A LETTER FROM WASHINGTON : Saving the Mauritian kestrel, raising money for schools and debunking myths about the Dodo

A successful program of captive breeding of the Mauritius kestrel and a lifetime devotion to saving tropical endangered species have helped Carl Jones win the prestigious Indianapolis Prize - a $250,000 award given to a scientist who has made an extraordinary contribution to conservation. Considered the world’s leading award for animal conservation, the prize is given annually by the Indianapolis Zoological Society in Indiana.  
London in May, and will be offi cially honored at a gala event in Indianapolis on Oct. 15. He is credited with saving nine species from the brink of extinction in Mauritius.
He came to Mauritius for a one-year assignment in 1979 to close down a conservation project that was being phased out after just a few years. Jones knew that it would take far longer than that to actually make a difference in restoring a species, so he secured funding from another organization and stayed for 40 years. At the time of his arrival in the 1970s, Mauritius had lost more than 95 percent of its biodiversity.
Jones concentrated on the plight of the Mauritius kestrel and pink pigeon, keenly observing their habits and habitat, and developing a successful breeding program to save them. Under his tutelage, the kestrel populatio n grew from four individual birds - making them the rarest bird in the world - to 333 over the next 10 years. Today, there are thousands of kestrels in Mauritius.
 Jones also worked to clear Round Island of the goats and rabbits that had been eating off almost all of the indigenous plant and animal species. Within a year, plants once thought to be gone forever began to grow again. Jones also helped the Mauritian government establish Black River Gorges, the fi rst national park in Mauritius. «I know of no other conservationist who has directly saved so many species from extinction,» said Dr. Simon Stuart, chairman of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission. Stuart nominated Jones for the prize, which brings international attention to conservation and celebrates those who have made extraordinary contributions to the field.
 Jones brought a unique approach to conservation. Manipulative techniques like captive breeding were untried and controversial at the time, but Jones believed that they were effective, and he recognized the importance of restoring entire ecosystems rather than focusing on a single species.He believed that to save one species, you had to save them all. In 1999, Jones turned over his breeding project to Mauritians, and each year he spends about four months on the island to train the next generation of conservation scientists.
He currently travels to other countries as the chief scientist of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to help establish conservation programs, and also serves as scientifi c director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, which he helped launch. In 2004, he was awarded the MBE - the «Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.»
Jones told the Indianapolis Star newspaper that he will use his prize money to start a pension plan and support his children’s education. He will also support conservation programs in Mauritius. «It takes a long time to save a species and when you start with a species, you can end up restoring whole (eco) systems,» Jones told the newspaper. «That is one of the most powerful messages to come from Mauritius.»


 

Port-Louis Rotary Club provides  meals for needy students   
 Another volunteer project that helps needy children in  Mauritius is posting excellent results and has drawn some  international attention. The Rotary Club of Port-Louis is  expanding a project that provides hot breakfast meals at  Zones d’Education Prioritaire, or ZEP schools, which serve  communities with high rates of unemployment, alcohol and  drug abuse and other social problems.  The initiative began in 2006 under the direction of Cecile  Leong-Son, wife of then-club President Bernard Leong-Son.  
Their family was paying the cost of breakfast for 30 students  during two terms at a Port Louis school. Cecile proposed  that the Rotary Club take over the program, as it has greater  resources.  Over the next decade the Port Louis Club, with the  help of volunteers and fi nancial donations from Mauritius  corporations, has spent more than $188,000 on meals for  nearly 500 students at six ZEP schools. The meals help  primary school pupils who come from diffi cult backgrounds  and whose families can not provide an adequate breakfast  before the children leave for school. Skipping this important  morning meal leads to frequent absenteeism, high drop out  rates and malnourishment among these children, according  to the club’s website.  
Eating breakfast makes students more alert and ready  to learn, school offi cials say. It has also improved their test  scores.  The project was featured in the June issue of The Rotarian,  the monthly magazine of The Rotary International, an  international service organization based in Evanston, Illinois.     
 


