- The last remaining habitat of the rare Gurney’s pitta in Myanmar is fast disappearing, a new study has found.
- Between 1999 and 2017, more than 80% of the bird’s habitat in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi region was lost, mostly due to clearance for oil palm plantations.
- The researchers also found no evidence of the bird’s presence in 101 of 142 local sites where it had previously been observed.
- The study calls for the IUCN to reclassify Gurney’s pitta as critically endangered.
Gurney’s pitta may be running out of time.
The tiny, vibrantly colored bird, first described from the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar in 1875, was thought to have gone extinct when it wasn’t recorded by scientists for more than a century. But in 1986, researchers found a population of Gurney’s pitta (Hydrornis gurneyi) in Thailand. Then in 2003, the IUCN downlisted the bird from critically endangered to endangered after a preliminary survey estimated the population in Myanmar was at least double the 11 pairs previously assumed. For a while, things looked hopeful for the pitta.
Today, however, the Thai population of Gurney’s pitta is all but wiped out, researchers say. And the Myanmar population is also in trouble, thanks to deforestation clearing one of the bird’s last remaining habitats, a new study has found.
Named after the British politician and amateur ornithologist John Henry Gurney in 1843, the pitta is locally known as the black-belly bird in Thai (นกแต้วแร้วท้องดำ). In addition to its distinctive black stomach, the attractive male pitta has lemon-yellow sides and a crown of bright blue plumage — features that earned it the title of the “most wanted bird in Thailand” in 2008 from birdwatchers.
The pitta’s bright plumage has also made it a victim of the international pet trade. Prior to the 1980s, when the scientific community thought the species was extinct, animal dealers reported to scientists that up to 50 pittas were being sold annually into the pet trade. The researchers used this information to find the Thai population in 1986.
“Hunting and poaching remains a significant problem,” Anuj Jain, the Asia coordinator for extinction prevention at the U.K.-based BirdLife International, who was not involved in the new study, told Mongabay in an email. “Local villagers hunt for subsistence but armed Thai poachers enter the area to poach indiscriminately.”
Gurney’s pitta is typically not a poacher’s main target, Jain added, but since it’s a ground-dwelling bird feeding mostly on earthworms, it can get trapped in ground nets intended for other species like pangolins.
But poaching isn’t the only threat to the pitta’s existence. Deforestation, particularly to make way for oil palm plantations, has been wiping out the bird’s habitat. In the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar, at least 10 percent of the total land area has been set aside for oil palm cultivation.
In the latest study, researchers found that in 1999, when oil palm expansion into the region began, there was around 3,225 square kilometers (1,245 square miles) of potential habitat for the pitta in south Tanintharyi, an area the size of Yosemite National Park. By 2017, there was only 656 km2 (253 mi2) of suitable forest habitat left — a decrease of 80%.
“The major cause of habitat loss in Myanmar — as previously in Thailand — has been the expansion of commercial plantations,” Nay Myo Shwe, lead author of the study, told Mongabay in an email. “Especially oil palm, which targets and clears the lowland forest habitat on which this species depends.”
From January to October 2016, Shwe and his team also visited 142 sites where researchers had previously observed Gurney’s pittas. The birds are highly secretive, with each individual occupying a territory of only 0.04 km2 (0.015 mi2). They do, however, respond to call playback during mating season, which the researchers used. The team also tried to capture images of the pittas with remote camera traps and used tiny radio tracking collars to document the range of individual birds.
“The species covers a large area, most of which can be reached and surveyed only on foot,” Shwe said. “The bird is very elusive and field observations are therefore very rare, even when attracting it by playing the mating call.”
The survey results were telling. The team found suitable forest and detected the pitta in only 41 locations. At 101 of the sites, the researchers saw no sign of the pitta or the forests it had once inhabited; the areas had been logged, degraded, or otherwise cleared of the closed canopy forest that the pitta prefers. The bird seemed to be absent from 71 percent of its former range.
