5 Aug 2010

British Birds – but far away by Richard Porter

By Richard Porter
Henderson, one of the Pitcairn Islands, is home to Endangered Henderson Petrel Pterodroma atrata and many of the world’s gadfly petrels. Together with its endemic plants, snails and invertebrates, not to mention its turtle population, it must surely be as important as Britain & Ireland in terms of global biodiversity. Yet conservation bodies are desperately trying to raise funds to eradicate the Polynesian Rats Rattus exulans that could seriously affect much of the island’s unique wildlife, and potentially cause species extinctions. Although I haven’t been to Henderson Island, I have been fortunate to visit a number of the other islands that are UK dependant, so I feel a personal affinity and concern for the future of their precious wildlife. The United Kingdom is responsible for 14 Overseas Territories (UKOTs). They are mostly small islands or island complexes dispersed across all the world’s oceans, ranging from tropical coral atolls in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, to windswept volcanic landmasses rising from the depths of the South Atlantic. They are all of global importance for their biodiversity. A new report (Hilton & Cuthbert 2010) confirms that 34 species of bird are globally threatened in UKOTs, many of them listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN and probably on the road to extinction if nothing is done about the devastation caused by introduced mammals preying on their eggs and chicks. This is a significantly higher number than in Britain, or even Europe. Indeed, put them all together and the islands of the UKOTs are fifth in the world league table of bird extinctions, with at least ten species from the territories going into oblivion since ad 1500, partially or wholly because of the impact of non-native mammals, such as rats, feral cats, mice and pigs. Many people will know of these ‘far-flung places through news reports of disasters or, in earlier times, from postage stamps, but reading out their names still conjures mystery and romance: Anguilla, British Antarctic Territory, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, St Helena, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha (and its satellite islands of Nightingale, Gough and Inaccessible), the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, British Indian Ocean Territory and the Pitcairn Islands. Then, of course, there is Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. They are home to six species of the world’s threatened albatrosses: Wandering Diomedea exulans, Tristan D. dabbenena, Sooty Phoebetria fusca, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Thalassarche (c.) chlororhynchos, Grey-headed T. chrysostoma and Black-browed T. melanophris. Among the threatened petrels are Atlantic P. incerta, Bermuda P. cahow, Henderson, Phoenix P. alba, White-chinned Petrel Procellaria (a.) aequinoctialis and Spectacled P. (a.) conspicillata. Add to those Macaroni Eudyptes chrysolophus, Southern E. chrysocome and Northern Rockhopper Penguins E. moseleyi, Ascension Frigatebird Fregata aquila and a host of globally threatened landbirds (for example West Indian Whistling Duck Dendrocygna arborea, Inaccessible Rail Atlantisia rogersi, Gough Moorhen Gallinula comeri, St Helena Plover Charadrius sanctaehelenae, Henderson Lorikeet Vini stepheni, Pitcairn Reed Warbler Acrocephalus vaughanii, Cobb’s Wren Troglodytes (aedon) cobbi, Forest Thrush Cichlherminia lherminieri and Montserrat Oriole Icterus oberi and you will in a few short sentences be easily convinced that we must do something. The people of these Territories are also reliant on the natural environment for their livelihoods, the economies of many depending on fisheries and tourism. They belong to the United Kingdom and we have a duty to safeguard their vulnerable ecosystems and wildlife. The impact of introduced invasive species such as rats and feral cats is the main threat, causing species extinctions and reductions in every Territory. Remember that one-third of the world’s albatrosses breed on the UK Overseas Territories, and we know only too well of the devastating impact they face at sea, where long-line fishing kills 100,000 birds each year. Tourism is rapidly expanding in the Territories and on some is in danger of damaging the natural environment on which they depend. The RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) has undertaken a study to estimate the cost of meeting biodiversity priorities in the Territories. It calculates that a minimum of £16 million per year is needed for the next five years. Compare that modest ‘request’ with the £460 million the Government spends annually on conservation and agri-environment schemes in the UK. Then consider the following, paraphrased from the third edition of Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3), produced by the Convention on Biological Diversity: the world has failed to meet the 2010 Target of achieving a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss. But GBO-3 outlines a new strategy for reducing biodiversity loss when the world’s governments meet to create a post-2010 target at the Nagoya Biodiversity Summit in October. Wouldn’t it be a great boost if the new UK coalition government could attend and lead by example? Messers Cameron and Clegg, we know you can hold hands but have you got teeth and a true commitment to ‘our’ wildlife – wherever it is? This editorial is from British Birds journal. Hilton, G. M., & Cuthbert, R. J. 2010. The catastrophic impact of invasive mammalian predators on birds of the UK Overseas Territories: a review and synthesis. Ibis 152: 443–458. DOI: 10.1111/j.1474-919X.2010.01031.x