Aruba Shoco Conservation Project

The Dutch Caribbean Islands are a treasure trove of rare and endemic (sub) species. Island endemic (sub) species, that is (sub) species restricted to just one island, are especially vulnerable to extinction due to their narrow geographical range, small population size and need for specialized ecological niches (Isik, 2017). Therefore, they “must be given priority and monitored and managed carefully in an effort to promote genetic conservation” (Isik, 2017). Aruba’s most famous bird, the Aruban burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia arubensis) - locally known as Shoco - is endemic to the island and an important part of the local culture. A recent study by Rose Garrido found that the owl is very much loved by locals and a source of pride (Peterson, 2018a). The Shoco population has however declined considerably over the past few decades due to an increase in anthropogenic pressures. This subspecies of burrowing owl is now at a pivotal moment: if no further actions are taken to protect it, the Shoco will likely become extinct. However, the right conservation actions could help the population recover.

The Aruban burrowing owl is an endemic subspecies of burrowing owl, however David Johnson of the Global Owl Project after having given a workshop on Shoco conservation in Aruba believes that chances are significant that the Shoco is now a completely different species of owl that is unique to the island (BonDia24, 2018). This species of owl is small with large round yellow eyes, prominent whitish eyebrows and unusually long grey legs. Aruba is the only country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands that has burrowing owls. Burrowing owls get their common name from their unusual habit of nesting underground in already dug-out burrows, but the Aruban Shoco is known to dig its own burrows. When the breeding season is over, the owls continue to use the borrows to rest during the day. Aruban burrowing owls are typically seen in and around their burrows in the morning and evening hours. During the warmest time of the day they remain in their burrow or sit in shady spots near their burrows. They mostly hunt at night and will take rodents, lizards, small snakes, small young birds and insects.

A survey of the Aruban burrowing owl population, which dates back to 1999, found that the island is home to approximately 200 pairs. This number is of great concern to David Johnson of the Global Owl Project, who considers the Shoco now to be critically endangered.  It is likely that the population has since decreased further in light of the island’s land development and resulting habitat destruction, as well as due to free roaming dogs and cats, rats and the invasive boa constrictor. The experts of the Global Owl Project now believe that a negative shift of just about 10 to 15% in their numbers could lead to the collapse of Aruba’s Shoco population (Aruba Birdlife Conservation, 2018a). Regretfully, but justifiably so, it is feared that the island’s burrowing owl will follow the same path as other bird species that have already gone lost to Aruba’s landscapes, such as the Yellow-shouldered Amazon Parrot (Lora or Amazona barbadensis), the Scaly-naped Pigeon (Paloma Azul or Patagioenas squamosa) and the Rufous-collared Sparrow (Gonzalito or Zonotrichia capensis). While the Aruban burrowing owl population receives some form of protection through its listing in Appendix II of CITES, the efforts and capacity by Aruba’s government to setup and implement a comprehensive conservation plan to prevent the Shoco’s extinction have been seriously lacking. “Over the years, excessive, unsustainable, government-driven projects and the lack of know-how, goodwill and conservation efforts have been devastating to Aruba’s nature and our Shoco can now be considered critically endangered” (Aruba Birdlife Conservation, 2018a).

Since 2011, Aruba Birdlife Conservation has been at the heart of conservation efforts to ensure that the Shoco does not go extinct. Thanks to the foundation’s efforts, the Shoco was made one of Aruba’s National Symbols in February 2012 and now appears on Aruba’s postal stamps and currency Aruba Birdlife Conservation, 2018b). However, it has been “a very steep up-hill battle to try and prevent this critically endangered endemic sub-species of Aruba from going extinct” (Aruba Birdlife Conservation, 2018c). In 2014 legislation was adapted in which the Shoco attained protection as such. In 2017 the protected species list helped to fortify the Shoco’s position one step further (Aruba Birdlife Conservation, 2018b) The island’s terrestrial protected area, Parke Nacional Arikok, has served as an important refuge for the Aruba borrowing owl, and park staff are actively involved in conservation efforts and monitor the owl’s population within the protected area.

