Africa
19 Jul 2016

Winning hearts and minds in Cape Verde

Biosfera team helping the Cape Verde Shearwater © Liz Smith
Biosfera team helping the Cape Verde Shearwater © Liz Smith
By Shaun Hurrell

Watch the video and step into a desert island wilderness, where conservation work for endangered turtles and birds is delivering heartening, long lasting, results: “Now the fishermen work with us, they help us count the birds instead of killing them. They even adopt turtle nests. It is a big, big change.”

Piercing sun, dry, rocky ground, and a solitary ex-military canvas tent ripped bare by strong Atlantic winds. Off the rocky shore, an osprey is seen diving for a fish. In the shade, dust sprays as sparrows can be seen scuffling for water dripping from the tent’s fresh water barrel tap. This is the scene on arrival on Raso, after six hours of a sea-sickening boat ride. Not the place you’d expect to find the entire population of a Critically Endangered lark, let alone a small passionate team of conservationists there to protect it and other unique endemic species from extinction.

A volcanic archipelago 600km off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde is a developing nation. Surrounded by sharks and coral reefs, the desert island of Santa Luzia and its two rocky islets Raso and Branco are a unique remnant piece of Cape Verdean wilderness, too remote for permanent inhabitation.

However, thousands of nesting endemic seabirds, such as the Cape Verde Shearwater; the Giant Wall Gecko (Endangered), and nesting Loggerhead Sea Turtles (Vulnerable), also make these islands their homes. But it doesn’t mean they are safe from threats.

One of the most threatened birds in the world, the Raso Lark is suffering from climate change effects, whereby hurricanes and drought can wipe out a lot of the minimal grasses on which it feeds. On this 7 kmislet in 2006, the population dropped to 70 birds. The dedicated conservationists are a local NGO, Biosfera, who is working with the support of SPEA (the Portuguese Society for the Protection of Birds; BirdLife Partner) and volunteers to restore nearby Santa Luzia (which has similar vegetation and is much larger) for a translocation of the Raso Lark to help it bounce back to its original numbers.

Poaching is another threat. Fishermen used to come to these islands to take ‘boatloads’ of Cape Verde Shearwaters and female Loggerhead Turtles that nest on the beaches.

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Biosfera team weighing a Loggerhead Sea Turtle hatchling © Liz Smith

In the past, Tommy Melo, Co-Founder of Biosfera, has camped out on Branco to protect turtles from poachers, and when his food ran out, he risked shark-invested waters to freedive for fish.

“Now the fishermen work with us,” he says. “They help us to count the birds in the nests for example.” They now even adopt turtle nests. “It was a big, big change.”

Tommy has a vision: “A huge marine protected area in Cape Verde that includes the three islands.” To reach this has so far involved years of work by Biosfera and international partners: from walking along beaches kilometres every day to guard nesting turtles and relocate their eggs to a hatchery to increase their chances of survival, to building Biosfera's ornithological expertise and capacity to work with government and large international conservation projects. 

Thanks to the support of SPEA through grants from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Biosfera has grown and grown.

“Biosfera is a fantastic organisation,” says Pedro Geraldes, Project Coordinator, SPEA. “They started just as father and son working together to protect these islands.”

“Before we were an NGO in the name. Now we are an NGO properly,” says Tommy.

Now, they aim to work in partnership with the government to manage the marine reserve.

“We are the link between the fishermen and the government,” says Patricia Rendall-Rocha, Coordinator, Biosfera.

Recorded on a field visit by CEPF, this video shows the progress Biosfera have made for the conservation of the desert islands and in the building up of their organisation. And of course it shows the island’s beautiful wildlife.


Since the field visit, Biosfera have been awarded a follow-up grant from CEPF to continue building their capacity in financial operations and communications. Now they are conducting further field research and investigating the impact of invasive fire ants which have ended up on Raso Islet, threatening the Raso Lark and other endemic species. Tommy, Patricia and Pedro say the major translocation of the Raso Lark to Santa Luzia is within their sights.
 
Biosfera's work on the Raso Lark has also been thanks to Mike Brooke (Professor from Cambridge University) and to Paul Donald, researcher from RSPB (BirdLife in the UK).
 
As part of the support to grantees, the CEPF Regional Implementation Team conduct field visits, like this one to Cape Verde. In this phase of the programme, Project Officers have been on supervision missions to Algeria, Morocco, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Macedonia.
 
“The CEPF support and the communication with the Regional Implementation Team was really good in terms of dealing with this project’s difficulties,” said Pedro Geraldes, SPEA. “Because it is remote, some plans have to be changed and altered.”

BirdLife International - including its Middle East office and the BirdLife Partners DOPPS/BirdLife Slovenia and LPO (Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, BirdLife in France) - is providing the Regional Implementation Team (RIT) for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in the Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot (CEPF Med).
Find out more at www.birdlife.org/cepf-med.