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Paradise saved: some of world’s rarest birds rebound on Pacific islands cleared of invasive predators

20 June 2017
Polynesian Ground-dove: population now set to recover from less than 200 birds © Marie-Helene Burle/Island Conservation

Five remote Pacific islands are once again safe havens for four of our world’s rarest bird species following the success of one of the most ambitious island restoration projects ever implemented. Just two years after ambitious efforts by a team of international conservation organisations to rid French Polynesia’s Acteon & Gambier island groups of invasive mammals began, five of six targeted islands are now confirmed as predator-free a ground-breaking one thousand hectares in total. Early signs already indicate that rare birds found nowhere else in the world (endemic) and other native plants and animals are recovering as the remote islands return to their former glory.

The Polynesian Ground-dove Alopecoenas erythropterus (locally known as Tutururu) is one of the rarest birds on the planet with fewer than 200 individuals left. Predation and competition by destructive, non-native (invasive) mammals in French Polynesia have driven this and other rare, endemic bird species to the brink of extinction. The species is listed by BirdLife International as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List—a category that signals an extremely high risk of extinction within our lifetimes.

“The Acteon Gambier island group is home to the last viable population of Polynesian Ground-dove, a species once much more widespread in the Pacific”, said Steve Cranwell, BirdLife International’s Invasive Species Manager. “This bird’s remaining predator-free habitat was so small that without this intervention, a cyclone, prolonged drought, or accidental rat or avian disease introduction could trigger extinction”.

Introduced mammalian species alone are believed to be responsible for 90% of all bird extinctions since 1500. Early human explorers introduced invasive species such as rats to the remote Acteon & Gambier islands (and thousands more around the world), upsetting the natural balances of the islands and threatening the native plants and wildlife that evolved without defences against land predators.

Operation Restoration

© Caroline Blanvilain/ SOP Manu Combining resources, expertise, equipment, and logistical skills, a coalition of NGOs, BirdLife International, SOP Manu (BirdLife Partner, French Polynesia) and Island Conservation—together with the support of the government of French Polynesia, landowners, other partners and local volunteers—voyaged over 1,500 km to six of French Polynesia’s remote islands—Vahanga , Tenarunga, Temoe, Kamaka, Makaroa and Manui to complete the challenging project in 2015.

The project required years of planning and fundraising (including a cooperation with Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds), involved nine permits, 165 helicopter flight hours, three ships transporting hundreds of tonnes of equipment and donated bait from key partners Bell Laboratories and Tomcat, as well as 31 personnel from six countries (from three continents) who endured extraordinary weather and sea conditions during 12-day journeys to and from the islands. The prospect of a brighter future for the Tutururu and other native island species made the operations well-worth the effort.

“After extensive monitoring, a survey in April has confirmed great success on five of the six islands”, reported Dr David Beaune, Director SOP Manu. “This is a tremendous achievement that will provide a permanent solution to the alarming declines of native species on these islands due to predation and competition from invasive species”.

Double benefits: safe habitat and local coconut production

“The project has more than doubled the secure habitat for both the Polynesian Ground-dove and the Tuamotu Sandpiper Prosobonia parvirostris (locally: Titi), a globally Endangered landbird”, said Cranwell. “The islands look vibrant with new native vegetation, and both bird species have now established and are increasing on the island of Tenarunga—something that has not been possible for decades”.

A total of nineteen species of resident seabird are expected to benefit from the project. Juvenile Red-footed Booby photo © Caroline Blanvillain / SOP ManuThe benefits extend beyond nature alone. “Without rats, local land managers reported a doubling of their copra (coconut kernel) production in 2016—a major source of income for these isolated communities”, said Pere Joel Aumeran Vicar General for the Catholic Church. “Safeguarding our islands’ natural value is a foundation of Polynesian culture and important to the Catholic Church. This tremendous contribution to the lives of local people ensures these islands fully recover and remain predator-free; a legacy the Puamotu people leave for generations to come”.

“While the success of this project is vital to securing the future for these globally threatened birds, it also provides important safe habitat for other endemic species in a region where there is very little invasive-predator-free habitat”, explained Richard Griffiths, Island Conservation’s Project Director.  “The success also serves as an indicator that invasive-species-driven extinctions on other remote islands can be avoided if this operation is replicated at scale”.

Next steps

“We now need to increase the habitat range of these species by translocating small populations to islands where they were previously found—a  conservation technique proven highly effective in Polynesia”, said Dr. Beaune. “Plans are underway to re-introduce the Tutururu and Titi to Temoe, and to attract other Endangered seabirds such as the Polynesian Storm-petrel Nesofregetta fuliginosa to these predator-free islands”.

