The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds yesterday [Apr.3] called on the British government to do more to save the exotic species of bird found on UK overseas territories including Bermuda, many of which are now close to extinction.
In a report to the government, the RSPB warns that 33 species of birds, including penguins, parrots and albatrosses, are now critically endangered across the remnants of the former British Empire.
“Our overseas territories hold more threatened bird species than the entire continent of Europe,” said RSPB official Graham Madge. “Yet only £1.4 million a year is spent by the government protecting the habitats that provide homes for these endangered creatures. We need to spend 10 times that amount to save them.”
For the first time since its rediscovery in 1951, the population of Bermuda’s National Bird — the critically endangered Cahow — passed the landmark number of 101 nesting pairs, the Department of Conservation announced recently.
Abundant when Bermuda was first discovered, the ground burrowing Cahow was quickly decimated by introduced predators such as rats, pigs, dogs and cats, and hunting by the early settlers.
First Cahow chick of 2012
The Cahow soon disappeared from the historic records and it was thought to have become extinct. In 1951 the Cahow was miraculously rediscovered on several small rocky islets but the entire population consisted of only 18 nesting pairs, with the entire population only producing 7 to 8 chicks annually.
For the last 50 years the Cahow Recovery Program has been one of Bermuda’s priority protected species projects. Now managed by the Terrestrial Conservation Section of the Department of Conservation Services the team works hard to control predators, build artificial nest burrows, and carry out research to better understand the Cahow and enable it to recover.
The society’s report is part of a series of submissions to the UK Foreign Office, which is preparing a white paper on Britain’s strategy regarding its 14 overseas territories, including Bermuda, Montserrat, the Falklands, Tristan da Cunha and the atolls of the British Indian Ocean Territories, as well as Gibraltar and a sizeable area of the Antarctic.
The white paper will propose economic and political changes in policies for running these areas, and will outline ways to use them more actively to bolster Britain’s defences.
The key concern for environmental charities like the RSPB is the need to improve care of the alarming number of threatened and endangered animals now found in these territories. “The overseas territories hold 85 per cent of the threatened biodiversity for which the UK is responsible,” said Jonathan Glenn-Hall of the RSPB. A typical example is the Tristan Albatross, which breeds almost exclusively on Gough Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.
The albatross’s numbers have been destroyed by invasive species brought to the island, in particular, rats, cats and pigs which all eat albatross chicks. The invaders were eradicated several years ago in a campaign that only triggered a new threat to the Tristan Albatross: mice. Without predators, mice on Gough Island have thrived and now grow to three times their normal mainland size. They burrow into the flesh of nesting chicks so that the birds bleed to death, and only then do the mice eat them. About 1,000 Tristan Albatross chicks are thought to be killed in this way every year. One recent survey has shown that in 2008, the number of Tristan Albatross chicks that managed to fledge was five times lower than normal.
“Invasive species like rats and cats are a major problem for the overseas territories,” added Mr. Madge. “The remnants of our empire consist mainly of remote islands on which a small number of species have settled and evolved into forms unique to that place. They have evolved in a bubble and that makes them very vulnerable to threats introduced by humans and gives us a special responsibility for looking after them.”
In the case of Gough Island, it is estimated that at least £5 million will be needed to eradicate its giant mice and save Tristan Albatross from extinction. “We estimate that in total, Britain needs to spend £16 million a year for the next five years to halt the worst threats to the habitats of its overseas territories,” added Mr. Glenn-Hall.
Bermudian conservationist Dr. David Wingate on the rediscovery of the Cahow
Birds are not the only concern, the RSPB admits. For example, on St Helena introduced plants such as Bilberry and Furze have pushed many native plants to the edge of extinction, with the St Helena Olive Tree being declared extinct in 2004. “It is unthinkable that this would have been allowed to drop off into extinction if the species had been found in Britain, but all too often the overseas territories are out of sight and out of mind,” added Glenn-Hall.
Other threatened species include Blue Iguana on the Cayman Islands and turtles in the Caribbean which will lose many nesting sites as global warming melts ice caps and causes sea levels to rise. However, it is the importance of the bird populations of the overseas territories that is stressed by Madge, and in particular seabirds. When it comes to these, Britain is in second place among countries with the most threatened populations, he says. Only New Zealand has more endangered seabirds. “Thanks to our overseas territories, we outrank the US, Mexico, South Africa and other large nations when it comes to being responsible for saving endangered birds.”
Apart from feral invaders, ecologists have highlighted three other main dangers facing birds in overseas territories: climate change, poor planning controls and weak management of local fisheries. A typical victim of climate change is Northern Rockhopper Penguin, also found on Gough Island and suffering not from mice but from disruptions to the food chain, brought about by global warming. Populations have declined by more than 90 per cent in the last 50 years.
By contrast, White-chinned Petrel – which breeds on several South Atlantic islands including South Georgia and the Falklands – is suffering major population reductions because birds are getting caught in longlines towed by fishing vessels, and being dragged underwater.
In the Cayman Islands, uncontrolled development is destroying the habitats in which the Grand Cayman Parrot and the Cayman Brac Parrot breed, again with disastrous consequences for their populations. “Many of these places rely on money brought by tourists, who visit to see the exotic wildlife,” added Mr. Madge. “We have a responsibility to make sure that wildlife survives.”