Who can we call on in an environmental crisis?

Disasters are making the news at an alarming rate in 2011. We have witnessed Japan’s strongest earthquake ever, the deadliest tornados in the US for over 35 years and a state of emergency issued in Colombia following some of the worst flooding in recorded history.

Understandably in the aftermath of disasters, effects on the natural world are overlooked as the vital humanitarian response is the focus of reconstruction efforts. Aid agencies and governments should be commended for how they react to such difficult situations and the complex logistics and management challenges that they present.

In times of disaster what happens to natural areas that have been so carefully and dedicatedly preserved against the odds? Can years and decades of conservation work be eliminated in the space of a few minutes?

It’s unrealistic to expect governments in resource-deficient countries to set aside funds for emergency conservation funding when other needs are so apparent and pressing to human survival. This is where the Rapid Response Facility (RRF) small grants initiative can work to ensure that negative impacts on sites of high biodiversity value are limited until stability returns.

The RRF offers an effective response to conservation emergencies through its ability to give funding decisions within eight working days, with funds for successful applications issued as soon as possible after this.

After an alarming oil spill in the remote UK Overseas Territory (UKOT) of Tristan da Cunha, a pristine site for birds and marine life in the southern Atlantic, the RRF recently supported the archipelago’s Conservation Department in the immediate response to the disaster.

Up to 80% of the planet’s remaining northern rockhopper penguins breed on the islands of the Tristan da Cunha group. Despite the rigorous protection and strict laws afforded by their location, the population of this species has decreased disturbingly to as little as 10% of its number in the 1950s. Overfishing in Atlantic waters and the potential impact of climate change are the factors at play. When a ship crashed into rocks and sank off Nightingale Island, releasing 1,500 tonnes of diesel oil into the water, coating penguins as they returned from sea, it was strikingly clear to conservationists that this was a setback that the already-stricken and Endangered penguin population could not withstand.

Tristan islanders, headed by staff of the Conservation Department, worked tirelessly and admirably to transport oil-covered penguins from Nightingale Island, the site of the spill and where there are no freshwater sources, to the mainland for urgent treatment, while funds were sought from the RRF.

As a UKOT Tristan da Cunha would not normally be eligible for RRF support, but an exception was made for such a time-critical disaster. This award represents a success for the RRF not only because traditional conservation funding mechanisms could only make funds available slower than would be of use to field staff, but because the RRF remains flexible and dynamic enough to recognise a serious threat and act accordingly.

Supporting Tristan da Cunha in its clean up is an example of why the RRF was created: to provide timely support to sites of extreme biological importance. The RRF wishes the Conservation Department of Tristan da Cunha the best of luck in the returning the spill site to its pristine state.

The RRF is a partnership between FFI, the United Nations Foundation and UNESCO World Heritage Centre and therefore focuses on giving support to inscribed and tentative natural World Heritage sites. The Secretariat is hosted at FFI and is available for enquiries and guidance if you are working with any eligible sites and are experiencing emergency conservation issues.

Working as part of the RRF team reminds me that what may seem an insurmountable problem at first can be overcome. In the RRF’s case a timely and crucial response can assist those in the field until threats subside enough to allow usual conservation business to resume. There is always someone to turn to in a crisis.

Photo credit: Credit Tristan da Cunha Conservation Department