Overseas Biodiversity

Last week saw the joint meeting of the all party parliamentary groups on Biodiversity, UK’s Overseas Territories and Zoos and Aquariums, at which the BES Policy team was fortunate enough to attend. The meeting was chaired by Andrew Rosindell MP who began proceedings by highlighting his pleasure at the well attended event before introducing Eric Blencowe, chair of the Inter-Departmental Group on Biodiversity in the Overseas Territories. Eric Blencowe spoke of the importance of the UK’s overseas territories and highlighted their high priority status for the UK Government in the form of the UK Overseas Territories Biodiversity Strategy. Defra is to lead on an implementation plan on the biodiversity strategy which, among other things, will seek to reduce the impact of invasive species, with the Lionfish (Pterois volitans) problem in Anguilla cited as an example.

Janice Panton of the UK Overseas Territory Association and UK representative of Montserrat then spoke of her delight at a wonderful morning attending the 20 year anniversary of the Darwin Initiative event held at London Zoo, where £8.5M of funding for 33 new Darwin Projects was announced. Mrs Panton went on to state how important the overseas territories were with regards to biodiversity and how “each territory has a unique ecosystem that is often vital to their economy and a loss of biodiversity to an overseas territory is a loss to us all and help and support from the UK Government is hugely welcome”.

Dr Tim Stowe, Director of international operations at the RSPB, highlighted that although some threatened biodiversity has been recovered, the most recent extinction was only eights years previous with the loss of the last remaining individual cultivation of the Saint Helena Olive (Nesiota elliptica). Dr Stowe went on to suggest that “action is required and that action unfortunately requires money, but in the grand scheme of things, the spending on UK’s Overseas Territories is a fraction of the spend on UK biodiversity”.

Peter Convey, of the British Antarctic Survey, was the next to highlight the unique ecosystems of the UK’s overseas territories, specifically those of the two southern polar regions, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the British Antarctic Territory. Both territories have a high level of marine biodiversity, comparable with many temperate and even tropical areas. And although the terrestrial diversity is low there are high levels of endemism creating an overall unique ecosystem. Mr Convey went on to stress that although human impacts on these ecosystems are low at present, there is a high level of vulnerability, in particular to biological invasions, such as has been highlighted previously on this blog.

Alistair Gammell, the UK director for the PEW environment group then spoke of the need to put pressure “on the street” to put pressure on the Government with regards to the fate of the UK overseas territories biodiversity as the situation is “unknown and unheard by the general public”. Mr Gammell stressed that the UK biodiversity of global importance came from its overseas territories which are all unique, specifically citing Pitcairn as an example where there were more endemic species than people. Mr Gammell ended by suggesting that the UK Government should “look upon the overseas territories as an opportunity and not as a burden as the total investment required would be miniscule”.

Dr Colin Clubbe spoke of the long association between the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the overseas territories. Dr Clubbe described how recently a new species of daisy had been found on the Falkland Islands and he predicted many more new species would be described in the coming years. Dr Clubbe went on to point out that there was “no technical reason why a plant species should go extinct”. He gave the example of the St. Helena Boxwood, which was considered to be effectively extinct in the wild, has been “brought back” by growing individuals and harvesting seeds in greenhouses at Kew.

Rob Thomas of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland then spoke to reiterate much of what had been said before and went on to suggest that the three groups present that day had “not three hats but one with many overlapping issues” and that “biodiversity should be woven into everything related to the forthcoming FCO white paper”. Finally, Rachel Jones of the Zoological Society of London described the “astonishing state of the Chagos Marine Reserve where the ecosystem is operating in a near natural state” and that the biodiversity is “off the scale”. 10 endemic species have so far been identified but only 3 per cent of the area has actually been visited and so there are likely to be many more.

The event on an extremely positive networking note with business cards being thrown around like confetti with many promises of future action.