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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK
Burma rediscovers vanished bird
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Bird-lovers are celebrating the rediscovery in Burma of a bird last seen there almost 90 years ago.

Gurney's Pitta   P D Round/BirdLife
Throughout our work we could hear the constant whine of chainsaws, and everywhere we saw patches of recently burned forest
Jonathan Eames, BirdLife International
The bird is the Gurney's pitta, a strikingly coloured species described as "teetering on the brink of extinction".

The only other known survivors are about 30 birds living in a small part of southern Thailand.

The long-term prospects of the Burmese group are clouded by forest clearance plans.

The pittas were spotted by a team of conservationists from the Bird Enthusiasts and Nature Conservation Association, a Burmese group, the forest department of Burma (now known as Myanmar), and BirdLife International.

They found pittas at four lowland forest sites, with a maximum of 10-12 pairs at one of them. The last confirmed sighting of Gurney's pitta in Burma was in 1914.

So far so good

The team could not travel everywhere it wanted, and believes there may be significantly more pittas living in unexplored parts of the forest.

Gurney's pitta is critically endangered

The species is listed by IUCN-The World Conservation Union as critically endangered, the highest category of conservation concern.

Dr Michael Rands, the director of BirdLife, said: "The rediscovery of Gurney's pitta in Burma is tremendously exciting and potentially important, but we must not be complacent.

"There was always hope that another population existed there, but it is crucial that fulfilling that hope doesn't in any way weaken or compromise the determination to save the species at the site in Thailand."

The birds in Burma are said to be increasingly threatened by the rapid clearance of the forest to make way for oil palm plantations.

Shrinking sanctuary

Jonathan Eames of BirdLife International in Indochina was a member of the team which found them after a month of survey work.

He said: "Throughout our work we could hear the constant whine of chainsaws, and everywhere we saw patches of recently burned forest.

Gurney's Pitta feeding young  U Treesucon/BirdLife
A pitta feeds its young
"Flat lowland forest is being rapidly cleared from the region... The extent and scale of the forest clearances are clearly visible from satellite images.

"They pose a significant threat to the survival of this spectacular species."

BirdLife's priorities are to identify the largest remaining areas of suitable lowland forest and to work with the Burmese authorities on a conservation strategy.

British survivor

It will also continue working with Thailand to protect its pittas, which ornithologists recorded again in 1986 after a 50-year gap.

The species disappeared from scientific view for so long because, in Burma's case, no-one could go in search of it.

In Thailand, the pitta resurfaced only after satellite surveys identified the patches of forest where it was likeliest to be living.

But there was clearly a continuing low-level trade in the species throughout the long years of its presumed extinction: one pitta escaped from a private collector in Gravesend, near London, in the 1970s, and disappeared from view.

Steve Parr, Birdlife International
"If you lose Gurney's pitta, you'll just have a country full of oil palm and rubber plantations"

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