Notes from the field - Mauritius kestrel recovery program

by ZSL on

ZSL London Zoo keeper Claire McSweeney gives us a first-hand account of working in the field in Mauritius, helping to boost kestrel populations.

In 1974, the population of Mauritius kestrels was down to four known wild individuals and two in captivity. There were several reasons for such a drastic decline: habitat loss, invasive predators (cats, rats, monkeys) and the negative effects of inadvertent pesticide ingestion (DDT used for mosquito control) being the most influential. A conservation strategy was implemented which included a captive breeding programme, and later, a reintroduction programme and support for released birds such as artificial nest boxes and supplemental feeding. All this hard work allowed the species to recover and by 2000 the kestrel had been downlisted from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable.

Adult Mauritius kestrel perch on a branch
An adult Mauritius kestrel

Over the last 4 years ZSL has worked closely with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF), the National Parks and Conservation Service (Government of Mauritius) and other partners to help monitor and manage the two sub-populations of kestrels now found at the Black River Gorges National Park (BRGNP) on the west coast and the Bambou Mountain range on the east coast. Unfortunately, results from previous and subsequent fieldwork has shown that the population in the BRGNP has been steadily declining and though the Bambou Mountain population has maintained its population, the kestrel is now considered to once again be Endangered. The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, with the support of ZSL scientists and keepers, have stepped in to once again aid the kestrel’s recovery. Since 2016 a number of eggs have been collected from wild nests on the East coast, then hatched and hand-reared at the Gerald Durrell Endemic Wildlife Sanctuary (Black River aviaries) before being released into suitable habitat on the south-west coast. 

Beach landscape looking down the coast with Le Morne in background
View of Le Morne from the local beach

Earlier this year the keepers at ZSL Whipsnade and London Zoo were approached with the amazing opportunity to travel to Mauritius to help with the kestrel programme over the 2018 breeding season. As keepers we work hard to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to aid in the conservation of some of the world’s most endangered wildlife in our zoos but the chance to use our expertise to directly help the recovery of the kestrel is not one to miss. Of course, the fact that this work would be carried out on a tropical island had no bearing on my decision to put my name forward. 

At the end of June, myself and Jasmine Sinclair from London Zoo were the lucky ones chosen to head out to Mauritius for six weeks each (with an overlap of two weeks) to cover the period the kestrel eggs and chicks would need to be cared for. Having six years of experience as a bird keeper at Whipsnade I was really looking forward to putting my incubation and hand rearing skills to the test. I landed early in the morning on October 8th and was whisked off to meet the staff at the National Parks and Conservation Service. They introduced their team to me, explained their role in the project and welcomed me to Mauritius. Next, it was off to MWF head office where I met lots of the MWF staff and volunteers before they headed out to their field stations for the week. I don’t think I’ve met that many friendly and enthusiastic people all at once before and I really hoped I could remember some of their names! 

Equipment for hatching chicks set-up on a bench
Hatchers, incubators and brooders all set up

By afternoon I had arrived at the aviaries and, after meeting the dedicated team of Mauritian keepers there, I was finally in the kestrel rearing room. With the first egg harvest two days away, I wasted no time in getting stuck in to set up the various bits of equipment needed for incubating, hatching and rearing. By the time I got back to the dedicated MWF house and lay my head down on a pillow, which I managed to scavenge from a cupboard, I was ready for some much needed sleep. There are going to be some exciting weeks ahead. 

Mauritius kestrel recovery program

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