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Protecting our Christmas Island endemics

As our Bird'n'Nature Week continues on Christmas Island, we thought we'd share some of the great conservation work being done on the Island to protect our seabirds ... Dr Janos Hennicke, from the Department of Ecology and Conservation, Biocentre Grindel, University of Hamburg, visits Christmas Island regularly to study and monitor our seabirds - we caught up with him during his recent visit to the Island studying the critically endangered Abbott's Booby and Christmas Island Frigatebird, and found out a little about how he became involved in protecting our Christmas Island wildlife ...

Tell us a little about yourself

I grew up on the country side in a small village in southern Germany, surrounded by animals like horses, ponies, dogs, cats, and rabbits. Playing outside, in forest and fields, I was of course also exposed to “wild” animals, like foxes, hares, squirrels, dragonflies, birds, etc.  I guess because of this early exposure to all those different animals, I got interested in animal behaviour and as a kid, I wanted to study the behaviour of animals like Konrad Lorenz, the famous ethologist. Getting older I became more and more interested in conservation and as a result I started studying Biology. I thought that should be a good way to learn something about nature and how to protect it.

Janos

When did you first gain an interest in studying birds?

During my Biology studies in Germany, I participated in a 1-year exchange programme and studied Wildlife Biology and Management at the University of Massachusetts in the USA. During that time, I volunteered as field assistant at the University of Alaska and worked in a project on Red-legged Kittiwakes, a threatened seabird, on St. George, Pribilof Islands, a tiny island in the Bering Sea, home to thousands of seabirds and marine mammals.  Conducting research aiming at the conservation of the Kittiwake at the incredible location made me take the decision to focus my work as a biologist on marine nature conservation.  Years later, I incidentally came across penguin research reading an article in the science section of a newspaper. I contacted the researchers and was lucky enough to secure funding for a Ph.D. project investigating the threatened Humboldt Penguin in Chile. Since then I have been focussing my research on seabird ecology, behaviour and conservation.

What first brought your attention to the birds of Christmas Island?

During my post-doc, I worked on Northern Gannets, a member of the Sulid family, on Bass Rock in South-East Scotland. During literature work, I came across its close relative, the Abbott’s Booby which is endemic to Christmas Island.  Reading about the species I understood that there were incredible knowledge gaps on the ecology of the Abbott’s Booby that made effective conservation extremely difficult. Thus, I decided to conduct a pilot study on the species to find out whether it is actually possible to work on the species. Even though it is a seabird, Abbott’s Boobies are nesting in the canopy of the primary tropical rainforest of Christmas Island and are therefore rather difficult to access.

That’s how my work on Christmas Island started in 2004. Over the years, realising that there is not much known about any of the seabird species breeding on the island, I began working on the other species too. Today, I am studying all nine seabird species of Christmas Island in a comparative approach. Some species, like Abbott’s Booby and Christmas Island Frigatebird are threatened with extinction, but other, closely related species, like Brown Booby and Great Frigatebird, are doing fine. By comparing ecology and behaviour of the species, it is possible to find out why one species is threatened while the other is not.

What is it about the birds here that makes them special?

Christmas Island has a unique birdlife. There are many endemic species, landbirds as well as seabirds, i.e. the species do not breed anywhere else in the world. In addition, many vagrant species can be found here some of which are very rare or do not even occur on the Australian continent.  Christmas Island Frigatebirds are also endemic to Christmas Island. So, if we lose them here, this iconic and beautiful seabird will be gone forever. Therefore, we must undertake the utmost to save the species from extinction.

Why is the Frigatebird under threat?

It is not exactly known why the population of the CIFB is declining. There are various threats to the species. However, after many years of research, we are pretty sure that currently the main threat is the killing of the birds up north, in Southeast Asian waters, where adults and juveniles spend most of their time when they are not Christmas Island. In addition to that, entanglement in fishing gear is also contributing to the plight of the species.

CIFBmaleballooning   Janos Hennicke

What will your studies do to improve their likelihood for survival?

My research has two main objectives: First, by investigating the ecology and biology of the species, I want to find out what the species requires for its survival and successful reproduction, e.g., where are its foraging grounds, which are its prey species, what environmental conditions affect the reproduction negatively. Secondly, I want to find out what the threats to the species are, where and when the animals are exposed to them, and how do they affect survival and population dynamics.  By combing the data gathered on both objectives it is possible to develop protection measures and management strategies for effective conservation of the species. Thus, my studies lay the scientific foundation for improving the chances for the species’ survival

What do you hope to learn/achieve with your latest research project?

While we know that the population of the Christmas Island Frigatebird is declining and while we have identified the main threats to the species, it is unknown how many birds are actually left. Therefore, my assistants and I have been conducting systematic surveys to in 2016 and 2017 to determine the current population size of the species. For several months, we searched all previously known breeding sites of the species for nesting trees, counted the number of nests, determined their contents and monitored the survival rates of the chicks. In addition, we searched for so far unknown breeding sites on Christmas Island by land, from the sea and by helicopter.

All this data will be combined to determine the current population size. Subsequently, we derive the rate of decline by comparing our numbers with the data of the last count which was conducted in 2003. With that information, i.e. current population size and rate of decline, we can conduct a Population Viability Analysis to predict the future of the species. The viability analysis will tell us when species is likely to go extinct if no protection measures are implemented and which positive effects will have specific protection measures. All that will help raise awareness and create pressure to develop and implement management measures to save this iconic species for extinction.

What can people do to help?

At the moment, the biggest problem is to find enough funding to conduct the investigations. Most of the money for the project I have was raised through donations from generous supporters. However, as there are still some many open questions which are crucial to the survival of the species, more funding is needed. Thus, the biggest help would be to donate money to the Seabird Project to allow continuing the research. Information how people can support the project can be found on the project homepage  www.seabirdproject.cx Every contribution helps! Thanks a lot.

Note: Christmas Island Tourism contributes financially to support Janos' conservation work on Christmas Island in an effort to assist in protecting Christmas Island's iconic wildlife for future generations.

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