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Closer look: Offshore Islands Conservation Programme

racer
Written by: Dr Jenny Daltry
Other posts by Dr Jenny Daltry

Many of the hallmarks of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) are stamped on one of the Caribbean’s longest running conservation initiatives, including championing ‘lower’ species, being innovative and responding to locally-identified needs.

This programme dates back to 1995, when an Antiguan forester and naturalist, Kevel Lindsay, asked FFI to investigate the endemic Antiguan racer. This little snake had been rediscovered on one of Antigua’s cays, but, like many Caribbean species, almost nothing was known of its status or needs.

Great Bird Island – without the birds

Great Bird Island looked unpromising when we first arrived. Just over eight hectares (20 acres) in area, the islet was overrun with thousands of alien ship rats, which showed no hesitation to attack our tents and supplies. The island’s eponymous birds had all but disappeared, unable to bear the heavy predation on their eggs and young. Even the reptiles were scarce. For three months, I led the first field study of the Antiguan racers, and discovered only 50 Antiguan racers remained, more than half of which had been severely wounded by the rats.

We promptly formed a coalition of partner organisations to save the racer, each bringing essential skills and resources: the Forestry Unit and Environmental Awareness Group in Antigua and Barbuda, FFI and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust from Europe, and the Island Resources Foundation from the USA. By the end of 1995, we had successfully exterminated every rat on Great Bird Island and launched a nationwide awareness campaign to generate public support for the snake. By 1998 the racers had more than doubled in number.

Eradicating alien species

Encouraged by this success, we expanded our horizons to restore other cays; eradicating rats and other alien invasive species, and reintroducing Antiguan racers. To date, FFI and our partners have eradicated rats and other alien species from 12 islands and boosted the range of the racer from one island to four. Still Critically Endangered but increasing steadily, the racer has become one of the Caribbean’s best known species and is a unique flagship for Antigua and Barbuda’s growing environmental movement.

Our efforts to eradicate alien species have benefited many other rare native species. These include a host of plants, sea turtles (hawksbill and leatherback), snails and especially birds, many of which have increased by well over 500 per cent on the rat-free islands. It is thrilling to see Great Bird Island live up to its name once more, with its bustling crowds of terns, red-billed tropic birds, white-crowned pigeons and whistling ducks. Not surprisingly, the project area has become internationally recognised as an Important Bird Area, CEPF Key Biodiversity Site and Alliance for Zero Extinction site.

Raising awareness

The awareness campaign has also matured and become firmly embedded in the national curriculum. Every schoolchild in Antigua learns about their national biodiversity and what they can do for threatened species such as the racer, West Indian whistling duck, sea turtles and spiny lobster. Local and regional students and science teachers take an active part in studying and monitoring the wildlife with training from FFI and our partners, which have been joined by the Black Hills State University.

The Antiguan Racer Conservation Project thus evolved into the Offshore Islands Conservation Programme, managed through the office of the Environmental Awareness Group in Antigua. This programme was an important driving force behind the creation of a major new marine protected area, which covers more than 3,000 hectares of Antigua’s coastline, including all but one of the islands we have restored. Our small team of staff and volunteers continue to work with a wide range of stakeholders to balance the needs of this fragile ecosystem and its people, including landowners, fishermen and tour operators. The latter bring more than 40,000 tourists every year to experience the natural beauty of the restored islands: a striking example of the local economic benefits of a healthy environment.

Looking forward

Looking forward, our partnership is developing an ambitious plan to restore the country’s largest and most remote uninhabited island, Redonda. We must also endeavour to recoup park visitor fees and secure local donations, to help cover the programme’s surprisingly modest running costs and reduce its dependency on international funders. As long as this programme continues, we are confident of benefiting even more species, habitats and people throughout this fascinating archipelago.

Other founding partners of this project (external links):
Environmental Awareness Group
Antigua and Barbuda Forestry Unit
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust
Island Resources Foundation
Black Hills State University

Longstanding supporters of this project (external links):
Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund
Syngenta
The Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation
US Fish and Wildlife Service

Written by
Dr Jenny Daltry

Other posts by Dr Jenny Daltry

For three months, I led the first field study of the Antiguan racers, and discovered only 50 Antiguan racers remained, more than half of which had been severely wounded by the rats.

Dr Jenny Daltry

Senior Conservation Biologist, Fauna & Flora International

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