To inform future restoration efforts for complex islands with challenging terrain, the team is conducting an analysis of the Kamaka effort, which did not succeed. With invasive mammals now eradicated from the five islands, the coalition’s attention is shifting to biosecurity—preventing re-invasion through monitoring, education (brochures and signs for tourists), and stringent inspections of incoming vessels.

“French Polynesia can be immensely proud of completing this project, which, for its scale and complexity, is a first for the region”, Griffiths said. “The government of French Polynesia is well positioned to capitalise on this success and become a leader within the Pacific to rid Oceania’s islands of damaging invasive species”. 

This news item was written by By Shaun Hurrell.

This story has been copied from the news section of the Birdlife Website, to see the article on the Birdlife website please click here.



Blog: Mainstreaming Meloxicam − Top pharmaceutical companies engage in vulture conservation initiatives in Bangladesh

19 June 2017
White-rumped Vulture in Habiganj, Bangladesh. Photo: A B M Sarowar Alam / IUCN

The primary reason for the recent massive decline in vulture population is the use of harmful non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used as veterinary painkillers. Two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh have joined in the effort to conserve vultures in the country by producing vulture-friendly drugs containing Meloxicam. In this blog post, Sakib Ahmed and Haseeb Md. Irfanullah of IUCN Bangladesh writes about this engagement of private sector in biodiversity conservation.

Over the last couple of years, Bangladesh has achieved some major milestones in its effort to conserve vultures. One of them is the approval of Bangladesh Vulture Conservation Action Plan (2016−2025) by the Government and the other is the banning of the harmful NSAID, Ketoprofen, for veterinary use in two Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs).

This was made possible by the Strengthening Regional Cooperation for Wildlife Protection (SRCWP) project of the Bangladesh Forest Department and IUCN, funded by The World Bank, which enabled vulture conservation in Bangladesh. Additionally, the project, which started in 2014, also monitored and protected vulture habitats in the two VSZs, established feeding stations to supply safe dead cattle to the vultures, and conducted awareness campaigns from local to national levels.

The SRCWP initiative further offered a platform to engage pharmaceutical companies in producing the safe alternative drug, Meloxicam. Realising that vulture-toxic drugs are the main reason for the mass vulture decline, pharmaceutical companies of Bangladesh are now coming forward to play an important role in saving these threatened species.

In 2015 and 2016, IUCN conducted undercover surveys to understand the status of veterinary painkillers in the markets. The surveys revealed the extensive presence of Ketoprofen. The surveyors also realised that enforcing a ban would not be enough to reduce Ketoprofen use; they would also need to increase awareness among users and vets, as well as increase the production and availability of Meloxicam.

Therefore, IUCN Bangladesh reached out to two of the largest pharmaceutical companies operating in Bangladesh, ACME Laboratories Ltd. and Reneta Limited, to help mainstream Meloxicam. Simultaneously, IUCN Bangladesh with the support of the Bangladesh Forest Department carried out awareness campaigns at local levels to promote Meloxicam as the safe alternative for veterinary use.

Slogan on the role of meloxicam in vulture conservation printed in Bangla on the cover of Melvet packs. Photo: ACME Laboratories Ltd.Results of the advocacy came when ACME decided to print a slogan in Bangla on the label of its Meloxicam-containing drug, Melvet. The slogan read: “Vultures play an important part in maintaining the balance of the environment. The use of Meloxicam in domestic animals is safe for vultures.”

Reneta, already known for its involvement in environmental causes, decided to produce its first drug containing Meloxicam. In late 2015, the vulture conservation initiative of IUCN Bangladesh provided Renata with the formula and protocol for commercial Meloxicam production. Finally, in 2017, Renata was able to produce its first Meloxicam-containing drug, Melocam.

Both companies have also taken part in vulture conservation awareness campaigns and workshops organised by IUCN Bangladesh. Representatives of ACME and Reneta were present at the workshops conducted in veterinary schools of different agricultural universities across the country.

These companies have also subsidised their Meloxicam drugs for IUCN Bangladesh. Reneta has given a 35% subsidy on Melocam, while ACME has given a 30% subsidy on Melvet. IUCN Bangladesh then distributed the drugs to around 200 local pharmacy owners and vets in both VSZs. The supplied drug is sufficient to treat around 1,500 cattle.