  Looking differently at the Dodo bird  
  Forget about everything you think you know  about the Dodo bird: That it was fat, fl ightless,  clumsy and destined to become extinct. Not so,  according to several recent studies that shed new  light on the bird’s history and reputation.  
«The dodo has always been  considered to be a comical animal,  so ludicrous that it was destined  to become extinct, which is  absolutely not the case,» Julian  Hume, an avian paleontologist  at the Natural History Museum in  London, said in a recent article  in the Atlantic Magazine, The  Smart Agile, and Completely  Underrated Dodo. “This bird,”  Hume said, “is perfectly adapted  to its environment.”  At the time of the Dodo’s  extinction during Dutch rule  of Mauritius, there were no  reliable physical evidence of  the bird, taxidermy was virtually  non-existent and descriptions of  the bird were based on crude  illustrations and myth, the article  says.
 In 2011, Leon Claussens, a  paleontologist at College of the  Holy Cross in Massachusetts,  and two of his students came to  Mauritius to further examine a  Dodo skeleton that was found in  the early 20th century by Etienne  Thirioux, a Mauritian barber  and amateur naturalist. The  specimen had been kept at the  Mauritius Institute in Port-Louis.  Using a 3-D laser scanner,  they produced high-resolution  images of each bone, later  reassembling these images  into a three-dimensional, digital  model of the skeleton.
 They  studied the bones in detail and  made some novel observations  about the dodo’s anatomy and  how it moved.  They concluded that the dodo  was a very sturdy bird, with thick  leg bones and a broad pelvis. It  also had big kneecaps, which  scientists had never noted  before, which would have given  the heavy, fl ightless bird knee  joints that were maneuverable,  strong and supportive. This  would allow the Dodo to move  swiftly through its rocky habitat.  The imaging also revealed  a bird that is far slimmer than  previously thought, and with a  more upright posture. This leads  researchers to believe that the  bird was actually quite agile,  noting that one 17th century  Dutch sailor reported that the  bird was so speedy that it was  hard to catch.  
Claussens found pronounced  bumps, ridges and depressions  on the wings where the muscle  would have attached to the  bones. This suggests that the  dodo’s wings were not worthless  appendages but were actively  used.  Based on the size of the dodo’s  brain, scientists conclude  that contrary to popular belief,  the bird must have been quite  intelligent and possessed an  enhanced sense of smell that  helped it sniff out ripe fruit and  other food.  While the exact reason for  the dodo’s demise is unclear,  there’s little evidence that the  bird was hunted to extinction,  the article claims. Excavations  of Fort Frederik Hendrik, which  housed Dutch settlers between  1638 and 1719, suggests that  Dutch settlers mostly ate livestock  that they brought to Mauritius  as well as fi sh.
No dodo  bones have been found at the  fort. Researchers say its unlikely  that a relatively small group of  colonists on the island - 250 at  the peak settlement - could have  eaten all of the dodos, especially  given the island’s diffi cult terrain.  But humans did play a role,  as they brought to Mauritius  many non-native species, such  as pigs, goats, deer, monkeys  and rats. The pigs were the most  destructive, eating dodo eggs  and chicks.    


    

Good nutrition helps social  development of kids

Proper nutrition has other advantages than promoting good  health and academic study, according to a new study by American  researchers who analyzed nearly 1,800 children in Mauritius.  A good diet also lays the groundwork for positive social  development in children.The researchers from the University  of Pennsylvania focused not on the effects of poor nutrition,  like many other studies have done, but rather on the positive  effects of good nutrition and concluded that there’s a strong link  between a child’s eating habits and his positive social behavior.  Adrian Raine, professor of criminology, psychology and  psychiatry, and Jianghon Liu, an associate professor in Penn’s  School of Nursing, looked at a sample of 1,795 three-year-old  children to analyze the presence of anemia, expressed by  iron defi ciency and low hemoglobin levels, angular stomatitis,  revealed by cracked lips and low levels of vitamin B2 and niacin,  and insuffi cient protein intake, measured by the health of hair.  In Mauritius, where the majority of children have black hair,  that last factor shows up as an orange or red tint it to the hair.  The results were published in the U.S. journal Maternal &  Child Nutrition.  Children showing just one of these indicators were deemed  «suffering from nutritional defects.» They found that the greater  the number of malnutrition indicators, the more likely children  were to have poor social behavior based on social interactions  like friendliness, extent of verbalization, active social play and  exploratory behavior.  «The bigger message is give children good nutrition early  on,» Liu said. «Not only will it enhance cognitive function, but,  importantly, promote good social behavior» - which is essential  to brain development and intelligence.  Raine added: «In the same study, we’ve shown that children  with positive social behavior, eight years later, have higher IQs.»  The researchers said poor nutrition can be reversed, and that  it’s never too late to put children on a path of good eating habits.  Raine and Liu said they now want to replicate their fi ndings  in large American cities.  The research study was funded by several U.S. government  health organizations as well as a grant from the Ministry of  Health in Mauritius.