Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Endangered Rimatara lorikeet or Kuhl’s lory, Vini kuhlii, feeding on nectar.

Image: G McCormack, Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust (CINHT). [larger image]

My life’s passion is the birds of the South Pacific, particularly the Loriinae, which are parrots commonly known as the lories and lorikeets. I study them professionally and I have lived with them and bred them for most of my life. So it was exciting to me when I learned that one of my favorite lory species, the endangered Rimatara lorikeet or Kuhl’s lory, Vini kuhlii, experienced a conservation triumph several weeks ago: twenty-seven of the parrots were translocated from the island of Rimatara, in the Cook islands where a small population still exists, to the island of Atiu, where they had been driven to extinction by the Maori hunters several hundred years ago. Officials hope that this homecoming will lead to establishment of a reserve population of the endangered birds.

Lories are small to medium-sized parrots that are typically brightly colored. They have a specially modified tongue that allows them to feed on nectar, pollen, fruits and insects. There are almost 60 species of lories and they are found throughout the islands of the South Pacific Ocean. However, some species live on very small islands, which limits their overall population size, making them vulnerable to extinction. The Rimatara lory, which lives on a tiny island (figure 1), is one such vulnerable species.

Figure 1: Ātiu is almost four times larger than Rimatara: 29 kilometers² versus 9 kilometers² so Atiu can, in theory, provide an adequate home for a much larger population of the Rimatara lory.

Image: NASA [larger image]

In 2000, the World Wide Fund for Nature sent an expedition to Rimatara to reassess the status of the Rimatara lory and also the non-native ship rat, which preys on the birds, as a follow-up to a survey that occurred in 1992. The team estimated the lorikeet population comprised only 750 birds, a decrease from 900 birds estimated in 1992, even though, luckily, the ship rat was not found.

Concerned that the birds were slipping into extinction, the Natural Heritage staff made two recommendations, first; increase quarantine procedures and awareness on Rimatara to prevent the accidental introduction of the ship rat, and second; establish a reserve population of the parrot on a ship rat-free island within its former natural range, namely within the Southern Cooks (figure 2). Several candidate islands were identified, but Ātiu was the only ship rat-free island deemed suitable for a reintroduction program.

Figure 2: The former and current natural ranges of the Rimatara lory.

Image: Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust (CINHT) [larger]

To establish this reserve population on Atiu, the people of Rimatara, along with the government of French Polynesia, collaborated with the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust to fly the 27 birds, known as ‘Ura on Rimatara, to Atiu, where they are known as Kura. Staff from the Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES) program at the at the San Diego Zoo helped collect the birds using mist nets, they cared for the birds while in quarantine, and evaluated their condition to ensure that only healthy birds were taken to Atiu.

“The effort was a complete success. All the birds ate well, maintained weight within reasonable limits, and flew well upon release,” writes Alan Lieberman on his blog. Lieberman is the conservation program manager for CRES.

The Rimatara lory is no stranger to Atiu. Both fossil records and oral tradition reveal that the Rimatara lorikeet was formerly found throughout most of the Southern Cook Islands where the diminutive parrot was much prized for its small red feathers, which were used for chiefly adornment, and for decorating ceremonial headdresses (figure 3). Unfortunately, because the Maori royalty on Atiu so coveted this species’ spectacular scarlet and emerald plumage for adornment, it was hunted to extinction. According to local oral tradition, the last feather harvest in the Cook Islands occurred around the time Captain Cook visited in the 1770s. But the lorikeet was never recorded in the Cook Islands by any European visitors, so it probably went extinct on those other islands before the 1820s.

Figure 3: The Rimatara lory and one of the Maori chief’s adornments
that its tiny red feathers were used to decorate.

Image: G McCormack and J Kunzle, Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust (CINHT) [larger]

The bird’s homecoming was eagerly anticipated by the people of Atiu.

“[It was] a relief to see the birds fly in their new home, cheered on by enthusiastic Maori chants wishing them well, a long life, and many chicks,” writes Lieberman.

