Guest blog by Alice Reisfeld, Project Manager at SAVE Brasil
Until 2015, the Blue-eyed Ground-dove (Columbina cyanopis) was thought to be extinct. After 75 years without any sightings, Brazilian ornithologist Rafael Bessa encountered 11 individuals by chance while conducting research in the Brazilian Cerrado. This rediscovery rocked the ornithological world and Columbina cyanopis entered the list of Lazarus birds that were once presumed extinct. Currently, 31 Blue-eyed Ground-doves are known to live in the wild.
After his finding, Bessa and fellow researchers came to SAVE Brasil (BirdLife International in Brazil), a non-profit focused on bird conservation, to discuss this discovery. From this moment, we started a race against time to secure funds to protect the species’ habitat. In 2018 support from the Rainforest Trust, allowed us to begin a conservation project and purchase land where the dove was found, creating the 1483-acre Blue-eyed Ground-dove Nature Reserve. A few months later, with additional support from SAVE Brasil and Instituto Grande Sertão, the government of Minas Gerais created Botumirim State Park, protecting 89,000 acres of Cerrado.
After guaranteeing habitat protection, SAVE Brasil have been studying the species’ natural history, monitoring the population, and searching for new occurrence areas, while also working with community engagement, eco-tourism and supporting the government in implementing the Botumirim State Park. Our reserve is open to visitors (although currently closed due to COVID-19) and for the first time in nearly a century, people can see one the world’s rarest animals. Tourism at the reserve contributes to the local economy, especially hotels.
Even though the habitat is protected, the reduced number of doves requires urgent measures. Aiming at identifying priority conservation actions to save the species, SAVE Brasil gathered experts in two workshops, in 2017 and 2019. The latter was organized in partnership with Parque das Aves and facilitated by the Conservation Planning Specialist Group (IUCN). The group included well-known experts in bringing species back from the brink, such as Carl Jones (Durrell Wildlife), Nigel Collar (BirdLife International) and Andrew Owen (Chester Zoo), and resulted in an action plan for the species’ long-term conservation. The group discussed taking eggs into human care to allow birds to be raised in captivity to build an insurance population and to breed individuals that can be released to reinforce the wild population. Breeding under human care must only be considered under very particular circumstances, but when there are so few birds left, as is the case of the Blue-eyed Ground-dove, it would be considered a viable option which is why we are preparing to start this action in 2022.
In the meantime, with support from American Bird Conservancy we continue to search for the species in new areas, as well as searching and monitoring nests. These actions are bringing positive results: in 2020, a pair was found at a new location inside the State Park and our nest searches have been very fruitful. So far in 2021 our field team has already found 3 active Blue-eyed Ground-dove nests, and 4 chicks from 2 of the nests have successfully fledged, thus increasing the current known population to 31 individuals. This may seem like a very low number, but when talking about a species with such a small population, every individual counts.