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Most people have heard of Robinson Crusoe, the castaway of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel, who spent 28 years on a remote tropical island off Venezuela, encountering indigenous natives and mutineers before being rescued. But how many have heard of Alexander Selkirk the real life character on whom the story is believed to be based?

Today (2 February) is the 300 year anniversary of Alexander Selkirk’s rescue from the island of Más a Tierra (also known as Robinson Crusoe island) in the Juan Fernández archipelago. Situated 700 kilometres off the coast of Chile, Selkirk spent four years and four months marooned on the island, surviving by killing and eating goats that had been introduced by earlier passing sailors.

His tale is a remarkable one of survival against the odds. Unfortunately another story of survival from this archipelago hangs in the balance. The same goat population that sustained Selkirk during his time as a castaway (and other introduced species) has wreaked untold damage to the fragile ecosystems of these islands. The archipelago is home to three endemic bird species, making the Juan Fernández islands one of only 221 endemic bird areas in the world. Two of these species, Juan Fernández Firecrown Sephanoides fernandensis and Masafuera Rayadito Aphrastura masafuerae are classified as Critically Endangered, the highest threat category. This puts them on the brink of extinction and unless conservation measures are implemented quickly, their fate may be rather different to that of Alexander Selkirk.

“There are currently 190 bird species classified as Critically Endangered”, said Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Research and Indicators Coordinator. “With each of these species we have identified the most urgent conservation actions needed to save them from extinction, but we now need to raise the funds to implement these actions. This is what the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme is trying to do, by recruiting Species Champions to provide this support.”Implementing adequate measures to restrict the further spread of alien invasive species, and eradicate or control these where they have already established, is one of the 10 Key Actions to prevent extinctions highlighted in a recent BirdLife publication, Critically Endangered Birds: a global audit. Efforts to tackle invasive species in the Juan Fernández archipelago are currently being led by the Juan Fernández Islands Conservancy with support from the American Bird Conservancy. In response to the global threat to so many bird species, BirdLife has launched the Preventing Extinctions Programme. This is spearheading greater conservation action, awareness and funding support for all of the world’s most threatened birds, starting with the 190 species classified as Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat.

Dr Butchart concludes, “The survival and rescue of Alexander Selkirk is an inspiring story that led to the publication of one of the most popular and enduring novels ever written. We need to act urgently to ensure the survival of the Critically Endangered species he shared the island with, and for all 190 bird species that are on the brink of extinction.”

This news was supplied by the BirdLife Species Champions and the British Birdwatching Fair - official sponsor of the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme http://www.birdlife.org/action/campaigns/species_champions/index.html

4th July 2014