Conserving Falklands’ whale populations: addressing data deficiencies for informed management

May 12, 2021

Welcome to the guest blog featuring Darwin Plus project DPLUS082, led by Falklands Conservation working to achieve greater protection for all baleen whale species found around the Falkland Islands. The project aims to improve the information available to decision-makers, and engage stakeholders regarding conservation and management considerations.

In this blog, find out just how the project has been able to protect these gentle giants and join us in celebrating the extraordinary achievement of the first ever Key Biodiversity Area in the Falklands for whales and the only one in the world for sei whales!

Keystone species receive Key Biodiversity Area protection

Every summer and autumn, sei whale blows are a common sight from the shores of the Falkland Islands, and residents and visitors alike will spend huge amounts of time watching these fantastic animals. Some whales are alone, and moving fast, whereas others are spotted in larger groups, staying in the area from anywhere between a couple of hours to a few days. However, this whale-watching experience is unusual as sei whales are more commonly found in deep, offshore waters, making these regular nearshore sightings at the Falkland Islands virtually unique.

Now, in a global first, the Falkland Islands have been listed as an incredibly important location for the enigmatic and endangered sei whale! This recognition comes in the form of a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), which is something that has been an area of interest for Falklands Conservation since systematic whale surveys began in 2017.

A sei whale spotted near the Falkland Islands coast, Credit – Caroline Weir

KBA status is awarded to regions which are supporting global biodiversity, with this status being awarded to many areas that are particularly important for threatened species. The recognition for the nearshore waters of the Falkland Islands to be a KBA for sei whales was driven by robust and extensive data collected from thousands of hours of Falklands Conservation surveys and data analysis. Excitingly, it is not only the first KBA for whales in the Falkland Islands, but the very first KBA for sei whales anywhere in the world! The new Inner Shelf Waters Key Biodiversity Area covers the whole of the Falkland Islands nearshore waters to 100m depth.

This acknowledgement is an important step in terms of marine conservation and management in this UK Overseas Territory. Whilst human marine activities in the Falkland Islands are relatively low compared to other regions in the world, who knows what the future might bring? Both oil exploration and industrial coastal salmon farming have been proposed for the Falkland Islands in recent years, and other already-present sectors may continue to grow. The recognition of these waters as a KBA will provide valuable information to ensure that Government and Industry are able to make the most environmentally-sound and sustainable decisions regarding the uses of these waters; for the long-term benefit of wildlife and also the important industries that rely on the natural environment.

Falklands Conservation’s whale work is run by Dr Caroline Weir, with the primary tool at her disposal being photo identification. From small boat surveys, photos can be taken of the fins and flanks of sei whales as they’re encountered on surveys, and the patterns of nicks, scars and colouration can be used to identify individual whales. In the five years of surveys, tens of thousands of photographs have been taken and now the photo ID catalogue of mature sei whales is now well over 500 individuals. This achievement is even more special when considering the inherent difficulties of studying sei whales; animals with distinct marks are very few and far between, with most whales showing very few markings. Additionally, sei whales are not as showy and flamboyant as some of their more famous cousins – they will often surface with a very shallow movement, showing almost none of their back, flanks, or flukes (tails) which could be used in the identification process. Finally, these whales are fairly uninterested in vessels, they can travel quickly through the water, turn sharply, and disappear on dives for long periods.

Falklands Conservation Whale project lead Caroline Weir photographing elusive sei whale for photo identification, Credit – Maria Taylor

Despite this, successful photographic “recaptures” have proven that individuals use different regions of the Falkland Islands throughout the summer and autumn months, and that some return year-on-year. A particular highlight was a distinctly marked whale, nicknamed Wonky by the team in the Falklands, being matched to a Brazilian ID catalogue. Wonky had been sighted off Rio de Janeiro six months before being seen in the Falklands Islands; one of the first clear-cut insights into global sei whale migration movements.

Darwin Plus have been supporting these surveys since 2019. Since the very first surveys, a number of new research tools have been added to the work. Audio recording devices were deployed underwater in Berkeley Sound and Falkland Sound to listen into the whales’ conversations, and to determine what they were up to even when they couldn’t be sighted by the survey boat. Biopsy sampling has also been introduced in the hopes of revealing how Falklands’ whales fit in with global populations and to give insight into the health and wellbeing of the individuals and populations.