Free meloxicam distribution among pharmacy owners and vets at Jessore, Bangladesh. Photo: Md. Tarik Kabir / IUCN. It is important to continue the momentum that these two pharmaceutical companies have created by engaging in biodiversity conservation. To do so, it is imperative to engage other pharmaceutical companies in producing Meloxicam. Involving other companies will also make Meloxicam more available in the market, reduce the price, and create opportunities to invest in research to further improve its effectiveness.

At the same time, the ban of Ketoprofen in VSZs must also be enforced strictly. The awareness campaigns over the past years have helped grow acceptability of Meloxicam among locals and the time to capture that interest and remove Ketoprofen from the markets for good, is now.

This blog post was contributed by Sakib Ahmed [@Sakib_A5], Programme Assistant for the project ‘Community-based Vulture Safe Zone Management in Bangladesh’ and Haseeb Md. Irfanullah [@hmirfanullah], Programme Coordinator of IUCN Bangladesh.



Overfishing, reef decline threaten greater Caribbean and Pacific island fisheries – IUCN reports

08 June 2017
Coral reef in Roatán, Honduras. Photo: Noel Wingers.

Gland, Switzerland, 8 June 2017 (IUCN) – Overfishing and the degradation of coral reefs across the Caribbean and Pacific islands are pushing many fish, including food sources like tunas and groupers, towards extinction, according to two regional Red List reports published today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Conservation status of marine biodiversity in the Pacific Islands of Oceania Red List report includes assessments of 2,800 marine species across the 22 island states and territories of Oceania, from Papua New Guinea to the Cook Islands – a vast, species-rich but largely unexplored area. The report shows that 11% of all assessed marine species in the region are threatened with extinction, including fish that are important food sources.

The Conservation status of marine bony shorefishes of the Greater Caribbean Red List report includes assessments of 1,360 marine bony shorefishes – a group that includes most fish species found near the shore – across 38 Caribbean countries and territories. Around 5% of marine bony shorefishes in the Caribbean are threatened, the report shows, due to overfishing, invasive lionfish predation and the degradation of coral reefs and estuaries, which provide habitats and feeding grounds for many species. Species threatened by overfishing are commonly associated with reef habitat.

Schooling wrasses near a reef dropoff in Roatán, Honduras. Photo: Noel Wingers. “These new reports ring alarm bells for marine life across the Pacific and Caribbean, hard-hit by unsustainable fishing and the destruction of habitats. These are the latest in a series of IUCN Red List reports covering more than half of the global ocean, which collectively reveals a looming threat to life below water. It is essential that we use this new science and analysis to effectively conserve marine resources, which provide us with food, enhance our health, sustain the global economy and protect us from the worst effects of climate change,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen

In the Pacific islands of Oceania, around a third of reef-building coral species are threatened with extinction. Overfishing and the destruction of habitats – including coral reefs – are causing the decline of many fish species, the report’s authors warn. For example, four species of grouper, which are an important food source, are listed as Vulnerable– with populations affected by overfishing and the degradation of nearshore habitats, including mangrove, seagrass and reef habitats. 

In the Caribbean, the Vulnerable red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) and the Endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) are among the threatened species targeted by fishers.

Acropora palmate (Elkhorn Coral) Critically Endangered. Photo: Noel Wingers.Fewer individual coral species – around a fifth – are threatened with extinction in this region, although overall Caribbean reefs are in worse shape than those in Oceania due to human pressures adding to the effects of ocean warming. Various local- to broader-scaled threats are flattening reefs across much of the Caribbean, particularly affecting the Elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) and Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis).These endemic, branching corals, which are among the most important reef-building coral species in the Caribbean and vital for the survival of reefs, are both classed as Critically Endangered.

“We know that well-managed marine protected areas can increase the resilience of marine species in the Caribbean and the Pacific in the face of mounting threats. In an extremely species-rich region dominated by small island states, inter-governmental cooperation between countries should be boosted to ensure protected areas are managed effectively, and destructive fishing practices are minimised,” says Kent Carpenter, manager of the IUCN Marine Biodiversity Unit.   

Some species, such as the Vulnerable migratory bigeye tuna (Thunnus obesus) need larger, more geographically inclusive marine protected areas for effective conservation, the report recommends. Other recommendations include using IUCN Red List data to identify and conserve threatened species ‘hotspots’, improving resources for regional fishery agencies, and protecting spawning areas for species of key socioeconomic importance. 

Islanders in both the Pacific and Caribbean regions rely heavily on reef fisheries and other marine resources for food security and income generation. In Oceania, fish consumption rates are high at about 50 kg annually per person, as compared to about 8 kg for people living in continental areas such as Australia.

The release of the two reports coincides with the on-going UN Ocean Conference in New York, where IUCN has been calling for urgent action on climate change and marine plastic pollution.

