Tiny Island Nation Saves Small Falcon From Extinction

Mauritius prevents the kestrel from going the way of the dodo.

Mauritius kestrel

Jacques de Speville

Just about 50 years ago, there were only four known Mauritius kestrels in the wild. Today, one of the world’s rarest birds of prey has rebounded to about 350 wild falcons. The falcon has just been named the national bird of the Republic of Mauritius, an island nation east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. 

“The Mauritius kestrel is a fantastic bird. It's a majestic bird. It's the king of our forest,” Dr. Vikash Tatayah, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, tells Treehugger. The foundation has led the conservation work on the ground to save the bird.

“Its specialty is to fly under the forest canopy amongst trees because it has had to adapt itself to its major prey item, which are the endemic green geckos of Mauritius,” Tatayah says. “It has to be able to maneuver under the canopy and do tight turnarounds, so it's a very agile bird with relatively long talons to grab its prey. It has a very nice call (or some might say eerie). It's a shrill call that says, ‘Danger's coming! Watch out, mate, danger's here.’”

Danger, for this bird, started with habitat destruction. First it lost its home to agriculture, including sugarcane and later tea and pine plantations. And then human development such as roads and villages took over the bird’s forests.

The kestrel (Falco punctatus) was also threatened by the introduction of invasive alien species including cats and rats. Then there were monkeys, and later mongooses.

“When you put all of these major predators together, they will have an impact on our kestrel. There were no mammalian predators prior to humans in Mauritius, so our avifauna is not adapted to mammalian predation,” Tatayah says. “Naturally, these birds are quite tame—they will come up to you. Invasive alien plants are also destroying our forests, and that affects the density of the geckos, which the Mauritius kestrel feeds on.”

But even with all these threats, the kestrel was common on the island until the early 1900s. That’s when the insecticide DDT was introduced on a large scale in order to control malaria. Because one out of three children was only living a few years because of the mosquito-borne disease, the government used it, like many countries, to control the insects.

Decades later, scientists around the world realized the environmental impact of the insecticide on wildlife, as well as potential human health risks. 

“By the time the effects were becoming clear, the kestrel had gone down drastically, to around four birds including a single breeding female ... in the early '70s,” Tatayah says.

“There was also human persecution. People were shooting the kestrels because when the first French settlers came, they mistook them for European chicken-eating hawks, even though it wasn't substantiated that they had an actual impact. Even in the early '70s, people were still trying to shoot the kestrels, fearing that they might try to eat their chickens.”

Saving the Kestrel

By the ‘60s and '70s, there were some amateur naturalists and trained biologists in Mauritius who were concerned about the plight of the kestrels. They reached out to international conservation organizations—including the International Council for Bird Preservation (now BirdLife International), Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, and The Peregrine Fund—and those groups sent staff and resources to assess the situation.

Carl Jones, the chief scientist of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, went there in 1979 and became scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. Although little progress had been made with the kestrel when he arrived, Jones chose to continue the project anyway.

“At the beginning of the project when I studied the last wild birds, I found that they were naturally tame and curious and soon got to know them individually,” said Jones in a statement. “During one tropical downpour I sheltered under a cliff overhang, and the kestrel I had been watching joined me and perched on a rocky ledge just a meter away. As a result of such intimacy, I gained great insights into their lives, and we were able to build a picture of how the kestrel lived and to understand its needs so we could start to build the conservation programme for it.”

Scientists developed interventions such as a captive breeding program, which began to make a difference. Now the kestrel is a success story in Mauritius—the island once home to the dodo, a flightless bird that is a symbol of wildlife extinction.

“If we had had a handful of dodos left, including a female, there's a reasonable chance that as we've succeeded with the kestrels, we may have succeeded with the dodo. It's a shame that back in those days, the psyche of conservation wasn't there,” Tatayah says.

“Prior to the dodo's extinction, people thought, well, we haven't seen this bird, so it must be in another country, or another continent, or another forest. But with the dodo, people realized that it's not in another country or another continent. It's just gone. Conservation consciousness actually started with the dodo, we argue, so Mauritius is the land where conservation consciousness started, and it's here that conservation action prevented extinction.”

A Bird With a Story

Mauritius has been celebrating the kestrel’s recovery. The falcon was named the national bird on March 12, which is the 54th anniversary of the island’s independence and the 30th anniversary of its as a republic. They’ve made commemorative posters and T-shirts and are giving talks about the bird and its conservation.

The recovered, yet elusive bird has brown feathers on its wings and back. Its cream- or mushroom-colored breast has black heart-shaped spots. 

“Probably over 90% of Mauritians have never seen a live kestrel, so our task is to make it popular and bring people to the kestrel, rather than having it just be a name somewhere,” Tatayah says. “That's going to be one of our major tasks.”

He describes it as a “bird with a story,” like the phoenix rising from its ashes or a Lazarus bird that has come back from the dead.

“The story about the kestrel is so poignant. It's not completely out of the woods—there's still a lot of work to be done. It symbolizes that we CAN save species. If we've been able to save the kestrel, we should be able to think that any species of bird, plant, reptile is savable. We just need to make the right decisions at the right time, overcome the politics, and make the most of partnerships.”

Correction—March 21, 2021: This article was corrected from a previous version that incorrectly referred to kestrels as the largest birds of prey.

View Article Sources
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  5. Vikash Tatayah, conservation director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation

  6. "DDT — A Brief History and Status," United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  7. "54th Anniversary Of Independence: A Sober Flag Ceremony At Château Du Réduit," Le Matinal.