Wonky, the sei whale identified in both the Falkland Islands six months after being spotted in the waters off Rio de Janeiro, Credit – Falklands Conservation

Importantly, the ongoing whale research has been heavily supported by the local community. It is fantastic for local people to share their waters with such captivating neighbours, and over 40 volunteers have taken part on surveys, with many more reporting their whale sightings or signing up for an integrated Citizen Science Shore-Watch project. The Facebook Page for Falklands Conservation’s whale project has over 2,400 followers – not bad, considering the entire population of the Falkland Islands is only a little over 3,000! During the process of applying for KBA status, local stakeholders including Government and Industry representatives were also engaged and supported the KBA application. With public support, this new KBA and the data behind it offer the Falkland Islands an incredible opportunity to manage our waters for the long-term benefits of these fantastic animals, their key habitats, and to support sustainable human activities for future generations.

Dr Caroline Weir, Sei Whale Project lead for Falklands Conservation commented, “We are incredibly proud of achieving this Key Biodiversity Area for endangered sei whales, which is the culmination of five years of pioneering and challenging field research that has really highlighted the importance of the Falkland Islands for this poorly-known species. It’s a privilege to work in an area where whale populations appear to be thriving, and fantastic to now see that work translating into global recognition and contributing to the future conservation of these amazing animals.”

Written by Michelle Winnard. For more information on project DPLUS082 led by Falklands Conservation working in the Falkland Islands please click here.


Alien Invasions: Invasive invertebrates

April 22, 2021

In the final post of the series we share the story of a new project based in St Helena led by the St Helena National Trust which aims to protect some of the endemic species found on the island from the growing threat of invasive invertebrates such as the common wasp and springbok mantis.

We hope that you have enjoyed this series so far, if you would like to read the entire series please follow these links for the first and second blog posts.

Conserving St Helena’s endemic invertebrates through invasive invertebrate control

St Helena is a small (47 square miles) UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean, with a population of around 4,500 people. In addition to its human population, the island is home to over 420 endemic terrestrial invertebrate species, making it a location of immense global importance. Unfortunately, many of these endemic species are under threat from invasive alien invertebrate species. An innovative new project led by the St Helena National Trust will facilitate endemic invertebrate recovery and re-establish their associated ecosystem functions by testing and establishing invasive invertebrate control methods. The focus will be on three of St Helena’s most invasive species, the common wasp (Vespula vulgaris), big-headed ant (Pheidole megacephala) and the springbok mantis (Miomantis caffra).

St Helena team member deploying wasp beer traps and surveying ants, Credit – Liza Fowler

Ants are a particular problem species for the island because they feed on endemic invertebrates and can damage native habitats. Ants rear other pest species such as aphids which threaten native plants and reduce abundance of beneficial invertebrates such as ladybirds. The big-headed ant also poses a threat to vertebrates and has been known to attack globally threatened St Helena plover chicks in their nests (known locally as the wirebird). We aim to begin trialling the control methods for the common wasp and big-headed ant in 2021. Insecticides will be used to target these species as they have shown positive success in other islands; the results will be carefully monitored to ensure that there are no unwanted impacts to local biodiversity. Control methods for the springbok mantis are currently under development and with the current lack of available resources the project will be one of the first to create and test methods specifically designed for the mantis.

To date, public engagement activities have included information stalls, workshops and citizen science programmes. The local team of four, with support from international experts in the UK, New Zealand and South Africa, hope to increase local capacity and knowledge in the battle against these invasive invertebrate species.

For more information on project DPLUS104 led by St Helena National Trust working in St Helena please click here. To read the full article from this project and others that were featured in the March 2021 edition of the newsletter, please click here.


Alien Invasions: Islands of change

April 20, 2021

Small island states are home to some of the rarest species on the planet. Unfortunately, they are also amongst the most vulnerable to invasive non-native species. In this blog post we share the remarkable story of Redonda, an island that was once overrun with invasive rats and goats returning to its former glory.

If you would like to read the first post of the series highlighting the work of RSPB and Nature Kenya on tackling the takeover of invasive Prosopis in Tana River Delta, the link can be found here.

Removing aliens triggers rapid recovery on the Caribbean’s “highest priority island”

When we began the project we expected improvements, but we never imagined the changes would happen so quickly! Since the removal of feral goats and rats in 2017, the remote Caribbean island of Redonda (part of Antigua and Barbuda) has been transformed from bare rock to a green haven, where native plants and animals are flourishing once more. The Redonda ground dragon (Pholidoscelis atratus) – one of several endemic Critically Endangered lizards – has increased by more than six-fold and the Redonda tree lizard (Anolis nubilus) by eight-fold. Hundreds of new trees have sprung up, invertebrate abundance has increased significantly, and at least 13 species of land birds have recolonised the island.

