By Toby Galligan, Conservation Scientist
My name is Toby. I am new to the RSPB, new to the Vulture Project and yes, I am an Aussie. I joined the RSPB’s Conservation Science Department in November last year to work exclusively on the South Asian vulture crisis.
My key role is to work alongside our partners in India and Nepal to monitor conservation success in areas where they have worked hard to advocate vulture conservation and raise awareness of vulture-dangerous drugs, like diclofenac. These areas are dubbed Provisional Vulture Safe Zones and contain remnant populations of Critically Endangered Gyps vultures. Through a combination of data collected from cattle carcasses, veterinary pharmacies and the remnant populations, we aim to determine where and how conservation action is working and where and how we need to focus efforts in the future. If monitoring reveals a Provisional Vulture Safe Zone to be cleared of diclofenac, then it will have been converted to a true Vulture Safe Zone, where wild vultures can recover and captive vultures can be released. Exciting stuff!
I arrived in India this weekend (on Republic Day here and Australia Day back home) to begin an eight week tour of Provisional Vulture Safe Zones here and in Nepal. I will also visit some of the breeding centres in both countries. Follow this blog and find out more.
For more information on the SAVE consortium and its work, visit www.save-vultures.org/
Our world is a pretty dodgy place for a large number of species – pressures from climate change, development, pollution, invasive species…I could go on. Sometimes it all seems bad news, but the RSPB and BirdLife Partners are working tirelessly to bring positive changes for some of the worst cases – not quite modern day action heroes (we don't wear the tights and capes), but not afraid to run head-first into a challenge.
The International Species Recovery team was set up in summer 2011 to take the lead on species outside of the UK, working closely with our national colleagues, who have years of experience on recovery programmes, and our Partner Development Officers. Given the huge number of threatened birds (1253 last time I checked on the BirdLife Data Zone), how on earth did we decide which ones to concentrate on? With limited resources, we can't (unfortunately) do it all.
We brought together the best brains across the RSPB and BirdLife to look at a "short" list of 366 species, comprised of all Critically Endangered species globally (the 190 most threatened), all Endangered species in RSPB focal countries (where we already had programmes), all threatened species on the UK Overseas Territories, Data Deficient species that may be threatened (we just don't know), and globally threatened species that the RSPB was already working on. Phew!
After two days of deliberation, head-scratching and argument, looking at a variety of factors such as current threat, likelihood of extinction if we don't do anything, a country's political stability, funding and collaboration opportunities etc, we ended up with a list of 32 species and 4 groups. Individual species include the spoon-billed sandpiper, Uluguru bush-shrike and Liben lark, while the groups cover Gyps vultures, Henderson Island, Albatross and Gough/Tristan da Cunha. You'll hear more about all of these projects and progress here and in related blogs (and if you have any specific requests, let me know).
And it's not only birds. Many of our country programmes work on plants, mammals, reptiles etc, and over the next few years we will be taking on other taxa. I'm sure there will be more head-scratching to decide priorities there!
More soon, Ian
[Posted on behalf of Norbert Schaffer, Head of International Policy and Species Recovery - and apologies for the delay, corrupted file stopped play!]
What a contrast between the rain, heat, mud and sweat we experienced in the habitat of the dwarf olive ibis and the white-collared, air conditioned, almost antiseptic atmosphere in the office of Carlos Vila Nova, the Minister of Public Works and Natural Resources of São Tomé and Principé. But it is exactly here in this office, where the battle for the conservation of the nature of the islands will be fought and where the future of the ibis and a raft of other species will largely be decided. And we are hopeful about this future!
In the past, clearly mistakes were made and key ibis habitat destroyed, turned into oil palm plantations. The reason for this was not a lack of economic alternatives or disregard for the value of wildlife - destruction was caused simply by not knowing about the importance of specific areas for birds and other wildlife. This has to change and it will now change. We were promised by all relevant people, from Minister Vila Nova to the Dutch manager of the Belgian-French palm oil multinational Agripalma active in São Tomé, that should there be a conflict between wildlife and land use changes, wildlife will win. It is now the responsibility of organisations like ABS, our partner in São Tomé and Principé, to identify the most important places for wildlife on both islands. We promised to assist them in this – and we will keep our promise.
