Island Conservation

Posted at 1:32 pm November 3, 2010 by Richard Switzer

Richard admires a Phillipine eagle. Photo credit: Philippine Eagle Foundation

In September, conservation practitioners and environmental educators from across the Philippines, as well as the Pacific island of Pohnpei, gathered to participate in the Island Species-Led Action (ISLA) course run by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which was held in association with Iligan Institute of Technology, Mindanao State University, Philippines. The 10-day course was designed to teach participants proven and practical approaches to manage endangered species and habitats on islands, thereby enhancing existing knowledge and expertise and ultimately developing the local skill base and resources for conservation measures and initiatives.

In Hawaii, the native ecosystem has been decimated by a whole suite of threats—habitat destruction, introduced mammalian predators and plants, unsustainable hunting and introduced disease—resulting in the extinction of very significant numbers of native fauna and flora. But these threats are by no means unique to Hawaii. Islands have high levels of endemism, meaning a large proportion of the wildlife is unique to a specific island (or island group). But their ecosystems are fragile and very susceptible to threats, and their species particularly predisposed to extinction. This makes islands hotspots for conservation.

Based on my experiences with the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and previous endeavors on the island of Mauritius, I was lucky enough to be invited to teach on the ISLA course. Having developed skills in captive propagation, reintroduction, and other fieldwork, I presented case studies and conservation techniques applicable to island ecosystems. It was hugely rewarding to share knowledge and perspectives with other conservation biologists facing similar island-focused challenges.

My fellow members of the ISLA course tutorial team were Durrell’s Jamie Copsey and Professor Carl Jones, with Dr. Olga Nuñeza, vice-chancellor of the Iligan Institute of Technology. My association with Durrell’s International Training Center goes back more than a decade, having once been a student there myself. In fact, for the past three summers, I have acted as external course director on their endangered species recovery course, based at Durrell’s headquarters on the island of Jersey in the U.K.

The warmth of the hospitality from our Philippine hosts and participants goes beyond words. But for the three international tutors, there was one other indisputable highlight: a field trip to Bukidnon Province in search of the Philippine eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi. Looking through a bird encyclopedia as a young boy, the Philippine eagle held almost mythical status; it was part of a small group of very notable bird species that I always dreamed of seeing in the flesh—due to it prominent rarity and challenge to observe—but never expected to see. After several hours of hiking along forest trails, the brief sight of an enormous, broad-winged eagle flying over the forest canopy made the flesh tingle. When we came face to face with birds at the captive breeding center of the Philippine Eagle Foundation, to say we were “awe-struck” is an understatement.

Richard Switzer is the conservation program manager, Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Record Breeding Season for ‘Alala.

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