The Vulnerability of Cockatoos to Extinction: How do we assess it?

The Vulnerability of Cockatoos to Extinction: How do we assess it?

Sep 6, 2004

Notes from the Field: Issue 3

The Vulnerability of Cockatoos to Extinction: How do we assess it?

by Stewart Metz

There are three methods used to designate the vulnerability of parrots in the wild:

We all are used to referring to CITES (The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species). CITES designates virtually all parrots (except budgerigars and cockatiels) as either Appendix 1 (trade authorized only in exceptional circumstances ) or Appendix 2 (not presently threatened but could become so without regulation; trade requires evidence that it will not jeopardize the status of the animal ).

A less well known, but very important group of designations, are those provided in the “Red List” of BirdLife International-IUCN (World Conservation Union). Many of these findings are summarized in an extremely valuable publication “PARROTS: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2000-2004” (eds. N. Snyder, P. McGowen, J. Gilardi, A. Grajal), available through the World Parrot Trust . This publication is often referred to as just the “Parrot Action Plan,” and covers topics in conservation, and the status of the most endangered parrots of all families.

Do not confuse either of these two with the United States Endangered Species Act, which has little relevance to conservation of non-native parrots in the wild, or, for that matter, within the United States (in commerce).

CITES currently grants Appendix 1 status to only four cockatoos:

  • The Palm cockatoo
  • The Red-Vented (or Philippine) cockatoo
  • The Moluccan (or Seram ) cockatoo and
  • The Goffin’s (or Tanimbar) cockatoo.

Unfortunately, this designation seems rather arbitrary. The Palm cockatoo is probably endangered only in certain subpopulations or races; its total population is unknown. The Seram (“Moluccan”) cockatoo was found in the most recent census to exist on Seram in greater numbers than those previously thought; it is now considered “Vulnerable” to extinction but not “Extremely endangered.” And the Goffin’s cockatoo probably should never have been put on Appendix 1 at all , were it not , in all probably, for some taxonomic confusion. . Triton cockatoos are probably not in great jeopardy. The status of the “Umbrella” cockatoo is poorly understood; they are frequently traded but are not at risk of imminent extinction.

In fact, the most endangered Indonesian cockatoo — the lesser sulphur crested cockatoos (C.sulphurea)– is not on Appendix 1 at all! There are probably less than 5000 remaining in the wild, and all subspecies exist in very small pockets (some perhaps as small as 6-8 individual birds). The most recent census of the subspecies the Citron-crested cockatoo (C.citronocristata), which was carried out by BirdLife Indonesia, revealed that only about 2000 remained on Sumba, its sole home. This figure is almost the same as that for the remaining Philippine cockatoos, according to the studies of Marc Boussekey and his colleagues. The Lesser Sulphur Crests were recently turned down for inclusion in Appendix 1; fortunately, they will get another chance when they will be re-considered at the meeting of CITES in October of this year.

There are other important factors determining the vulnerability of a species besides total numbers of birds counted in a census. One is density—ie, the opportunity for social and reproductive interaction. Others include the female-to-male ratio and the degree of aging of the population. Another issue is not only the amount, but also the quality of remaining habitat (e.g., the height above sea level, food sources, type of trees, age and size of trees, potential for nest hole sites). And even if absolute numbers were the sole important variable, obtaining such numbers with accuracy is notoriously difficult. Keep in mind that CITES only regulates international trade. Many of the birds traded illegally in Indonesia end up internally (mostly in Java) in small cages where they act as status symbols of wealth and prestige. And CITES itself has no mechanism to enforce its own designations. Unfortunately, protecting cockatoos is not as simple as giving them Appendix 1 status!

Stewart Metz is the President of Project Bird Watch. He is a passionate advocate for the welfare of Indonesian cockatoos and parrots in the wild and in captivity and is an accomplished author in several different disciplines.

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