After two decades of extinction in the wild, 16 endemic Guam Rails (Local name: Ko’ko’) were released onto Cocos Island, Guam on Nov. 16, 2010.
The Ko’ko’ was nearly extinct in the wild beginning in the 1980s and biologists scrambled to capture the last remaining rails before they disappeared completely. They caught less than 20 birds and started a captive breeding program at the Department of Agriculture in Guam.
More than 25 years later, there are now 150 Ko’ko in captivity on Guam. The birds that were released back into the wild are still alive — an incredible feat that many dedicated conservationists made possible.
The Ko’ko’ served as the flagship species for a 2007 Pride campaign in Guam run by Cheryl Calaustro. She continued her great work throughout 2010 with the assistance of a Rare alumni grant. Calaustro’s hard work and her successful Rare campaign helped make this momentous occasion possible.
“I chose the Guam Rail to be the mascot of my campaign because it is the territorial bird of Guam,” Calaustro said. “It is the bird that people think of when you say Guam.”
The Guam Rail has been a significant part of Guam’s cultural throughout history. It is in legends and was etched in cave drawings. But then it went silent in the wild.
“When you lose that, you lose a part of culture history — you lose a part of tradition,”Calaustro said. “What is really sad for me [is that] you lose the future. There are kids today that have absolutely no idea what their native species look like, what they should sound like.”
Calaustro’s goal for her Rare campaign was to release the Ko’ko’ back onto mainland Guam, but first she had to reduce the threats from predators — invasive species and feral animals — and educate the public on how to better protect their native species and habitat.
At the end of her campaign in 2009, Calaustro realized that if she wanted to get the Ko’ko’ back into the wild, she would have to rethink her goal. There were too many predators on mainland Guam, and the technology to remove all those animals does not exist. Instead the offshore island of Cocos was selected; it has no rats, cats, or snakes.
“To us, that looked like the perfect place to release the Ko’ko,” she said.
Rats were eradicated from Cocos Island, and the forest was enhanced by removing invasive vines. The forest was further enhanced with native trees. A native lizard survey was also conducted to make sure that the Ko’ko’ had enough food to eat.
Invasive species killing endemic species
The brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) was accidentally introduced to Guam following World War II. The snake has a high population density on Guam because it has few predators. There are estimated to be 3,000 Brown tree snakes per square mile — the largest density of any snake in the world.
Before the introduction of the brown tree snake, Guam had 12 species of forest birds. Today 10 of those species are extinct and the other two species — the island swiftlet and the Marianas starling — have fewer than 200 individuals.
“If you listen very carefully, you’ll hear what the forests sound like now,” Calaustro said, “only silence.”
The brown tree snake has played a large roll in the disappearance of Guam’s native birds. Other invasive species such as the coqui frog (Eleutherodactylus) and coconut rhinoceros beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros) have detrimentally impacted Guam’s landscape too.
Brown tree snakes and rodents are continuously monitored on Cocos Island. Calaustro and her colleagues are trying to make sure those invasive predators don’t show up again to threaten the Ko’ko’.
“At this point in time, they are no predators on Cocos Island,” Calaustro said.
The release of Guam Rails back into the wild
A fiesta was thrown for the reintroduction. Students and teachers were invited to come and do a dance, chant, or song to celebrate the Ko’ko.
“It’s not just the Guam Department of Agriculture’s bird,” Calaustro said. “It’s Guam’s bird.”
After the celebration, the birds were released into the wild. One of the birds started to forage on his own immediately after being released.
“He actually started to do what wild birds do,” Calaustro said. “He was showing signs that he knew that he was supposed to find food, find shelter, and go.”
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Tony Rameriez of the Guam Department of Parks and Recreation said a Chamorro blessing, calling on the spirits of the air, sea, and land to bless the Ko’ko’ and keep them safe on their new island home.
Inspiring Pride in the community
There was public backlash when Calaustro started her campaign. The Ko’ko for Cocos project started before the Rare Pride campaign. Calaustro said it was done in the traditional way where scientists go into the wild and they think they know everything, without including the public in what they are trying to accomplish.
“You have to have the public input for it to be successful,” she said about conservation campaigns.
Calaustro’s Rare Pride campaign used social marketing to get the public behind her and her campaign. She participated in community events such as fiestas, offered school and civic presentations about her campaign and how to reduce the threats of invasive species and feral animals, and monitored a phone hotline. She also used billboards and signs to help spread her campaigns messages.
Calaustro was especially moved by her experiences showing school children the Guam rail for the first time. Most children have never seen, nor heard the rail and know very little about it.
“Every moment that I go to a school and every moment that I have with a child and a live Ko’ko is special,” she said. “Children today have absolutely no idea what their native species look like. When I go to a school and show them a Ko’ko, their eyes light up. They are amazed. It’s something they are missing.”
Calaustro encountered one child at a school visit that thought he had a couple of Guam rails in his back yard, because he — like most residents on Guam — didn’t really know much about the species. The birds he described were black and could fly. The Ko’ko is brown with black and white stripes and can’t fly.
Calaustro took him and showed him his first Guam rail. He was amazed, and Calaustro said to him, “It can’t fly. You have to protect it.” The boy responded, “Ms Cheryl, I will protect it.”