Lockdown lifeline for amorous endangered species

Talarak breeding pair with chick © Talarak Foundation Inc.

By |2020-07-22T15:07:12+00:00July 22nd, 2020|Asian Species, Captive Breeding, Conservation Optimism|Comments Off on Lockdown lifeline for amorous endangered species

As cities on the island of Negros went into lockdown, cars came off the roads, people stayed in their homes, and the endangered species living in the Kabankalan and Negros Forest Park breeding centres started to breed. In the newly calm and quiet surroundings, even the most challenging species have had breeding success, which is providing a tremendous boost to the populations of some of the Philippines’ rarest species.

What does ‘lockdown’ mean for hornbills? While we will now forever associate lockdown with the months spent indoors, listening to news stories about the escalating COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, for hornbills it is a breeding strategy. When a female hornbill finds a mate and is ready to lay her eggs, she seeks a suitable hole in a tree and begins to close the entrance with a wall made of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. When she is ready to lay her eggs, the entrance is just large enough for her to squeeze herself in, and then the remaining opening is sealed but for a small hole through which her mate can feed her and her chicks.

This unusual self-imprisonment is useful for several reasons: it prevents rival hornbills from taking over valuable and limited nesting sites; helps protect young from predators; and provides a space which can be kept at a moderately stable temperature – shaded during the day, but insulated at night. During the incubation period the female undergoes a complete moult, thought to be triggered by the darkness of the cavity. Once her chicks are too large to fit in the cavity with her, she breaks out and both parents feed the chicks.

Our partner Talarak Foundation Inc. breeds unique Philippine wildlife to restore wild populations on the island of Negros.

Challenges breeding a rare hornbill

There are 59 known species of hornbill, and these typically tropical birds with their distinctive sheath-like bills can be found in tropical and subtropical Africa, Asia and Melanesia. One of the rarest and most endangered hornbill species is the Rufous-headed hornbill, or Talarak, a Critically Endangered species living in the rainforests on the islands of Negros and Panay in the Philippines. The Talarak reproduces very slowly and has therefore struggled to adapt to high hunting pressures and habitat loss due to deforestation.

Partly due to the hornbill’s nesting requirements (which make creating artificial nest boxes for hornbills a real challenge!) and also because they mate for life (and are therefore understandably picky about choosing their mates) the Talarak is a notoriously difficult bird to breed in captivity, and therefore a complex species to conserve.

After many years of hard work, the Talarak Foundation are finally seeing success with their Talarak breeding programme. Last year, a single chick Valentin was born (left) and this year two chicks emerged from a different breeding pair (right). Image: Talarak Foundation Inc.

Talarak Foundation

However, our partner Talarak Foundation Inc. (named after this fiery-coloured species, of course) seem to have finally cracked it with their first captive-bred fledgling named Valentin taking flight last year, the first successful breeding of this species in captivity in 9 years. There are only just over 30 of these birds in captivity anywhere in the world so even just one extra is a huge boost. Then in May 2020, two chicks emerged from one of their nest boxes!

What is even more exciting is that Valentin and this year’s chicks came from different parents, and as hornbills mate for life, this means they now have two breeding pairs in the captivity.

“The keepers noticed the sealed nest box on January 7, 2020, and hoped for the best,” said Fernando “Dino” Gutierrez, President of Talarak Foundation. “The first chick hatched on February 27, and to our surprise, a second chick hatched on February 29. It’s very rare that these Rufous-headed hornbills have two successful hatchings. We are overjoyed that the two made their way into the world together!”

Some more of the babies emerging in Talarak Foundation’s lockdown baby boom: Negros bleeding heart dove and Blue-naped parrot chicks. Image: Talarak Foundation Inc.

Bucks and boars

Talarak Foundation have even more good news from their captive breeding programme. In July they have been able to do their first release of Visayan spotted deer and Visayan warty pig in Danapa Nature Reserve, Negros Oriental – the first conservation reintroduction on the island of Negros!

The Visayan spotted deer is one of the rarest and most narrowly distributed mammals in the world, with only a few hundred wild animals thought to remain in the rainforests of the Visayan islands of Panay and Negros. As the females have a gestation period of eight months and usually give birth to a single calf once a year, it could take a long time for the wild population to recover their numbers, which is why a release of captive-bred individuals could really boost this species in the wild. This first release was 12 bucks, with females to be released in early August.

The Visayan warty pig is Critically Endangered and also only currently known in Panay and Negros. Like the Visayan spotted deer, because there are so few surviving in the wild, there is a lack of knowledge about their behaviour and characteristics outside of captivity which has been a challenge for conservation organisations like Talarak Foundation.

Nine boars and ten bucks were transferred from the breeding Centre in Bacolod, Negros Forest Park, to the Danapa Nature Reserve in Bayawan City. Image: Talarak Foundation Inc.

A combined conservation effort

Expanding and pooling knowledge about these species has been a priority for Talarak Foundation to create the best possible conservation strategies for rare and endangered Philippine wildlife. In June 2019, Talarak Foundation hosted a West Visayas Conservation Workshop with over 80 attendees from local government, local NGOs, Indigenous peoples’ communities, international zoos and researchers from across the globe, to create action plans to protect and save the “West Visayan Big Five”, namely the Visayan warty pig, Visayan spotted deer, Talarak, Tarictic hornbill, and the Negros bleeding heart dove.