Assessing the success of red-billed oxpecker translocations as a conservation tool in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
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There are numerous factors that contribute to a bird species becoming threatened and in need of increased conservation efforts in order to survive. Compared with fossil records, current extinction rates are much higher than expected, which emphasizes the need for conservation. Conservation translocations aim to increase the survival of threatened species by ameliorating their possibility of extinction, and contribute either to educational, scientific or supportive purposes in this. Reintroductions or translocations are a well-established method for increasing a species’ distribution and for restoring their historical range. Translocations are defined as human-mediated movements of organisms from one area and released in another. A translocation is only considered successful when a population is self-sustained through breeding of the released individuals and does not require intervention. Oxpeckers are African passerines from the starling lineage. Historically, red-billed oxpeckers (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) had a distributional range that extended from Eritrea to Somalia, through south-eastern Sudan to Zimbabwe and into the former Transvaal, Natal and Eastern Cape Provinces, South Africa. Oxpecker populations became threatened in South Africa in the early years of the 20th century. In southern Africa, red-billed oxpeckers became Near-Threatened as a result of cattle dips with substances toxic to the birds, and because of a significant decrease in their large game host species. Conservation efforts in the 1980s onwards have attempted to deal with the factors causing their demise. In 2002, The Endangered Wildlife Trust began translocating red-billed oxpeckers to areas where they had gone locally extinct, in an attempt to increase their current distribution and population in South Africa. Consequently, we documented and reviewed the various capture and quarantine methods, conducted since 1988 to the present, in the various translocations of red-billed oxpeckers. We also highlighted lessons learnt from these translocation events. To determine how successful these translocations were, we compared changes in the Southern African Bird Atlas Project (SABAP) reporting rate data and determined the presence or absence of red-billed oxpeckers at all the 24 translocation release sites in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). In SABAP 1, data on species occurrences were collected at the Quarter Degree Grid Cell (QDGC) level. In SABAP 2, this was refined to pentads, where nine pentads are in one QDGC. Therefore, the reporting rate comparison was done at QDGC level. Prior to these translocations, red-billed oxpeckers were absent from all these sites. Specifically, we conducted transect surveys to determine red-billed oxpecker’s population estimates in Ithala Game Reserve (IGR) and Tembe Elephant Park (TEP). We also netted and ringed red-billed oxpeckers at these sites to obtain morphological and genetic data and to determine their breeding status. Furthermore, we distributed an online questionnaire to determine public perceptions on red-billed oxpecker’s range expansion in South Africa. We analysed the SABAP data using general linear modelling and the survey data using the Distance Programme in R Studio. There was a significant increase in reporting rates of red-billed oxpeckers in southern Africa since the end of SABAP1 in 1991 with several new areas where they had established. This was again confirmed from landowners reporting the first observation made of red-billed oxpeckers on their respective properties. Reporting rates at the specific translocated release sites had also increased. Twenty-four per cent of the QDGCs (n = 170) showed an increase in reporting rates in southern Africa, however, 36% of the QDGCs showed a decrease in reporting rates (n = 258). Fourteen per cent of the QDGCs (n = 100) showed new areas colonized by red-billed oxpeckers. In South Africa, red-billed oxpeckers had colonised several new areas, particularly near areas where reporting rates had increased. Twenty-six per cent of the QDGCs showed areas where red- billed oxpeckers were absent and had gone locally extinct (n = 187); however these areas were mostly in Botswana and Zimbabwe. We determined that habitat, host preference and host herd size were important factors when calculating population densities of red-billed oxpeckers. Detection probabilities for red-billed oxpeckers were highest in open bush habitat and where large herds were present. In IGR, red-billed oxpeckers were seen in 8% (n = 33) of the total of 391 observations made. In TEP, red-billed oxpeckers were observed in 6% (n = 24) of the total 378 observations made. In both IGR and TEP all red-billed oxpeckers we trapped and ringed had not been previously ringed and some had brood patches supporting their successful reproduction there. To date, a total of 24 reintroduction events and 13 population reinforcements have taken place, with a total of 1359 red-billed oxpeckers translocated in South Africa. The increase in reports of red-billed oxpecker sightings, especially at release sites and on nearby land, showed the importance of translocations for the conservation of oxpeckers. In addition, the placement of artificial nest boxes has increased the likelihood of red-billed oxpeckers breeding at their new translocated site. The recent down-grading of red-billed oxpeckers from Near Threatened to Least Concern, and the data collected in our study support the success of translocation as a conservation tool for this species. Translocations of red-billed oxpeckers in South Africa should be considered one of the more successful of such programmes as indicated by its success.