An Expert’s Take on How to Prevent the Next Extinction

In the past 40 years, Carl Jones saved nine species from going extinct. Now he's sharing his methods so that others can follow suit.

Is it possible to bring a species back from the brink, even when it seems too late? To Carl Jones, the answer is simple: “All species are savable. And it’s not that hard.”

Jones, the chief scientist at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, knows a thing or two about robbing the Reaper. He’s personally responsible for reviving nine near-extinct species—five birds, including the Echo Parakeet and the Rodrigues Fody, plus three reptiles and one fruit bat. And he didn’t stop there. Jones used the stories of these rare animals to advocate for the creation of Black River Gorges National Park, the first national park in Mauritius, preserving habitat for hundreds of native species and endemics.

This week, Jones received the Indianapolis Prize, which recognizes conservationists who focus on protecting individual species or groups of animals. We spoke with him to learn about the secrets behind his successes, and what those successes tell us about the future of conservation.

Audubon: One of the first species you worked with was the Mauritius Kestrel. What drew you to that bird?

Carl Jones: In 1974, there were only four of the kestrels left in the world (that we knew of). It seemed that the problems were intractable and that we would lose it. But intuitively I knew it was a savable species because I had worked with birds of prey, and I knew there were techniques for enhancing their productivity and increasing their survival. I knew that, given the opportunity, there was a good chance we could turn that population around. And indeed, that’s what we did.

A: Maybe you’re the only person in the world with that kind of intuition about saving species. Why did you think your efforts would pay off?

CJ: We knew a great deal about how to manage falcons because of work that had been done in North America with the Peregrine Falcon, California Condor, and other species. It seemed to me very straightforward: that we could start managing the wild population by harvesting wild eggs, hatching them in captivity, rearing them, and then releasing them back to the wild. And by doing that, the wild birds would lay a second clutch of eggs. So one could see there were a number of possibilities for increasing the numbers of Mauritius Kestrels.

A: How could you be sure they would survive after release? Presumably they were endangered for a reason.

CJ: Once you put species back into the wild, one of most important things you can do is to look after them and have post-release management. The Mauritius Kestrel doesn’t need a lot of care: It just needs the provision of predator-free nest sites and nest boxes.

But there are other species that we work with, such as the Pink Pigeon, where we have to feed them. Without our management, Pink Pigeons would now be extinct; today we have a population of 400 birds. To maintain that population long term, you have to feed them. But that isn’t such a big deal. Most people feed birds in their backyards all the time. So why shouldn’t we be prepared to do that with endangered species?

A: Do the techniques you’ve used with birds also apply to other groups of animals, such as reptiles and mammals?

CJ: Absolutely, although of course you have to adapt them for individual species. In the wild, you have similar types of limiting factors operating across different groups of animals—food shortage, disease, shortage of breeding sites, or what have you. So many of these techniques that we use for restoring endangered species have very broad currency.

We just need to change the way we look at endangered species and what we’re prepared to accept. We have this old idea that once species are released into the wild, we should leave them be and that we shouldn’t mess around with them. But in fact messing around with them is in many respects one of the most efficient ways of saving them. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.