Until the translocation project occurred, the Rimatara lorikeet survived only on Rimatara, where it is endemic, and in the northern Line Islands of Kiribati, where it had been previously introduced. Because of its small population and limited distribution, this lorikeet is listed as endangered on the IUCN RedList. It is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), so these birds required a CITES export permit before they could be moved to another country.

There are two other lory species that are endemic to the nearby islands of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. They are the Tahitian blue lorikeet, Vini peruviana, and the ultramarine lorikeet, Vini ultramarina. Both of these species are also included on the RedList and on CITES.

CRES staff will return next year to survey the island for Kura, or Rimatara lories, to document survivorship and reproduction.

Sources:

Alan Lieberman’s blog (quotes)

Cook Islands Museum Biodiversity report (images)

If you would like to provide financial support to this worthy project:

American Society of Aviculture Conservation Action: Translocation of the Rimatara lory.

Comments

  1. #1 biosparite
    May 18, 2007

    GrrlScientist,
    That is a spectacularly-beautiful bird. You should post something about your own Loris, such as an exemplar photo.

  2. #2 Joyce Baum
    May 18, 2007

    I am the newsletter editor for the Avicultural Society of Tucson, a non-profit bird club, and wondered if I could have your permission to print this article in our newsletter? Thank you for your consideration.

  3. #3 Chris' Wills
    May 18, 2007

    I noticed that it is feeding of a Bannana flower; does it help pollinate wild bannanas?

  4. #4 Library Diva
    May 18, 2007

    This makes me so happy to hear! So much of the environmental news is bad; it’s nice to hear what can happen when people make an effort to change things.

  5. #5 Diane in Ohio
    May 19, 2007

    So happy to see a Lory bird article!! and what wonderful news,too! Thanks for the post!!!!!!!

  6. #6 Ronald Orenstein
    May 19, 2007

    Very interesting! However, just one note – CITES is not an “international endangered species list”. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) deals only with species that are or may be in international trade. Species are listed on Appendices, of which the two most important are Appendix I and II. Species on Appendix I are threatened with extinction but must also be actually or potentially threatened by trade; Appendix II species (by far the longer list) do not even have to be under threat. They are listed either because doing so is necessary to prevent them from becoming threatened by trade in future, or because they look so much like other listed species that customs officers would have trouble telling them apart. Furthermore, to be listed a species must be proposed by a country signatory to the treaty; as this process is rather ad hoc the Appendices canot be taken as a comprehensive list even of species in trade. In fact, except for its title the word “endangered” does not even occur in the text of the CITES treaty!

  7. #7 "GrrlScientist"
    May 19, 2007

    joyce: yes you may reprint, please send me a hard copy in the mail when it appears (my mailing address went out to you in email).

    chris; it is probable that this species acts as at least one of the pollinators for wild banana (not much research has been done on lories as pollinators, although everyone “knows” they are important in this ecological role), and perhaps the primary pollinator, although bananas probably also depend on flies and possibly, bats.

    thanks for the comment, ronald. i actually was aware of that but made a misstatement when i tried to quickly explain what CITES is .. sorry to mislead my readers, but i was trying not to spend too much time explaining the complicated details of CITES.

  8. #8 Charles Hicks
    May 21, 2007

    Hi,

    Great news. Thank you for your work and the report.

    I am a breeder of lory and lorikeets in the UK and a member of the European Loribreeders Association. I would love to cross post your article and with your permission would send the url to the founder of the association and ask him to add it to there news letter which goes out to 300 odd memebers in Europe.

    Yours sincerely,

    Charles Hicks

  9. #9 "GrrlScientist"
    May 21, 2007

    yes, please feel free to share the link, Charles!

  10. #10 Beth
    July 3, 2007

    You have an intriguing background. This is a beautiful bird. I wish you the best of luck with your freelance work.

  11. #11 Peter de Wilde
    June 26, 2008

    Hello,

    I am Peter de Wilde the founder of the European loribreeders.
    Johann Janssen and Bernd H. Gerischer have been to french Polynesia to visit the Vini peruviana and the Vini kuhlii.
    They have made a DVD about this trip and is for sale.
    If interested these could be send over to the UK.
    In that case contact me on peter.de.wilde@home.nl or johann.janssen7@ewetel.net
    The text is in German at this moment

    Best regards,
    Peter

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