“While working in southern Tanintharyi in 2015 and 2016, it was devastating to see the extent of habitat loss and to realize so many Gurney’s pitta have probably been lost, along with countless other species,” Shwe said.
The southern Tanintharyi region is also home to species such as the Malay tapir (Tapirus indicus), Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), and Lar gibbon (Hylobates lar). These endangered and critically endangered animals are also at risk if rapid deforestation continues.
The politics of the Tanintharyi region complicates conservation efforts.
“Our last hope of protecting the species is in the Lenya and Ngawun forest landscape in the Tanintharyi region of Myanmar,” Jain said. “The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the area is not a protected area with different areas being managed by the Forest Department and the Karen National Union (KNU).”
The KNU is a political entity seeking greater autonomy for the Karen ethnic group from the Myanmar government, having previously waged an armed conflict for independence. Although both groups signed a cease-fire agreement and peace negotiations are ongoing, some tensions remain. In 2018, the Guardian reported that the U.K.-based conservation group Fauna & Flora International (FFI) had attempted to create a protected area in Tanintharyi without prior consultation with the KNU and met opposition from villagers fearing displacement and loss of access to their ancestral lands.
But despite their ambivalence toward protected areas implemented by foreign NGOs, groups such as the Conservation Alliance of Tanawthari (CAT), a coalition of Karen community organizations, are dedicated to protecting their environment.
“Without [indigenous] communities, the globally important forests of Tanintharyi region would have disappeared long ago,” the CAT said in a recent report.
“It is very challenging, but the engagement work we have undertaken means the local stakeholders — including the government and Karen forest departments and civil society groups for example — are all in agreement that protecting this species from extinction is important,” Shwe said.
In late 2018, working with its in-country partner, Biodiversity And Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), BirdLife updated the Gurney’s pitta conservation action plan. This is to be followed by a three-year project to protect the bird by developing a joint management agreement for the Lenya Reserve Forest with both the Myanmar government and the KNU, aligning with the new plan. The project will also attempt to halt the expansion of any large-scale plantations into the Lenya and Nagawun reserve forests, with a focus on community resource management. Lenya and Nagawun are dense evergreen rainforests with extremely high biodiversity, among the last contiguous spans of forest of this type in mainland Southeast Asia.
While BirdLife and BANCA put their project into action, Shwe said he wants to confirm the pitta’s dwindling numbers. The size of the remaining Gurney’s pitta population is unknown, and Shwe’s paper calls for the IUCN to change the bird’s status to critically endangered again. His team will conduct a wider distribution and status survey next breeding season, from March to May 2020, by including interested local community groups, civil society, academia, and bird tour operators. [Update, January 08, 2020: the IUCN Red List recently uplisted Gurney’s pitta from Endangered to Critically Endangered, in part due to the study’s results].
“We are currently asking groups if they would be willing to join with us in that effort,” he said.
The rediscovery of Gurney’s pitta once renewed hope for the species. With the pitta in peril once again, it remains to be seen whether the new action plan can help halt the decline.
Shwe, N. M., Sukumal, N., Grindley, M., & Savini, T. (2019). Is Gurney’s pitta Hydrornis gurneyi on the brink of extinction? Oryx, 54(1), 16-22. doi:10.1017/s0030605318001242
Eames, J. C., Hla, H., Leimgruber, P., Kelly, D. S., Aung, S. M., Moses, S., & Tin, U. S. N. (2005). Priority contribution. The rediscovery of Gurney’s Pitta Pitta gurneyi in Myanmar and an estimate of its population size based on remaining forest cover. Bird Conservation International, 15(1), 3-26. doi:10.1017/s095927090500002x
Round, P. D., & Treesucon, U. (1986). The rediscovery of Gurney’s Pitta. Forktail. 2, 53-66.
Update January 08, 2020: the IUCN Red List recently uplisted Gurney’s pitta from Endangered to Critically Endangered, in part due to the study’s results.