Nobody knows when the alien mammals first appeared on Redonda, but their impact was catastrophic. Thousands of black rats (Rattus rattus) hunted and dispatched the native reptiles and seabird chicks while the feral goats (Capra hircus) demolished the island’s vegetation until more than half of the herd died from starvation. A regional priority-setting exercise pinpointed Redonda as the island in direst need of restoration.

Redonda before the restoration project, devastated by rats and goats, Credit – Jenny Daltry, FFI

The Redonda Restoration Programme set out to ‘rehabilitate a healthy island ecosystem that is sustainably managed for the conservation of indigenous biodiversity, and to preserve Redonda’s important historical values and facilitate the sustainable use and enjoyment of Redonda by present and future generations’. Surveys and consultations began in 2009, and the Darwin project was officially launched in 2016 by the Government of Antigua & Barbuda, the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

It took seven months of carefully orchestrated teamwork to catch the remaining goats and remove every rat. FFI has successfully removed alien mammals from over 25 islands since 1995 but this rugged island posed new challenges. Severe erosion, caused by deforestation, had left many parts of Redonda dangerously unstable, with crumbling cliffs, scree (small loose stones) and frequent rock falls.

Shanna Challenger, Project Coordinator for the EAG and FFI, said “This has been the opportunity of a lifetime – witnessing the rebirth of an island. Changes forecasted to happen in five years occurred within months.” Together with FFI Project Leader Dr Jenny Daltry, Shanna documented the new shrubs and trees that appeared in 2018; the first to germinate on Redonda for more than a century. As its habitats recover, the project team is making plans to reintroduce some missing keystone species, such as the black iguana (Iguana melanoderma). Speaking for the Department of the Environment, Dr Helena Jeffery Brown adds “The Government of Antigua & Barbuda considers the return to life of Redonda as a shining beacon in our collective efforts towards ecosystem restoration and biodiversity conservation that will bring us another step closer to attaining some of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.”

A lush carpet of native plants on Redonda in 2020, Credit – Sophia Steele, FFI

The high-profile restoration effort caused great excitement on Antigua and Barbuda, and prompted the Government’s decision in 2019 to create the Redonda Ecosystem Reserve. The new protected area encompasses not only the island but its surrounding coral reefs, extending nearly 30,000 hectares.

For more information on project 23-003 led by Fauna and Flora International working in Antigua and Barbuda can be found here. The full article for this project and others featured in our latest newsletter on ‘Alien Invasions’ is available here.


Alien Invasions: Prolific Prosopis

April 7, 2021

Welcome to the latest blog series on “Alien Invasions”! In this series we discover some of the ways Darwin and Darwin Plus projects are securing local biodiversity and protecting rare and endemic species from non-native alien invasions.

In the first blog, we hear from an RSPB and Nature Kenya project working in the Tana River Delta tackling the ever encroaching invasive Prosopis juliflora which is threatening local species and local livelihoods.

Invasive Prosopis poses a threat to Tana River Delta’s survival

The Tana River Delta is a designated Ramsar site, an Important Bird Area and a Key Biodiversity Area. The Delta is also the second most important estuarine and deltaic ecosystem in Eastern Africa. It forms the northern limit of the Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests biodiversity hotspot, and is a proposed World Heritage Site. The ecosystem supports local communities and enormous numbers of livestock, wildlife and water birds. Tana River Delta is home to a plethora of unique and endangered species including the endemic Tana River colobus (Piliocolobus rufomitratus). Prosopis juliflora, otherwise referred to as Prosopis and commonly known as “Mathenge” in Kenya, is a small, fast growing, drought-resistant, evergreen tree of tropical American origin. The tree, classified as a woody weed, is an alien species in Kenya. It was introduced in 1982 as part of the Fuelwood Afforestation Extension project to help reduce soil erosion, provide fodder for livestock and help reduce the effects of dust storms in arid and semi-arid areas.

