While debate continues over the roll of recovery teams in managing the night parrot, the status of another imperilled parrot, Coxen's Fig-Parrot, has bizarrely been downgraded from critically endangered to endangered. This is another example of an endangered species recovery team going off the rails.
The Queensland Government's threatened species unit, which effectively doubles as the fig-parrot's recovery team, has long claimed the Coxen's Fig-Parrot occurs in four disjunct areas in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales, with a total population of between 50 and 250. No evidence has been offered to support these numbers; they amount to a wild guess.
The threatened species unit and the recovery team have long insisted the fig-parrot is regularly reported, but no record has been corroborated for a very long time by follow-up observations, a photograph, specimen, or sound-recording. The last corroborated sightings of the bird may have been as long ago as the late-1970s although a handful of these reports, while not confirmed by evidence or follow-up sightings, may be authentic. It's often said fig-parrots are so tiny and obscure they are easily overlooked, but they are not that difficult to locate when they are about. Plenty of good observers in this bird's range have looked long and hard without success for firm evidence of Coxen's Fig-Parrot.
The threatened species unit says now that because its estimate of the population is unchanged in recent years, the bird can no longer be regarded as critically endangered. So the parrot's status was downgraded to endangered by BirdLife International, the reason being that the bird's population "should not be considered as declining and instead could be considered stable". In the absence of evidence of a population decline, the bird does not qualify for listing under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List criteria.
Here is a comment from the threatened species unit head, Ian Gynther, to Rob Morris on Facebook: "The fact that this results in a down-listing to Endangered for a bird so seldom encountered and about which we lack so much basic knowledge is regrettable but it is, nevertheless, unavoidable based on the existing population thresholds."
In other words, unsubstantiated reports keep flowing to Gynther's team at such a rate that they have decided their estimated population of 50-250 is not declining and remains stable. Some observers are unkind enough to think this is scientific silliness writ large. This bird may in fact be extinct in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, but its conservation status is downgraded. Go figure.
In May last year I attended a talk given by two women closely associated with the threatened species unit – Rachael O'Flynn and Llana Kelly from Noosa and District Landcare – to the Noosa Parks Association on the Sunshine Coast. I listened as the pair talked about how the fig-parrots were out and about, how lucky we were to have them in our area, and how we need to plant lots of fig trees to boost their numbers. The audience was given the clear impression that Coxen's Fig-Parrot was doing quite well and had a bright future.
During question time, when I suggested to Ms O'Flynn and Ms Kelly that in fact there had been no corroborated records of the bird anywhere for decades, I was told essentially that I didn't know what I was talking about. Ms Kelly added that anyway, other wildlife will benefit from the good work being done for the fig-parrot; this may be true but is hardly relevant to the issue at hand.
Meanwhile, just like the night parrot recovery team, the threatened species unit is big on secrecy. When somebody reports a sighting of Coxen's Fig-Parrot, they are told by the threatened species unit not to share information with the birding community. No alerts are dispatched; the only people sent to check are Queensland Environment Department personnel. So the chances of corroborating the record with further sightings are seriously limited. Again, go figure.