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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.

 

Hungry for Biodiversity: Sustainable hunting

January 11, 2021

We’re pleased to introduce our “Hungry for Biodiversity” blog series where we feature a variety of projects addressing food insecurity whilst prioritising biodiversity conservation.

In the first post of the series, we hear from a project working alongside communities within the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon where the introduction of community hunting zones is ensuring that over-hunting is being minimised.

People need to eat

There was a time not too long ago when the paradigm for managing protected areas was just that – protection, protection, protection. Local people were regarded as a threat to wildlife conservation and treated as such, often being evicted from areas that they believe belonged to them, where they had lived for many years. Inside and around what is now the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon, people have historically hunted for food and used the surrounding rivers to fish. However, since the creation of the Reserve and the ban on hunting, many local people are now struggling to obtain enough protein to meet their needs.

The introduction of community hunting zones (CHZ) may help address the challenges – under Darwin project 20-007 the partners helped to establish a well managed CHZ on the edge of the Dja Faunal Reserve, which enables local people to hunt a set quota of non-threatened species. Under the latest project (24-005), local people living in the buffer zone of the Dja Faunal Reserve are given support to manage the fish stocks and preserve their catch over longer periods, ultimately discouraging hunting and helping to relieve stress on threatened species.

Additional fishing material delivered to the community, Credit – Donald Mboheli

In both projects, the sustainability of natural resources is key. The quota system in the CHZ ensures that over-hunting is minimised, and that threatened species are protected. In the buffer zone communities, through reciprocal environmental agreements, direct benefits such as provision of fishing equipment and the development of cash crops such as cocoa help ensure that the biodiversity in the Reserve is given extra protection.

The crucial element that helps sustainability is empowering local people to make decisions about the activities they want to undertake, rather than communities having activities imposed upon them by ‘outsiders’. In the area around the north east borders of the Dja Faunal Reserve there was enough space to create a CHZ. Working sessions involving local people, the partners and government officials enabled the communities to set up their own CHZ under Cameroonian law. In northern buffer zone communities, the local people elected to focus on increasing their fish catch, in an effort to bolster food security.

Catches from local fisheries have increased since the project start, Credit – Mama Mouamfon

In both of these Darwin projects, local people are not the problem to conserving biodiversity – they are the solution. Helping them to devise and undertake alternatives to illegal, unsustainable hunting has resulted in new, sustainable ways for people living in challenging circumstances to obtain the food they need to survive, and improve their lives.

More information on projects 20-007 and 24-005 led by Bristol Zoo and the Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp can be found using the links provided. The full article for this project and many others can be found in the Hungry for Biodiversity edition of the newsletter . If you would like to read the entire “Hungry for Biodiversity” series, please follow the links for the second and third blog posts.

 

Conservation & the coronavirus: Fieldwork in the Falklands

October 23, 2020

This blog series outlines the challenges faced by projects during the global pandemic and celebrates the efforts that many have taken to ensure that the health and safety of target communities and wildlife populations are prioritised to prevent the spread. In our final post of the series we hear from a project working in the Falkland Islands and how they managed to complete soil mapping despite the border closures and social distancing measures.

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.

Soil mapping and social distancing

In 2018 our project based in the Falkland Islands began and just over two years later is soon coming to an end. It was led by the Falklands-based South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) in collaboration with the Falkland Islands Government’s Department of Agriculture, James Hutton Institute, UK Falkland Islands Trust, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and the University of Magallanes. The aim of the project was to deliver a national soil map and tools for sustainable land management as well as provide baseline data to be used to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It is thought that climate change is bringing about changes in soil and peat properties in the Falkland Islands, which may have detrimental consequences for carbon storage, biodiversity and land management. In order to monitor the anticipated impact, the project established a baseline for peat and erosion extent, among many other soil property layers.

Mottled clay from 2m depth, Credit – SAERI

 

Digital soil mapping was carried out with data collected on topography, geology and habitat classification. The fieldwork took the team to about 200 survey point across the entire Falkland Islands, many of them in remote locations, which could only be accessed by a long hike or with off-road vehicles. Fortunately, the fieldwork and lab work for the soil maps were completed before the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic. However the timing of the final soil modelling was not so lucky and was scheduled to start right at the beginning of the pandemic. Project partner Dr. Matt Aitkenhead at the James Hutton Institute, who ran the soil modelling, reports on how Covid-19 impacted on his workflow: “The soil mapping component of the project was already done with a fair degree of social distancing prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Project partner Dr. Matt Aitkenhead at the James Hutton Institute, who ran the soil modelling, reports on how Covid-19 impacted on his workflow: “The soil mapping component of the project was already done with a fair degree of social distancing prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. From my comfortable office in Aberdeen, I would receive a steady stream of data, queries and requests from 13,000 kilometres away in the Falkland Islands. Never having been to the Falklands, this meant a slight sense of separation from the difficulties the field team had to go through. When I moved my office to my bedroom in March I realised just how much I had relied on access to good internet and relatively high computing performance. Using an elderly laptop and WiFi with 300 kbps bandwidth, the mapping became more of a challenge. The main workaround for this was to connect remotely to a server at work. This meant I could generate models at home and run them from a server with faster access to the vast repository of spatial data generated prior to lockdown – there was no way that data was going to fit on my laptop! A further challenge was the demand on our remote servers, which made them slightly erratic, causing my code to crash every couple of hours. So I had to work out how to avoid creating maps in one big code run, instead making the system pick up from where the last crash had ended and then stitching multiple pieces of map together – about as much fun as it sounds”.

Hard work and perseverance paid off and the soil maps are now available on SAERI’s webGIS. The project also had a strong stakeholder engagement element and raised awareness locally on climate change impacts on soils and land management. Denise Blake, Falkland Islands Government’s Environmental Officer and Policy Advisor states: “In a predominantly agricultural landscape, knowledge of our soils underpins sustainable management. From an environmental point of view, mapping our soils ensures that we can work towards maintaining their health, not just for carbon storage, but for the life they support on our islands”.

Soil surveyor Roberto Jara Langhaus at Bluff Cove, Credit – SAERI

 

Internet connection can be a challenge in the Falkland Islands and online maps may not be accessible to everyone at any time, through stakeholder engagement it was revealed that there was an interest in offline maps in addition to the webGIS. To accommodate the request, local landowners also received layered pdf files with farm-specific soil maps alongside an interpretation guide to aid them with understanding and application of the maps. The soil maps provided will hopefully aid in directing land management towards a sustainable future.

For more information on project DPLUS083 led by SAERI working in Falkland Islands please click here. To read the full article from this project and others that were featured in the September 2020 edition of the newsletter, please click here.