ONE of the world's rarest birds is now almost reduced to a rumour. There are only 36 orange-bellied parrots known to be alive in the wild. The situation has become so critical that if numbers drop further, the survivors will be rounded up and put into captivity by members of a national recovery team trying to save the species from extinction.
The team - a large group of scientists and volunteers based in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia - is about to release its new action plan, which includes this radical step of removing all the parrots from the wild if necessary.
''It's an option of last resort,'' says Peter Menkhorst, a zoologist with the Arthur Rylah Institute. ''But we won't hesitate.''
Central to the new plan is a delicate juggling act involving taking birds out of the wild to support the 20-year-old captive breeding program. The program was failing due to inbreeding until scientists made the ''radical'' decision two years ago to capture just under half the then known wild population of 50 birds and put them into the program.
There are now 208 birds in the program - and it's anticipated that a small number of parrots will be released for this summer's breeding season in Tasmania.
''We won't be releasing lots of birds at this stage, because we still need to build up the genetic bank - and we need to do risk assessment to decide which birds to release,'' said Peter Copley, a senior ecologist with the South Australian Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources.
Talk of running up the white flag on the wild population first began in 2010, when it was found that the wild population had fallen from 150 in 2006 to just 50.
''We could see they were about to become extinct fairly quickly in the wild,'' Mr Menkhorst said.
The team made an each-way bet: they left a small majority of the parrots in the wild and captured 21 at their breeding spot at Melaleuca, in Tasmania's Southwest National Park.
They were first taken to Hobart, where some remained at the Taroona Environment Network. The others were transported to the captive breeding programs at Healesville Sanctuary and Adelaide Zoo, which had started to fail in recent years because there weren't enough new birds to keep the genetic pool fresh and viable.
''The captive breeding was based on too few birds,'' Mr Copley said.
''We had signs of inbreeding depression where the birds were becoming less productive. In the wild, they lay more eggs and produce more fledglings.''
In Victoria, Department of Sustainability and Environment biodiversity officers were also told to capture any unbanded juvenile birds, a good source of new genetic material.
According to field workers and scientists who spoke to The Sunday Age, the capture program was seen as ''radical'' but ''there wasn't anywhere else to go''. In fact, no parrots were caught in Victoria in 2010 because the few that were spotted evaded capture.
As of late 2011, 36 orange-bellied parrots were breeding at Melaleuca and a further dozen were thought to exist elsewhere in the wild. But the recovery team believes the drastic decline in the population has stopped, possibly because the drought broke and more of the parrots' favoured food, the beaded glasswort, was able to grow in salt marshes.
In the past week, 20 orange-bellied parrots hatched at Healesville.