Undiscovered – The rich biodiversity within UKOTs

A recent audit carried out and published by RSPB examined the rich wildlife present in UK overseas territories (UKOTs) and the conservation efforts required to ensure their survival. Currently, 1547 species endemic to British Islands have been discovered. However, this is expected to potentially rise to over 3000 with an estimated 2100 unique species still to be identified. Many intriguing species have been found within the 14 territories examined by the report, including:

  • The rarest marine invertebrate, a predatory shrimp that is currently only found within two rock pools on Ascension Island
  • One of the scarcest land invertebrates in the world (with around only 90 individuals left) – a yellow woodlouse baring threatening spikes – present on St. Helena.
  • The Wilkins bunting of Tristan da Cunha, an extremely rare species of bird that has only 80 pairs left
  • Pitcairn Island’s Yellow Arlihau flower of which there are only six plants left.
  • The Barking Gecko and Pygmy Boa Constrictor of The Turks and Caicos

Compared to the UK’s 90 endemic species, UKOTs contain 94% all species unique to UK territories. This exceptional presence of wildlife has given researchers an exciting opportunity to discover and protect new communities and high wildlife diversity. The investigation of these species is particularly important considering that only 9% of these species have had their conservation status identified. The lack of this baseline knowledge is problematic if this high species richness is to be maintained.

Aside from global threats currently facing ecosystems worldwide, such as climate change and the spread of invasive species, UKOTs – such as Turks and Caicos – are experiencing increased threats from developments as a result of increasing tourism. On top of this, poachers and illegal forest fires are causing ecological havoc on the islands. With some species experiencing such dwindling populations, single events such as a forest fires are capable of permanently and rapidly wiping out species’ forever. The big question on the minds of conservation and research organisations such as the RSPB is, who is responsible for ensuring the survival of such species?

There is now a discussion arising about who should be responsible for the protection of these species and environments. Whilst the UK Foreign Office Minister, Mark Simmonds MP, argues that it is the responsibility of the territory governments, a number of island populations are calling out for the UK government to play a more dominant role in ensuring conservation of their wildlife. This includes officials within The National Trust of Turks and Caicos who wish to see Westminster enforcing clearer, stronger environmental laws.

Although the UK government does not take responsibility of environmental issues within UKOTs, it does work with territory governments and provides £2 million annually to environment and biodiversity conservation projects in UKOTs. These grants are provided by DEFRA and DFID through Darwin Plus, a branch of the Darwin Initiative. Darwin Plus, also receives contributions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to aid with natural-resource management.

However, if these projects are to be successful and not in vain, the UK government may need to ensure that it aids territory governments to prevent irreversible damage to its environment through clearer policy. In the RSPB’s report, it calls upon Defra to fulfil its biodiversity conservation duties by helping to safeguard conservation of natural resources and promote scientific investigation within these regions.

Last week, the British Ecological Society attended a meeting with the All-Party Group on Biodiversity. Here, amongst the speakers was Lord de Mauley, the Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment and Science, who spoke about the importance of protecting our overseas natural resources. He emphasised his understanding of the ecological and cultural importance of these zones. However, there was a lack of clarity between speakers about whether the UK government should be taking a greater role in this conservation issue.

The RSPB play a leading role in examining the environments of UKOT’s and are currently key to their conservation. To learn more about the research and conservation efforts of the RSPB in overseas territories see here!