‘It’s easy’ – a mas­ter’s guide to sav­ing a species

With­out Carl Jones, the world might have lost the Mau­ri­tius kestrel, the pink pi­geon, the echo para­keet and more

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Patrick Barkham

The last sur­viv­ing bird of prey on Mau­ri­tius seemed doomed. In 1974, there were only four Mau­ri­tius kestrels left in the wild and at­tempts to breed them in cap­tiv­ity were fail­ing. Ex­tinc­tion was “all but in­evitable”, in the words of Nor­man My­ers, one of the world’s lead­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists.

Carl Jones, a bi­ol­o­gist who ar­rived on the is­land in the 70s as an ide­al­is­tic 24-year-old, re­mem­bers his em­ploy­ers, the char­ity that be­came BirdLife In­ter­na­tional, in­struct­ing him to “pull out el­e­gantly” and leave the kestrel-sav­ing to Mau­ri­tius gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. “That ac­tu­ally meant clos­ing it down, be­cause the Mau­ri­tians didn’t have the re­sources or ca­pac­ity for do­ing it,” he says.

What hap­pened next on the is­land of the dodo is a source of in­spi­ra­tion in an age of ex­tinc­tion. Since 1970, hu­man­ity has wiped out 60% of mam­mals, birds, fish and rep­tiles, ac­cord­ing to the WWF, and one in eight bird species are threat­ened with global ex­tinc­tion. But Jones res­cued the kestrel from obliv­ion, in­creas­ing its num­bers a hun­dred­fold, be­fore go­ing on to save more species than prob­a­bly any other in­di­vid­ual. Now the chief sci­en­tist at Dur­rell Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust, the char­ity founded on Jer­sey by Ger­ald Dur­rell, he has pre­served many plant species and nine an­i­mals, in­clud­ing four other bird species that num­bered fewer than 12 known wild in­di­vid­u­als: the pink pi­geon, the echo para­keet (be­low right), the Ro­drigues fody and the Ro­drigues war­bler. The 64-year-old has won the In­di­anapo­lis prize – the con­ser­va­tion­ists’ Os­cars – but he is not an in­ter­na­tional celebrity, per­haps be­cause his think­ing chal­lenges the con­ser­va­tion es­tab­lish­ment.

There are few bet­ter guides to the An­thro­pocene – the era of the sixth mass ex­tinc­tion, in which we live – but Jones sighs at that phrase. “We def­i­nitely have to be aware of what’s hap­pen­ing, but we can do a lot to re­verse these trends. All species are save­able,” he says. Even ob­scure in­sects? “I’m sure you can find ex­am­ples where they are not save­able. I know this is very cliched, but you’ve got to start with so­lu­tions, oth­er­wise you do noth­ing.”

He is still in­fu­ri­ated by My­ers’s ar­gu­ment for wildlife triage – pri­ori­tis­ing species more likely to sur­vive at the ex­pense of des­per­ate cases such as the Mau­ri­tius kestrel. “Where does it end?” Jones says. “You can’t save rhi­nos? You can’t save ele­phants? There’s no room in the mod­ern world for Cal­i­for­nian con­dors? The worst is: ‘We don’t have enough money.’ How much money is there in the world and how much is wasted on triv­ial things? It’s such a defeatist ar­gu­ment.”

How do you save species? “It’s very easy. It’s no se­cret at all,” says Jones. We meet at the re­mote Welsh farm­house he shares with his part­ner, his two young chil­dren, 6,000 books, a black-chested buz­zard-ea­gle called Igle and count­less skulls, re­mains and taxi­der­mied an­i­mals from around the world. “They talk to you af­ter a while,” he says of his trea­sures. “A spec­i­men is a repos­i­tory for an in­fi­nite amount of in­for­ma­tion. You’ve got to live with your spec­i­mens, your an­i­mals. They’ve got to be part of your life.”

Jones is tall, witty and imag­i­na­tive, with “the ad­mirable passion and zeal of an ado­les­cent pi­geon fancier”, as David Quam­men put it in his book The Song of the Dodo. He em­braces

‘Deep down in my heart, I knew that breed­ing birds was some­thing very spe­cial’ spe­cial

EO Wil­son’s con­cept of bio­philia, the hu­man need to live in­ti­mately with other species. He has done so all his life and it has honed his hands-on ap­proach to sav­ing species.

