Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Species Conservation: Lessons from Islands

Jamie Copsey

Islands cover less than 3% of the Earth’s surface, and yet have played a disproportionate role in shaping our understanding of the catastrophic impact we can have on biodiversity.  The dodo, solitaire, pygmy hippos and elephant birds are just a few of the iconic island species that have disappeared under our watch.  Islands continue to raise alarm bells about where we are heading, whether it be through sea level rises, the global spread of invasive species or the fact that approximately 40% of the species currently threatened with extinction exist only on these isolated water-locked areas of land.  However, the future is not all doom and gloom, and islands are beginning to show us how we can reverse biodiversity loss, recover species from the brink of extinction and engage human communities in a more positive dialogue about the future of our planet.

It was this more positive outlook that struck me following a series of training courses I have run- with some more eminent conservation colleagues- around the Indian Ocean, Caribbean and Pacific over the last fifteen years or so.  It’s healthy sometimes to take a ‘half-full’ rather than ‘half-empty’ look at our world and the state it is in, and it is this philosophy that inspired me to gather these friends and write this book.

A particularly inspiring friend…

Professor Carl Jones is an unusual chap.  Being Welsh is not his only quirk!  Like all great thinkers of our time- or at least the ones I’m aware of- putting him into the ‘box’ labelled, ‘scientist’, ‘conservationist’, or ‘philosopher’ would be limiting, as he is all three and probably more.  I feel lucky to be able to call him a close friend of the family as well as professional colleague, and it’s his work- and that of others like him- that inspired me to get the ball rolling on this book.

Carl took species that others said were lost causes and showed the world how we can turn them around.  He demonstrated that there were no hopeless cases, only people without hope!  The Mauritius kestrel, echo parakeet, Round Island boa and Rodrigues fruit bat are a small handful of the species that have bucked the trend and are now existing in much healthier numbers (within systems that are showing signs of recovery), thanks to Carl and the legions of conservationists that have passed through Mauritius as part of their professional careers.

My travels over the last decade or so have demonstrated to me that Carl is not alone and Mauritius is not unique in illustrating how we can buck the global trend and improve the status of biodiversity in our wonderful world; bit by bit.  Case studies from Hawaii, Seychelles, and islands across the Caribbean, and from more temperate regions to the tropics provide us with valuable insights into how to understand, plan for and implement projects that can save species from extinction.  The current discourse over ‘rewilding’ and ‘ecological replacements’ as a means to help restore not just lost species but lost ecological roles is informed by work on islands, and I’m sure there is much more for us to learn.

…So, what’s in the book?

COPSEY 9780521728195The aim of the book is not to provide a comprehensive overview of conservation work on islands.   Neither is to tackle all of the issues facing islands which have relevance to land masses elsewhere.  Instead we provide some personal insights from internationally-respected conservation practitioners into what we have learnt from islands and what lessons we feel could be helpful to conservationists worldwide, in particular those working with or interested in threatened species.

The first few chapters of the book consider the state of some of our islands and, in particular how invasive alien species have impacted them.  We reflect on how developments in small population biology and genetics have both been informed by and in themselves inform our understanding of how island biodiversity has changed over evolutionary as well as more recent timeframes.  By looking back we can create a baseline from which to define future success.

The book then considers how projects function and some lessons we can learn from management and leadership theory and practice to inform how we can structure successful recovery projects.  In the latter half of the book we consider how we can mitigate particular threats and develop species recovery projects that result in a positive reversal of fortune for threatened species.  Finally we zoom out to consider how, through our concern for single species, we can build our confidence and skill to begin to re-establish functioning ecosystems, recognising that do so in many instances, we will need to understand how to influence human behaviour and encourage more ‘pro-conservation’ actions.

An eclectic book? Yes.  A practical book?  We hope so!  We also hope that it inspires, in some small way, others to share their experience not just of what is wrong with our planet, but the positive steps we can take that can and have had measurable and meaningful impacts that lead to a healthier relationship between humankind and the rest of the natural world.  Today islands…tomorrow the world!!

Species Conservation: Lessons from Islands is out now


Photo: Mauritius parakeet Psittacula eques– until recently one of the most intensively managed bird species in the world, having been reduced to around 12 individuals in the 1990s.  In 2007 it was the only species globally to be down-listed from Critically Endangered to Endangered; an excellent illustration as to how work on islands is providing positive conservation success stories and lessons for parrot recovery projects internationally.

Photo credit: Jamie Copsey


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