While conservation efforts by Aruba Birdlife Conservation have pathed the way for improved protection of the Shoco, the species is still extremely vulnerable to extinction; ongoing development of the island to accommodate growing tourist numbers has led to a significant reduction in nesting habitat for the owls. For this reason, the foundation has renewed its efforts to protect this owl through the Aruba Shoco Conservation Project. The Aruba Shoco Conservation Project, which was launched in 2017, is a collective effort by Aruba Birdlife Conservation, The Global Owl Project and Parke Nacional Arikok. Aruba Birdlife Conservation and Arikok National Park have taken the initiative to get different Government departments involved in the Shoco Conservation Program and invited Veterenary Services, Santa Rosa (LVV), the Department of Nature and Environment (DNM), the Department of Public Works (D.O.W.), the University of Aruba and the Aruba Airport Authority to participate in the first Shoco workshop of Aruba. The Shoko Beer Co., sponsored Aruba Birdlife Conservation with $10.000 which was rerouted by Aruba Birdlife Conservation to the park under the condition that the funds be earmarked for the Shoco conservation program.

One of the main goals of the Aruba Shoco Conservation Project is to make 100 artificial nesting sites available island wide to help the Shocos to find safe located and reliable nests. Due to a structural shortage of nesting locations, too often the Shocos end up digging their burrows in heaps of construction sand or too close to dangerous traffic locations. Another main goal of the project is to relocate Shocos that are in high-risk areas to artificial burrows located in safer locations and in some cases within the safety of Parke Nacional Arikok. When the owls are moved, they are first put in a release cage for approximately four weeks to ensure that they will not fly back to their old burrow (Peterson, 2018b). The first two Shoco nests were relocated from Queen Beatrix International Airport last month, on February 20 and 22nd due to the large amount of construction going on there (Queen Beatrix International Airport, 2018). The relocation of the nests occurred under supervision of David Johnson of the Global Owl Project who incorporated these reallocations within the workshop.

Gian Nunes, Research and Conservation Manager of Parke National Arikok, was entrusted by Aruba Birdlife Conservation and Arikok National Park with developing the Shoco conservation program. Earlier in 2017 Gian established contact with David Johnson, director of the Global Owl Project which brought the conservation intentions to a next level. Plans were made to hold a first conservation workshop in Aruba and to train as many locals as possible about Shoco conservation. The workshop was given by two Shoco experts, David Johnson and Prof. Dr. Martha Desmond. David has been involved with owl conservation for over 42 years and the Global Owl Project works in no less than 63 countries. David has constructed over 600 artificial burrowing sites and has banded more than 6,000 burrowing owls throughout the Americas (Aruba Birdlife Conservation, 2018a). The first Shoco banded in Aruba was done by David on February 20th , 2018, at Queen Beatrix International Airport before the bird was relocated to Parke Nacional Arikok. Dr. Martha Desmond from New Mexico State University has a PhD in burrowing owls. Martha is working on setting up student exchange programs with Aruba in order to help with the conservation program. The “Aruba Burrowing Owl Workshop” took place from February 16 to 20th this year and was attended by 22 participants from Aruba Birdlife Conservation, Arikok National Park and from different government departments. The workshop provided educational training on the scientific and conservation management of the Aruban burrowing owl as well as hands on fieldwork, including the creation of artificial burrows. On the last day of the workshop the participants received their “Shoco Conservation Masters” certificate.

Many items are on the agenda of the Aruba Shoco Conservation Project, varying from placement of a large number of artificial burrows, getting more volunteers involved and of course outreach, notably communicating to the public the importance of protecting the Aruba borrowing owl and how each individual can play a part. Parke Nacional Arikok is already receiving more calls about endangered Shoco nests from concerned residents in different neighborhoods. The road ahead is however not likely to be an easy one. On March 6th 2018, a wetland area with a Shoco nest was bulldozed over for construction by the Mill Resort. Thankfully, the four nestlings were rescued and are being taken care of. The precarious situation of threatened Shoco is ongoing and a lot of work remains to be done to ensure the Aruban burrowing owl a chance of survival.

This news-tem was published by DCNA in BioNews12-2018.

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