinction,” said Dr. Simon N. Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, who nominated Jones for the award.
And indeed, while a whole lot of scientists are (valiantly) studying habitats and working on conservation plans, Jones is just getting right in there.
“While you’re doing big landscape stuff, the species can disappear and you can say: ‘Oh well, you know, these things happen,’” he says. “There’s a great reticence to do hands-on conservation in Britain. Think about your dying patient. You get in there and start looking after them, rather than standing back and watching them through binoculars.”
Given his track record, I think he's on to something, and I hope that the conservation world starts paying attention. We don't have time to wait – we're in a downward spiral and if it takes captive breeding and stealing eggs to save a species, we owe it the planet to get down and dirty and start doing it. We've messed everything up and if there's a way to fix things, we better get busy, even if it's just one small bird species at a time.