Research and conservation ex-situ
The earliest scientific research that the ECWP has carried out on the state of houbara bustard populations (status, range) highlighted the need to save the species’ genetic diversity in captivity and to produce healthy surplus of birds to reinforce declining wild populations. The project’s development was based, from 1998, on the implementation of a coherent research strategy to increase knowledge about the species.
The ECWP conducts applied and fundamental research on every area relating to the houbara bustard’s biology, including genetics, reproduction biology, ecophysiology, behaviour, epidemiology and veterinary science.
Research and conservation in-situ
As soon as the project got under way, the ECWP initiated in-depth studies of residual wild bustard population’s ecology, including studies of movements (home range, seasonal movements and juvenile dispersion), habitat use by different population categories (females, males, young) and mating strategies as well as inter-annual monitoring of reproductive success. Since 1996 about 600 wild bustards have been individually monitored (radio tracking, GPS satellite and GPS GSM tracking) helping to precisely identify the species’ needs.
Acquisition of this fundamental knowledge has made it possible to set up and adjust specific steps to protect and restore natural populations in order to stop the species’ decline in Eastern Morocco.
Ecological research and restoration of populations
For a restoration program to be considered sustainable, it is necessary to be able to assess the reinforcements’ long-term success and their impact, if any, on residual wild populations and their habitats. It is therefore essential to identify the key factors affecting the program’s success and to ensure continuous monitoring.
In order to improve release methods and adjust the reinforcement strategy, the ECWP carefully tracks all or some of the released birds using direct (radio tracking) and indirect methods (tagging, capture-recapture) and measures the following indicators: survival, dispersion and reproductive success.
Between 1999 and 2003, the measurement of those indicators during experimental releases, when 600 bustards were fitted with VHF transmitters, helped to determine the choice of release methods, seasons, sites, etc. Today, over 3,600 released bustards have been individually tracked, revealing a 62% average survival rate one year after release and a mean annual survival of 76% after two years. Long-term tracking has confirmed the released birds’ ability to breed, contributing significantly to the species’ natural recovery, with about 8,900 nests located over the last 15 years in Eastern Morocco.
Studying houbara habitat
Today, drought and land use changes (agriculture, overgrazing) have weakened the bustard’s habitat. The decisive ecological factors in the birds’ survival and breeding have been gradually investigated, integrating predictions under climate change.
These surveys of flora and fauna (insects, gazelles, bats, etc.) provide original data on poorly studied ecosystems. These data are saved into a biodiversity database, useful for the ECWP research programs, as well as for everybody who is interested in the region’s biodiversity and ecosystems.