Last-ditch bid to save parrot
Last-ditch bid to save parrot

Matt Ricci lowers his voice as he enters the enclosure, and asks everybody around him to do likewise.

He has already donned a specially provided pair of boots and a forensic-style body suit when he explains the need for the heightened security and sensitivity.

Within the four small cages and mesh barriers behind him are seven western ground parrots – animals that are among the most endangered in the world, let alone WA.

They are notoriously shy and elusive – “cryptic”, as Mr Ricci calls them – and even the hint of a human voice can send them scurrying for cover.

A senior keeper at Perth Zoo, Mr Ricci notes that just 140 of the birds are believed to survive in the wild and they can only be found in two national parks on the State’s south coast.

It is a precarious – perhaps even untenable – situation, he says.

“The whole species could be wiped out in a single natural disaster like if a wildfire swept through those areas where they’re still found,” Mr Ricci says.

The seven birds – three breeding pairs and an extra male – have been brought to the zoo as part of a crucial and last-ditch bid to save the species.

It is through the zoo’s world-renowned captive breeding expertise that scientists hope to boost the parrot’s numbers and develop a “genetic bank” for the species.

Environment Minister Albert Jacob said the project was the culmination of efforts by the State Government and community group Friends of the Western Ground Parrot since 2008 that had seen about $4.5 million spent on safeguarding the species.

Mr Jacob said if the breeding program was successful it would help protect a species that would otherwise be at imminent risk of dying out.

He said it may even lead to the eventual repopulation of areas that once had the birds – particularly if long-running efforts to reduce fox and cat numbers gained momentum.

“When you’re talking about an animal where you’ve only got 140 of them in the wild… it’s of vital importance,” Mr Jacob said.

“In fact I think it’s the most important of all our critically endangered animals to get an established breeding program.”

Allan Burbidge, the Department of Parks and Wildlife’s principal research scientist, said the program offered genuine hope for the birds but there were challenges to overcome.

One was to ensure that any breeding protected the species genetic diversity while another was to properly take account of them whenever there was burning in their remaining habitats.

Sarah Comer, an ecologist from the department’s south coast region, said the parrots were a “canary in the coal mine” for their habitats and saving them had wide implications.

“Certainly some of the landscapes we’re looking at (on the south coast) are some of the hotspots for significant fauna in this State so there is a wide suite of things that will benefit from the work we’re doing on the ground, we hope,” she said.

The West Australian

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