Biologists are optimistic about the future of the Guam rail.
HIGHLIGHTING THE GUAM RAIL FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES DAY
Story by Clare Slaughter
Photographs courtesy of Dan Vice, USDA
For thousands of years the Guam rail, or ko’ko’, has been an essential component of Guam’s culture. Endemic to the Pacific island, the ko’ko’ is the Territorial Bird of Guam. The Guam rail has been battered by environmental threats since the early 1980s and is now considered to be extinct in the wild.
Cheryl Calaustro, a wildlife biologist with the Guam Department of Agriculture’s Division of Aquatic & Wildlife Resources (DAWR), explains that there are only about 300 Guam rails living in the world, 250 on Guam in captivity, 100 on U.S. mainland zoos, and 50 or so on Rota and Cocos Island.
Environmentalists, both on the islands and the mainland, are taking action to revive the Guam rail. The Guam DAWR launched the Guam Native Forest Bird Captive Breeding Program in 1983 in an effort to save the species.
“Our captive breeding has really taken off,” said Diane Vice, a wildlife biologist with the DAWR. Guam Agriculture's DAWR works on both captive breeding projects and habitat programs that attempt to re-establish the Guam rail in the wild. The facilities have room for up to 22 producing pairs and houses between 90 and 150 birds at a time.
Seventeen mainland zoos have also enacted captive breeding programs. Among these is the Cincinnati Zoo, which Director of Animal Collections David Oehler explains is one of the only mainland zoos to observe Guam rail breeding.
Daniel Vice, Assistant State Director of the USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Wildlife Services, has been working to eradicate the Brown tree snake, which decimated the rail populations since arriving on Guam following World War II.
The arrival of the invasive snake was an “economic and ecological catastrophe,” said Mr. Vice. His team works to develop technology which will help keep the snakes from spreading to other islands. Current techniques, however, do little to combat established populations and do not work well on large unbroken forests.
APHIS’s newest strategy to quell tree snake populations is to drop mice each laced with 80 milligrams of acetaminophen over Guam. Unlike most other snakes, Brown tree snakes are content to eat prey they have not personally killed.
This summer, the USDA is set to drop the drugged mice over two tracts of land in Guam. The goal of these droppings is to knock snakes out of 110 hectares (271 acres) of forest, facilitating data collection and illuminating avenues through which to proceed.
The greatest success story surrounding the Guam rail is its introduction onto Cocos Island. After eradicating rodents in 2009, wildlife biologists released 16 rails on the island near Guam in 2010 and an additional 10 in 2012. Currently there is biosecurity protocol in place to prevent the Brown tree snake from making its way to the island and the birds are breeding successfully in the wild.
Biologist Diane Vice is confident that the programs to save the Guam rail are working. “We have a large task of helping people remember the birds and know that we can bring them back.”
On this Endangered Species Day, the work being done by these environmentalists and biologists to save the Guam rail reminds us that, while people can be the cause of species extinctions, we can also be a part of saving threatened species from disappearing forever.
What are some of the species under threat where you live and what efforts are being made to save them?
Update: The original post shared several pieces of misinformation. While Diane Vice does work with the DAWR, she does not work directly with captive breeding programs, but rather on those aimed at creating safe habitat. Wildlife biologists eradicated rodents and not Brown tree snakes from Cocos Island. The first 16 rails were introduced onto the island in 2010, not 2011, and another 10 were introduced in 2012.