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Saving wildlife

…in the UK Overseas Territories

At a UNESCO meeting in Brazil this week, the UK Government was warned that the outstanding natural qualities for which Henderson Island, in the Pacific, was listed as a World Heritage Site would be jeopardised if rats are allowed to continue killing and eating unique seabirds and their eggs.

Although over 600 years of Polynesian occupation have left an ecological mark on the Island, not least the continuing presence of Polynesian Rats Rattus exulans, this is the Pacific’s best example of an ecologically intact raised coral island. For this reason it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1988. Four landbirds occur, all endemic to the island, of which the most distinctive is the flightless Henderson Crake Porzana atra (Vulnerable). Seabirds comprise a mix of widespread tropical species, and species with more restricted Pacific distributions, notably Pterodroma petrels. For one of these, Henderson Petrel Pterodroma atrata (Endangered), Henderson is the only known nesting site. 

However, fieldwork has established that the rats are devastating petrel chicks. To benefit petrels and to achieve wider ecosystem restoration, rat eradication is now being actively planned. If successful, it would be easily the largest rat eradication achieved on British territory. Henderson and Gough and Inaccessible Islands, another UK Oversea Territory, support eight species of bird found nowhere else on earth, and several of these are being driven to extinction by the introduced rodents.Commenting on the situation, Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s (BirdLife in the UK) International Director, said: “There are only 180 natural World Heritage sites, and the UK has responsibility for five. It is extremely embarrassing that the UK is failing in its duty to protect sites and species solely in our care. We are urging the UK government to take action to ensure the future of the 33 species of bird found in the UK Overseas Territories that are threatened with extinction.

The removal of rats from Henderson Island is one of the most pressing conservation actions of our time. It costs only £1.7 million and the RSPB has already raised more than half of the cost from its members and others. A detailed plan is in place, and specialists are on stand-by to act. Unfortunately, time is running out. If the outstanding funds are not raised within the next two months the eradication cannot take place in 2011, with the result of the cruel death of another 25,000 chicks and the knowledge that species are at greater risk of extinction”, concluded Mr Stowe.Writing in the August issue of the highly-respected journal British Birds, BirdLife’s Richard Porter says the cost of safeguarding all wildlife in the 14 UK Overseas Territories – home to penguins and one third of all the world’s albatrosses – has been calculated at £16m per year by the RSPB. “2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. Wouldn't it be a great boost if the new UK coalition government could attend the UN Biodiversity Summit in Japan, in October, and lead by example by finding the cash and commitment to fund our unique wildlife treasures?”

The United Kingdom is responsible for 14 Overseas Territories. 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 confirms that 33 species of bird are Globally Threatened in the UK Overseas Territories, with four listed as Critically Endangered by BirdLife on behalf of 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.

Richard Porter continued: “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 AD1500, partially or wholly because of the impact of non-native mammals, such as rats, feral cats, mice and pigs”.

4th July 2014