But before it is back to desks and e-mails, working through an impressive to-do-list from this trip, we will test the capability of laundry machines, washing away the mud – but certainly not the memories - of an absolutely fantastic country!
[Posted on behalf of José Tavares]
“You are certainly aware that an oil palm plantation is the tropical equivalent of a corn field – almost zero biodiversity?” Norbert’s directness in the long meeting with the Dutch manager of a Belgian-French palm oil multinational active in São Tomé could be seen as being too pushy, but the exchange had been really open and honest until now. “Your investment plan is late, you will not be able to reach the 5,000 hectare objective you set yourself – have you considered packing your bags and leaving?” I asked next.
Don’t worry - the palm oil big business still paid for lunch. We left the pleasant meal, in an esplanade overlooking the sultry bay, alive and having had productive conversations.
The business of Agripalma (the joint venture between Socfinco and the São Tomé Government) has been at the forefront of our meetings here. Agripalma has a 5,000 hectare concession from the Government to plant oil palm – the problem is that most of it requires cutting secondary forest, and a significant area of this is next to the core areas for the dwarf ibis. Unfortunately operations were not checked or evaluated when they started in 2010, and so a key area of forest has already been clear-cut.
Last year the São Tomé government got their act together and now operations are closely scrutinised, and one of the main objectives of our meetings here with the ministry officials is to get political commitment that any future requests to cut areas of forest where ibis live will be refused! The situation is complicated – Agripalma has a legal concession in their hands, and they will certainly ask for compensation. Land swapping is a possibility, that is, if it exists - there are forest communities across the island, and it may not be easy to find suitable plots with the right mix of climate, slope and land-use. But we need to try. As we repeatedly say to everybody, extinction is forever. And we will be blamed for it. Tomorrow we meet the minister of natural resources and public works himself. Extinction is forever, we will surely repeat there.
José Pedro Tavares
[Posted on behalf of José Tavares]
São Tomé’s world ranking – 196th. About right, nodded Luis, as we stood in the exuberant crowd watching the São Tomé-Lesotho official qualifier for the next CAN (Africa’s nations cup). It was Sunday, our only day free during the busy stay in São Tomé, and we could not miss the game of the year. Last time the national team played an official game it lost 5-1 at home to Congo Brazzaville. But hopes were high this time, judging by the noise of the happy crowed. And yes, São Tomé won 1-0, the lonely goal scored by penalty after only 2 minutes. Lesotho, 147th in the FIFA world ranking, were beaten. São Tomé scored a rare victory!
It is easy to find São Tomé at the bottom of the world’s rankings. After all, it is the second-smallest African country (the Seychelles being the smallest). It is also the smallest country in the world in terms of population that is not a former British Overseas Territory, a former United States trusteeship, or one of the European microstates. Its GDP per capita is the 192th in the world.
Yet, with one thing São Tomé ranks right up there. Biodiversity. Rare, unique biodiversity. The list is extensive – 135 orchids, 60 endemic land snails, 70 endemic butterflies…and 28 endemic birds (all in an area a little over 1,000 km2). The world-famous Galapagos have only 22 in 8,000 km2, and the well-know Seychelles only 11. A recent paper by some of our own scientists (“Identifying Priority Areas for Conservation: A Global Assessment for Forest-Dependent Birds”) identified the São Tomé forests as the third most important in the world. Everything points to the same fact – this is one of the top global biodiversity hotspots!
This is why we are here. Birdlife Africa has listed São Tomé as one of their priorities for network expansion in the continent, hence the engagement with ABS. The RSPB international species strategy has included three São Tomé species that we must try to save. Because they really need saving.
Principe thrush – current estimates for the global population - 250 birds ; São Tomé grosbeak – 50 birds; São Tomé fiscal – fewer than 50 surviving; São Tomé dwarf ibis – maximum 250 remain. All in all, there were more people in our end of the football stand than the total world population of these 4 species put together.
PS – for those who like stadium lists, we saw 4 species while the exciting game was on – the endemic (and widespread) São Tomé prinia, both palm and little swift, and a western reef heron flying over the football action.