Since then, however, the species has become unmanageable due to its fast proliferation and ability to resprout after cutting. Tana River County is among the many counties including Baringo, Garissa, Isiolo, Wajir, Samburu and Marsabit where the tree has widely spread. Despite being introduced to Kenya with good intentions, the species is causing havoc and none of the residents in Tana River County wants to hear about it. During a meeting convened by Nature Kenya to assess the level of seed collection, residents of Tana Delta county termed the weed a nuisance. They explained that it has continued to take over grazing fields by forming impenetrable thickets which do not allow grass to grow underneath. “Residents here at the Tana Delta largely depend on pastoralism. The Mathenge weed has colonised our grazing fields and replaced grass. Before the plant was introduced, there was a particular type of grass which our livestock fed on. Sadly, it is no longer there in the fields that have been taken over by Mathenge,” says Ali Odo, chairperson of Burakofira Village Natural Resource and Land Use Committee (VNRLUC).

A section of Prosopis juliflora invaded landscape in the Tana River Delta swept by floods, Credit – Odera George

Prosopis produces masses of pods containing small tough seeds. When pods are eaten by livestock, seeds pass easily through the gut. This creates a rich seed bank in the soil. Once in the soil, seeds can lie dormant for long period of time, until conditions are favourable. Due to its deep-rooted nature and ability to grow back quickly when cut, Prosopis is highly invasive and hard to control once established. It is also contributing to the loss of biodiversity at the Tana River Delta. The species has replaced native vegetation, taking over rangelands and is rapidly replacing natural grasslands, turning them into dense thorn woodlands. This has lowered the aesthetic nature of the land which has reduced the area’s appeal to tourists. Livestock has also been affected by Prosopis, goats have lost their teeth due to feeding on the shrub’s pods and some have even died as a result.

Efforts to control the spread of Prosopis are underway, and despite the difficulties it poses, there remains some hope. Communities are finding ways of utilising the plant to produce charcoal and for building materials. Manual clearing of the plant in farmlands is also being explored, this involves cutting the plant at the stem then burning it to prevent regeneration. Prolonged flooding has also helped to control the plant. The Tana River County government is also in the process of establishing green spaces as part of implementation of the Tana River Delta Land Use Plan. This initiative will involve massive clearing of the Prosopis plant. However, this also presents some opportunities. As Assistant Chief Conservator of Forests and Head of Forest Health and Biodiversity at the Kenya Forest Service Dr James Mwang’ombe says,  “Prosopis is a difficult species to handle. However, it presents opportunities to be used for energy, building, fencing poles and burning bricks”.

For more information on project 24-013 led by RSPB working in Kenya please click here. The full article for this project and others featured in our latest newsletter on ‘Alien Invasions’ is available here.


Hungry for Biodiversity: Domestic crops and their wild relatives

January 22, 2021

In the “Hungry for Biodiversity” series so far, in the first and second blog posts we have featured two projects working with local communities in both the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon and the province of Cabo Delgabo in Mozambique.

We have reached the end of the series and in this final post we hear from a project working in Southern Africa focusing on preserving the wild relatives of domestic plants in an effort to improve sustainable food production to tackle food insecurity.

Building capacity for crop wild relative conservation in the Southern Africa

Crop wild relatives (CWR) are wild plant species closely related to modern crops and their wild ancestors. They are potential sources of beneficial crop traits such as pest and disease resistance, yield improvement, and drought and salinity tolerance. They may also contain adapted genes that are useful for coping with climate change and environmental stress. CWR trait diversity is increasingly used in breeding programs for novel cultivar (plant varieties that have been produced through selective breeding) development. Globally, the value of benefits from CWR is between USD $42 – 120 billion. Their value lies in increasing sustainable food production, mitigating climate change impact, enhancing long-term food and nutrition security, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

Southern Africa is a diverse CWR region with more than 1,900 species related to crops that are cultivated for a wide variety of reasons, including nutritional, ornamental and medicinal uses. Despite their importance, the conservation of CWR species remains a challenge, with many species believed to be under threat due to habitat degradation, deforestation, climate change and the introduction of invasive species. One of the main issues is the current lack of technical capacity within the region to undertake in situ conservation targeted to CWR, to identify priority CWR and selection of priority conservation for reserve establishment. In addition, many CWR species are also barely accessible to breeders and farmers who could benefit from their use.

With the financial support from the Darwin Initiative, the Alliance of Bioversity International has teamed up with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture to lead a three year project entitled “Bridging agriculture and environment: Southern African crop-wild-relative regional network.” The project is implemented in partnership with the University of Birmingham (U.K.), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resources Centre, the Malawi Plant Genetic Resources Centre, the Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (Tanzania) and the Zambia Agriculture and Research Institute.

