After two decades of extinction in the wild, 16 endemic Guam rails were recently released onto the offshore island of Cocos. Rare alumna Cheryl Calaustro has been mobilizing community support for this effort in Guam since her Pride campaign launched in 2007. Some trustees will remember meeting Calaustro at our board meeting in New York in June 2010 – a few months before she knew for sure her hard work would finally pay off. And now it has.
Calaustro was especially moved by her experiences showing school children the Guam rail for the first time. “When I go to a school and show them a Ko'ko, their eyes light up,” says Calaustro. She encountered one child who thought he had seen a couple of rails flying around his back yard. Calaustro showed him his first real 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."
Calaustro's original Pride campaign goal had been to release the Ko'ko' back into the wilds of mainland Guam. However, after much learning from the stakeholders engaged and assessments conducted during her campaign, Calaustro realized the mainland was not an option. There were still too many predators threatening the rail’s chances of survival. But she had built such a large constituency ready to continue working toward a solution, that she applied for a Rare alumni grant to pursue an alternate strategy.
This strategy included a new target for relocation – the offshore island of Cocos, which is currently free of rats, cats, or snakes. Calaustro then focused outreach on the local community of Cocos, whose residents helped remove invasive vines from the forests and plant native trees, all to provide a more welcoming habitat for the rail. They also conducted a native lizard survey to make sure that the Ko'ko' would have enough food to eat. The community of Cocos embraced the bird as a unique symbol of pride to be shared with visitors to their largely tourist-supported island. Cheryl also convinced boat owners taking tourists from mainland Guam to Cocos Island to adopt precautionary measures to prevent stowaways like snakes and rodents from entering the rail’s new safe-haven.
On November 16, 2010, a special ceremony was held to mark the formal release of the Rails onto Cocos Island. Toni Ramirez of Guam’s Department of Parks and Recreation said a traditional 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. After a celebration with traditional songs, dances and blessings, the 16 rails were freed from their cages into the forests of Cocos Island and immediately started to forage. "One actually started to do what wild birds do," says Calaustro. "He was showing signs that he knew that he was supposed to find food, find shelter, and … go."