The Conservation status of marine biodiversity in the Pacific Islands of Oceania Red List report can be accessed here.

The Conservation status of marine bony shorefishes of the Greater Caribbean Red List report can be accessed here.

This work was supported by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) and the France-IUCN partnership. 



Our Red List Species Assessors: giving a voice to trees and shrubs, an interview with Dr Malin Rivers

07 June 2017
Photo: BGCI.

Plants are the cornerstone of life, providing oxygen, shelter, food and medicine for humans and animals alike. In this interview with Dr Malin Rivers, a tree expert and Red List Manager based at Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), she talks about her work and involvement in trees and shrubs research and conservation.

This is the fourth of a series of interviews with our Red List Species Assessors currently involved in IUCN’s LIFE European Red Lists project. In this edition, our interviewee is a tree expert but past and future interviews have and will profile saproxylic beetle, bryophyte, lycopod and fern, terrestrial mollusc and other plant experts. The project aims to assess the extinction risk of these species groups, and will contribute to guiding policy decisions and conservation actions at the European level. Read past interviews of this series here.

From very early on Dr Rivers was fascinated by plants. “The focus has always been on charismatic animals but there are so many plants out there and their voices are not as loud. That’s why I’ve always been particularly interested in plant conservation.”

Dr Rivers focused her interest in plant conservation further during her Masters in plant conservation at the University of Birmingham, England, after which she started working on African plants at the herbarium of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.  After a few years, she went on to do a PhD at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she evaluated the success of undertaking conservation assessments based on specimen and genetic data. Her studies led her to her current job at Botanical Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) where she runs the Red List Programme as the Red List Manager. 

Often taking a taxonomic or geographic approach to their red listing, some of BGCI’s latest projects have focused on the assessment of Magnolias (Magnoliaceae), Oaks (Fagaceae) and Maples (Sapindaceae). Recent regional or national projects include assessments of trees in Fiji and the current European Red List of trees and shrubs project. “We do many Red List assessments in-house, but we also do a lot of capacity building and training with botanic gardens and other partners. We work in areas that our partners are interested in or where we have links, grants or ongoing projects happening.”

Dr Rivers is the Secretary of IUCN SSC Global Tree Specialist Group (GTSG), which focuses on promoting and implementing the IUCN global Red Listing of trees. The group also acts in an advisory capacity to the Global Trees Campaign – a joint initiative between Fauna & Flora International and BGCI. One of the Global Trees Campaign initiatives is the Global Tree Assessment, which aims to assess all tree species around the world by 2020. “We have recently determined that there are a total of 60,065 tree species worldwide. Between IUCN Red List assessments, national or preliminary assessments of highly widespread, common species, we believe we already have assessments for around 20,000-30,000 species. That leaves 30,000-40,000 assessments still to do in the next few years.”

A lack of data is still a major factor limiting the achievement of conservation goals and one of the more challenging aspects to Dr Rivers’ work.  She is currently assessing the extinction risk of European trees as part of the LIFE European Red Lists project, which is assessing the extinction risk of all European trees and selected shrubs, among other species groups. The Global Tree Assessment and the IUCN European Red List assessment are important projects that help alleviate this lack of data and enable more informed conservation decisions. “Before we started the European Red Listing project of trees, we didn’t even know how many trees we had in Europe. Now we know not only which trees are found in Europe but also the conservation status of all these tree species.”

More importantly according to Dr Rivers, the European Red List assesses comprehensively these groups, gathering species-specific information on their distribution, habitats and threats, which can be used to set more informed conservation priorities. “Having the full picture by assessing an entire group of species is important, because it puts the assessments into a bigger context. A comprehensive understanding of the status of a species compared to related species, allows conservation decisions to be made for the benefit of all species, or as many as possible, as opposed to just one species.”

Despite the challenges at times of finding the necessary data for assessments, this is often the most rewarding part of Dr Rivers’ work, since talking and learning from experts who work with species on the ground is an aspect she enjoys the most. “There is an enormous wealth of knowledge out there and people are often very keen to share; they really want to help give trees a voice.” As part of the European Red List project, different experts were consulted throughout the process and around 40 experts took part of the review workshops.

Photo: CC0/PixabayAs for Dr Rivers’ favourite European tree species: the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). “It’s widely cultivated in Europe but it is only native to southeastern Europe. In fact, it is Near Threatened in its native habitat (Bulgaria, Greece and Macedonia), due to deforestation and forest fires as well as impacts from pests. Many people may not know about its plight in its native habitat, as it is so commonly planted across Europe.”



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