Ipomoea robertsiana a sweet potato crop wild relative, Credit – P. Moila

The project seeks to enhance the conservation of CWR both in their wild habitats and in gene banks in order to facilitate their use, establish a regional CWR network of in situ conservation in Southern African, identify national priority CWR conservation sites, and develop National Strategic Action Plans (NSAP) for the conservation and use of CWR in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. In addition, the project is set to offer designed mechanisms to enhance the benefits for farmers from conserving CWR as well as ensure access and benefit sharing mechanisms for increased access to CWR germplasm in accordance with the Nagoya Protocol and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The project is working to strengthen the scientific and technical capacities in the region in CWR conservation planning and to equip the participants with the necessary knowledge to develop their respective action plans.

However, things haven’t been straightforward for the project. The training programme on CWR conservation planning has been impacted due to the current Covid-19 restrictions in place in the target countries and the project has had to consider ways of moving the training online.

“Our challenge was not only to distil a three-day training workshop into a minimum of ten hours online but mainly to assist the participants in using very specific techniques in an attempt to engage them effectively to have a meaningful outcomes such as national CWR checklist, CWR priority list for conservation, the distribution of national priority CWR and the identification of sites for their active in situ conservation,” said Joana Magos Brehm who organised the training, noting that an interactive toolkit for CWR conservation and previously developed tools were essential for the workshop.

In the end, by moving the training online, the project was actually able to exceed their target number of stakeholders trained.

For more information on project 26-023 led by University of Birmingham working in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia please click here. To read the full article from this project and others that were featured in the latest edition of the newsletter, please click here.


Hungry for Biodiversity: Marine measures for Mozambique

January 19, 2021

In our second blog post of the series, we hear from a project promoting sustainable fishing in the province of Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Local communities have played a paramount role in securing fisheries through local management.

If you would like to read the first blog of the series, featuring a project working to improve food security for communities living in the buffer zone of the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon, please click here.

Safeguarding marine biodiversity and food security through community-based action in Mozambique

Coastal communities in the province of Cabo Delgado are among the poorest in Mozambique and are highly dependent on marine resources. The diverse marine habitats in Cabo Delgado have historically been some of the least exploited in East Africa, however fish stocks are becoming increasingly depleted. Growing pressures, including local population growth, coastal migration, conflict and threats from gas and oil exploration, are further driving food insecurity and poverty in these communities. Fisheries are one of the main sources of livelihood in Cabo Delgado, having some of the highest numbers of artisanal fishers and fishing centres in the country. Fish are vital for food and nutritional security, through direct consumption as well as indirectly, as a source of income to buy other food items.

The Our Sea Our Life (OSOL) programme has developed and piloted a pro-poor model for Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) in northern Mozambique, that aims to tackle the fundamental drivers of poverty and food security amongst fishing communities. LMMAs are areas managed by local communities to improve fisheries and conserve marine biodiversity. While community-led marine management is not new in Mozambique or the Western Indian Ocean region, the interconnection of three critical elements to successful marine co-management make the OSOL approach unique and innovative:

  1. the LMMAs
  2. local governance and management mechanisms
  3. and sustainable livelihoods and financing.

OSOL’s participatory approach empowers communities to deliver objectives they help to set. It brings together these established platforms, for equitable and inclusive governance of resources, while generating alternative income and strengthening and securing food and nutritional security.

Our Sea Our Life led horticultural activities in Mecufi, Credit – AMA

One of the main outputs from phase 1 of the OSOL programme was to develop a best practice guide based on experiences and lessons learnt from the model, drawing on the valuable experience of each of the partners in the consortium (led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) with partners Associação do Meio Ambiente (AMA), UniLúrio, CORDIO East Africa, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa; and Universidade de Aveiro). The project team have recently launched the ‘Toolkit for LMMA establishment: A case study of Our Sea Our Life’s approach to community-based marine conservation in northern Mozambique’! The toolkit is available in both Portuguese and English and can be found here.

ZSL Our Sea Our Life LMMA Toolkit, Credit – Mike Riddell

Replicating this model will enable the connection between marine conservation interventions with community needs for basic financial services, by scaling up VSLAs that will work to empower community members to diversify their livelihood options, increasing social resilience and food security. Since its start in 2013, with support from the Darwin Initiative, the programme has established 60km2 of protected areas, supported the creation of over 40 VSLAs (linked to bivalve aquaculture and horticulture activities) benefiting over 6,000 people in northern Mozambique alone. The aim is to reach thousands more people along the coast, with local communities at the heart of marine resource management.

For more information on project 25-024 led by ZSL working in can be found here. The full article for this project and others featured in the December 2020 edition of the newsletter is available here.