Nick Page, a genial New Zealander with a sunburned face and curly black hair, holds a photograph of Assumption Island’s Most Wanted: a red-whiskered bulbul, a bird about the size of a cardinal with a black Mohawk crest and a fiery red tuft of feathers behind each eye. Since 2013, a team of conservation rangers have shot and netted 5,278 red-whiskered bulbuls on this four-square-mile comma of land 250 miles north of Madagascar. There is now one bulbul left.
Page has come within range of 5,279 twice, but bad luck prevented a shot. On the first occasion, a kite flew overhead, spooking his quarry, and on the second, a rainstorm struck. Such are the trials of the everyday sniper. But Page, a young conservation graduate, says that “with a bit of luck and lots of hiding,” he’ll nail the bulbul. He extends his thumb and grins, saying, “That’s the size of the target.”
Red-whiskered bulbuls are jaunty birds with a chattering song. Natives of Asia, they were brought to Assumption as pets by guano miners from Mauritius in the 1970s. Whether they escaped from their cages or were liberated is unknown, but the population exploded, and the pets became pests. The reason they’re being eradicated isn’t their presence on Assumption; rather it’s their proximity to Aldabra, 17 miles across the Indian Ocean.