RSPB’s fight to save one of Britain’s rarest birds from ‘imminent extinction’ gets lifeline government funding

By Jenna Hutber

Thursday 4 June 2020

Grant money was announced 'in the nick of time'

Today the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced over £5m of much-needed environmental funding for the UK Overseas Territories, including a £600,000 grant to fund RSPB projects to prevent one of the rarest birds in the world vanishing forever and to help protect a critically endangered iguana species.


Local conservationists in Tristan da Cunha (a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean) have observed with horror as a tiny invasive scale insect has infested and killed many of the Tristan archipelago’s only native tree species, the Phylica tree, which unique local fruit-eating buntings depend upon for food.


The survival of the islands’ buntings, which evolved into numerous different forms like the famed finches of the Galapagos, is under serious threat unless the insect infestation is stopped. In particular the beautiful golden Wilkins’ bunting, which is found only on Nightingale Island and has a large beak evolved for eating Phylica fruit, is at risk of imminent extinction as less than 100 pairs remain.


A £300,000 UK Government Darwin Plus Initiative grant announced today will fund a partnership project between the RSPB, Tristan da Cunha Government, Fera and invasive control specialists CABI to carefully research, select and introduce a natural predator of the invasive scale insect, train at least 14 Tristan school children in horticulture and provide world-class agricultural pest training to local potato farmers.


Tristan Head of Conservation, Trevor Glass said: “Nightingale Island is our community’s special holiday island, and the unique buntings are a crucial part of our natural heritage. Much of the island’s forest has already been lost, so this project will be vital for securing the future of both the forest and the Wilkins’ bunting. We can’t wait to get started.”


A lot of careful research will be undertaken to ensure that an appropriate specialist predator of the introduced scale insect can be released which will have no adverse consequences on the wider environment. A similar project successfully saved the gumwood forests of St Helena from collapsing due to another invasive scale insect, so the partnership knows this can be achieved.


A further £300,000 was pledged to help Turks & Caicos (a Caribbean UK Overseas Territory) residents protect and celebrate their unique iguanas. The project will focus on the critically endangered rock iguana, which feeds on fruit and flowers and acts as a seed disperser and pollinator of many local plants. The rock iguana was once widespread throughout the island and considered a delicacy.  People no longer eat the iguana but habitat loss and invasive predators has resulted in local extinction of the rock iguana from many of the islands.


The partnership project aims to work with tour and barge operators learn more about how they can help save iguanas, launching a voluntary ‘iguana friendly’ code of conduct, improve site management at important sites for iguanas and research to understand what more can be done to help iguanas.


Head of the RSPB UK Overseas Territories unit Jonathan Hall said: “This Darwin funding announcement comes in the nick of time to save an incredible bird and an entire forest ecosystem from potentially disappearing forever. There is much work to be done, but we hope this vital grant may provide a lifeline to the islands’ extremely vulnerable wildlife.


“As UK Overseas Territories we have a responsibility to work to support local conservationists to protect the unique wildlife of the Turks and Caicos and Tristan da Cunha.


“As we rebuild a new normal in the wake of the human global health crisis it is crucial we invest in projects that help nature, climate and the economy recover together such as restoring important habitats. Increasing Darwin Plus support for local grassroots projects and large-scale restorations will be essential to achieving this in the UK Overseas Territories.” 


The RSPB has been working with the Turks and Caicos National Trust since 2015 to protect the country’s unique iguanas, and since 2017 have been working in partnership with San Diego Zoo and TCI Government’s Department for Environment and Coastal Resources, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Health Department, and the management agencies of two privately owned islands.


The partnership had already resulted in draft biosecurity laws for the country, the launch of long-term rodent control and a public outreach programme through a children’s books and school events with ‘Rocky’ the project mascot.

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