His fas­ci­na­tion with an­i­mals be­gan in his ear­li­est mo­ments – soothed by an owl’s hoot in his cot – in ru­ral Car­marthen­shire, Wales. As a boy, Jones res­cued in­jured wild crea­tures – badgers, tawny owls, kestrels – and bred rap­tors in home­made cages. “My head­mas­ter al­ways used to say: ‘Why don’t you do proper work in­stead of play­ing with the birds in your back gar­den?’ Deep down in my heart, I knew that breed­ing birds was some­thing very spe­cial. When I learned about the plight of the Mau­ri­tius kestrel, I thought: ‘I can do that.’”

Jones chal­lenges the con­ser­va­tion wis­dom that we must first 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 a nd mon­i­tor a sick pa­tient or do you treat them and see what works? A lot of species have been stud­ied to ex­tinc­tion.”

In Mau­ri­tius, he used tra­di­tional cap­tive-breed­ing meth­ods de­vel­oped by his he­roes – Dur­rell and the con­ser­va­tion­ists Sir Peter Scott – “cos­set­ing them in cap­tiv­ity and en­cour­ag­ing them to re­pro­duce”. To this, he added new meth­ods to ma­nip­u­late the birds’ pro­duc­tiv­ity such as “dou­ble-clutch­ing”, re­mov­ing a kestrel’s eggs and han­drea­r­ing the young to en­cour­age fe­males to lay a sec­ond brood.

Con­tro­ver­sially, he also ap­plied these tech­niques to wild birds, spend­ing hun­dreds of hours camp­ing be­neath wild kestrel nests. “The most im­por­tant thing when you start to work with a crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species is to know that species with great in­ti­macy,” he says. He trained wild Mau­ri­tius kestrels to take white mice; sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing en­cour­aged them to 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.”

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.” But his meth­ods worked.

Jones worked on Mau­ri­tius through­out the 80s and 90s and still spends three months there each year. He used sim­i­lar hands-on tech­niques to res­cue the pink pi­geon (now num­ber­ing 400 wild birds) and the echo para­keet (now 750) and worked with is­lan­ders on Ro­drigues, 600km east, to re­store lost forests, help­ing the Ro­drigues fody and the Ro­drigues war­bler in­crease in num­ber to 14,000 and 20,000, re­spec­tively. Some rar­i­ties still re­quire “sup­port­ive man­age­ment”, says Jones: the num­ber of Mau­ri­tius kestrels has de­clined re­cently, although he is con­fi­dent the pop­u­la­tion can be boosted with more nest boxes.

Many con­ser­va­tion­ists view “sin­gle-species” con­ser­va­tion as an old-fash­ioned lux­ury in the 21st cen­tury. Jones ar­gues that this is com­pletely wrong. “Work­ing with species is a key to un­lock all the prob­lems that you see in the sys­tem,” he says. Restor­ing a species re­vives an ac­tor that per­forms a func­tion – graz­ing or scaveng­ing – within an ecosys­tem. “When you save an in­di­vid­ual species you end up look­ing af­ter the whole sys­tem.”

Jones’s species-sav­ing has led to the restora­tion of whole sys­tems. Round Is­land, a once-ver­dant islet near Mau­ri­tius in­hab­ited by unique rep­tiles in­clud­ing the Round Is­land boa and Gün­ther’s day gecko, was re­duced to a moon­scape by goats and rab­bits re­leased by sailors. These in­va­sive mam­mals were re­moved to al­low the flora to re­cover. Sur­pris­ingly, how­ever, na­tive plants found nowhere else in the world then started to de­cline. Jones de­cided to put the Aldabra giant tor­toise, from the Sey­chelles, on to Round Is­land. “Ev­ery­body thought it was the worst idea in the world. They said: ‘You can’t do this. Ex­tinc­tions on is­lands are caused by ex­otic an­i­mals and you want to put ex­otic an­i­mals on is­lands!’” Jones stressed that he would be restor­ing the eco­log­i­cal role of ex­tinct giant tor­toises. By the 90s, he had won peo­ple round. Now, 600 tor­toises roam Round Is­land and na­tive plants such as the ebony tree are thriv­ing again thanks to the tor­toises’ graz­ing and seed dis­per­sal.

Jones would like to use cap­tive breed­ing to save the tur­tle dove, the most rapidly de­clin­ing Euro­pean bird species. Big con­ser­va­tion char­i­ties, he ar­gues, are “very risk-averse” and hide be­hind land­scape-scale con­ser­va­tion.

“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.”

PATRICK BARKHAM WRITES FOR THE GUARDIAN ON NAT­U­RAL HIS­TORY

RICHARD JONESCarl Jones at his home in Car­marthen­shire, Wales, where he keeps sev­eral birds of prey

KEVIN ELSBY/ALAMY

The Mau­ri­tius kestrel was headed for ex­tinc­tion be­fore Jones in­ter­vened

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