EU Conservation Project Supports Biodiversity in French Overseas Territories

Writing for the website of the French public broadcast news service, Angélique Le Bouter reported last year on a major European ecological conservation project seeking to protect endangered species and ecosystems beyond the European continent, in France's extremely diverse overseas territories.

Article source: "Biodiversité : où en est la protection des espèces menacées en Outre-mer ?", Angélique Le Bouter, franceinfo, 18/02/2020.

Three birds and two species of fish, all of which are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, as well as an entire endangered ecosystem, are cureently the focus of a major European conservation project called “Life Biodiv’OM”. One of the project’s main aims is to fight against various invasive species that threaten biodiversity in the French overseas territories. 18 months after it was launched, the key participants have been meeting in Paris to review the progress of the programme, which is scheduled to last for five years.

It has taken 18 months to study the species in their habitats and to develop plans. “We have done the studies,” said Delphine Morin, one of the project’s coordinators, “we are about to move on to the implementation phase.” “Biodiv’OM” is the first project in the the LIFE programme (the EU’s environmental funding instrument, ed.) to target species and ecosystems in 5 French overseas territories: the Madagascar pond heron in Mayotte, the cuckooshrike in Réunion, the white-breasted thrasher in Martinique, the Nassau and Atlantic goliath groupers in Saint Martin, and the Amazonian savannahs of French Guiana.

The programme has received 5.5 million euros in funding, 60% of which comes from the European Union, and the rest from French national and regional authorities, including the Agence Française de Développement, and the Conservatoire du littoral (the French coastal protection agency). About fifty people are involved in the “Biodiv’OM” programme, mostly through partnerships with local organisations of environmental conservation. These collaborations have led to the creation of a large network headed up by five NGOs, alongside the major nature reserves in Réunion and Martinique.

On the trail of the Madagascar pond heron in Mayotte

This highly timid species, which is listed as “ endangered” by the IUCN, breeds on only four islands in the world: Madagascar, Aldabra, Europa Island, and Mayotte. 182 breeding pairs were counted in Mayotte in 2018. This bird has recently been the focus of a promising initiative: for the very first time, six pond herons have been equipped with a GPS tracking system. The GEPOMAY organisation, which has put this project in place, is seeking to answer several questions: where do they feed? What is their home range during the breeding season? Where do they migrate to? Identifying the areas they frequent will help to protect them.

Measures have already been taken, such as exterminating rats in the mangroves. To help the species to breed, scientists are trying to contain the rat population, which is the main threat to pond herons in the wetlands where they feed. The mangroves will eventually be protected to prevent illegal farming. A study has also been launched to measure the impact of black rats on the population of pond herons.

A change of air for the Réunion cuckooshrike

There are only about forty breeding pairs of this passerine bird, which can only be found in the Roche Écrite mountain range on Réunion. The Réunion cuckooshrike, known locally as the “tuit-tuit”, is “critically endangered”, mainly because it is hunted by cats, black rats and brown rats, which are all invasive species introduced by human beings.

To deal with this problem, some cuckooshrikes will be translocated so that the existing populations can be supplemented by “a new viable core of the species”. A study  on the cuckooshrike’s genetics and habitat has been set up in order to facilitate the translocation. The local ornithological society, La Société d'études ornithologiques de La Réunion (SEOR), and its volunteers have reduced the populations of invasive species in an area of 1000 hectares.

Protecting the habitat of the white-breasted thrasher of Martinique

About 200 breeding pairs of this species can be found in Martinique. They live in the Caravelle peninsula. They are face with the threat of forest clearing to create farming land, which is destroying some of their habitat and is thus a challenge to their conservation. The species also falls prey to black rats and the Javan mongoose.

To ensure the survival of the species, predators will be controlled and a “habitat corridor” will be created to link two groups of thrashers which have previously been separate. Farmers and fishermen will also have to be persuaded not to disturb the bushes in which thrashers like to nest.

Regulating grouper fishing in Saint-Martin

While the Atlantic goliath grouper is listed as a “vulnerable” species, the Nassau grouper is categorised as “critically endangered”, according to the IUCN. Both species have been overfished, and their numbers have kept on decreasing over recent decades, to the point that the Nassau grouper has almost become extinct.

Since 2019, the population of both species is being monitored by underwater stations which measure population numbers over time. The local authorities have also imposed limits on recreational fishing. The next step will be to regulate commercial fishing. But the authorities will also have to deal with fishermen who are worried about a threat to their livelihoods.

Rethinking the savannah in French Guiana

The Amazonian savannahs of French Guiana are areas of rare open grassland which support considerable biodiversity. Covering 0.3% of the French South American territory, the savannahs are home to several endangered species, such as the bearded tachuri, the giant snipe and the cascabel rattlesnake.

The French bird protection society, la Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux has promised a programme to control two invasive tree species:  Acacia mangium and the broad-leaved paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia). But threats posed by real estate and agricultural development will also have to be tackled.

Translated by Laly Dufossé and Adèle Renard.

Editing by Sam Trainor.

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