ornithologist who ensured the survival of Europe's rarest seabird, the
eponymous 'Zino's petrel'. After 35 years of association with the bird,
his greatest satisfaction was that, thanks to his efforts, there are now
much greater grounds for optimism about its status. Other seabird species
nesting on the nearby Selvagem and Desertas islands also benefited from
his conservation work.
By Brian Unwin,
published in the Guardian
on Friday 2 April 2004
Paul Alexander (Alec)
Zino, who has died aged 88, was a Madeira businessman and wildlife conservationist
responsible for the survival of Europe's and one of the world's rarest
seabirds. Just 45 pairs of Zino's petrel, as it is now known, nest on
ledges in the island's central mountains.
After 35 years of association with the bird, his greatest
satisfaction was that, thanks to his efforts, there are now much greater
grounds for optimism about its status. Other seabird species nesting on
the nearby Selvagem and Desertas islands also benefited from his conservation
Alec Zino was born into a British family, who had been
present on Madeira since 1830. Educated in England, he went to St Edmund's
College, Ware, then read languages at Christ's College, Cambridge. He
later joined the family property business in Madeira, and his huge interest
in nature and outdoor life steadily grew. He was skilled at fishing and
shooting, and spent much of his spare time in his boat at sea.
Although the bird to be named after him was considered
extinct by the 1960s, Alec suspected that there was still a colony on
Madeira. Tape-recording the calls of similar petrels on the Desertas islands,
20 miles away, Alec played the tape to a shepherd in Madeira's central
mountain massif. The shepherd, who described the birds' eerie sound as
the "ghost of the mountains", directed him to the only spot
where it could be heard.
The only way of reaching the mountain precipice breeding ledges is by
abseiling 300ft above a 2,000ft drop. In April 1969, some shepherds abseiled
on to the ledges and found burrows with nesting material; then, in June,
they found eggs and birds incubating.
Studies of the birds by Alec and his son Frank helped to establish that
these petrels are smaller, lighter, shorter-winged and thinner-billed
than the similar petrels nesting on nearby islands and further south on
the Cape Verde group. With DNA analysis providing conclusive evidence,
the Madeira birds were subsequently confirmed as a separate species
the Zino's petrel.
Although it is still perilously close to extinction,
the species' prospects have since improved slightly. Measures to protect
the birds against predators chiefly rats and cats and soil erosion
were all required to safeguard the site, which is now part of Madeira's
national park system.
The need was emphasised in 1991 when cats killed 10
adult birds then around a quarter of the world breeding population.
Meanwhile, Alec helped the conservation of other seabirds nesting on the
Selvagems. He bought the hunting rights in 1967, ending the annual harvesting
of birds for food, and built a house there, designed by his wife Yvonne,
a great behind-the-scenes organiser, as a base for scientific research.
He also paid for wardening during the breeding season.
Eventually the Portuguese government bought the islands,
but did nothing to protect them. In 1976, fishermen slaughtered most birds
and destroyed the house, prompting more government action, but Alec had
to go on finding and paying for wardens, while waiting for funds from
Lisbon. His burdens only eased when the Parque Natural da Madeira was
established in 1986. There is now year-round wardening and the islands
are a candidate for Unesco World Heritage status.
This quiet man with a wonderful sense of humour took
massive strides to care for Madeira's wildlife while he ran the family
firm, which he eventually handed over to his son Michael. In the 1950s
he also set up a foundation which provides an education and care for disadvantaged
As a result of his conservation work, Alec was made
a Commendador da Ordem do Infante Dom Henrique, a Portuguese equivalent
of the OBE, in 1990. It also earned him a Certificate of Merit from the
UK minister of agriculture in 1988.
He is survived by
his wife, whom he married in 1942, two sons and two daughters.
ornithologist and businessman, born February 9 1916; died March 3 2004
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