Halting the decline of endemic Petrels from Reunion Island

Reunion Island hosts one of the most unique seabird communities in the world, including two endangered endemic petrels, the Barau’s petrel (Pterodroma baraui) and the Mascarene black petrel (Pseudobulweria aterrima).

Mascarene petrel. Photo credits: Martin Riethmuller / SEOR

These species are in dire need of emergency conservation measures. They already benefit from national action plans, but the implementation of conservation actions suffers from ecological, technical and financial constraints, resulting in conflicts between nature conservation and socio-economic development. France has the sixth highest proportion of its endemic species threatened at the European level, although these species are mainly located in overseas territories where conservation efforts need to be stepped up to fully implement the EU Biodiversity Strategy by 2020.

Reunion is the only tropical island in the world to host two endemic petrels. However, if nothing is done quickly, these two species will join the list of 22 species of bird which have already become extinct on the island. This loss of biodiversity is not just a local ecological disaster, but also a worldwide disaster, because once these species are gone, we will never get them back. For years, Reunion National Park has been working to protect these species with the Société d’Études Ornithologiques de La Réunion [SEOR], the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage [ONCFS] Brigade Nature Océan Indien [BNOI], and the University of Reunion to rescue stranded petrels, organise the“Nights Without Lights” Campaign, to look for nesting sites in the island’s mountains, and to monitor petrel colonies and populations. This is an emergency situation and two national action plans (NAPs) have already been set up (1. Mascarene Petrel NAP, 2012 and 2. Barau’s Petrel NAP, 2008) which identify threats to the species and what needs to be done to conserve them, including clearing rubbish and reducing numbers of wild predators (cats and rats) as well as levels of light pollution.

In order to halt the decline of these species, in 2015 a 5-year European project was initiated, dedicated to protecting these two species of endemic petrel, and with key partners joined forces to save the Mascarene Petrel and Barau’s Petrel. These partners have been working together for over ten years now. The aim of the LIFE + Petrels project is to prevent these species from becoming extinct. It will develop and implement innovative strategies and conservation techniques in a highly urbanized island, and will remove regulatory, technological and logistical barriers. It will consult and involve stakeholders, reduce threats to the species and will engage in conservation activities compatible with the island’s economic development. These endangered endemic species are among the rarest seabirds in the world.

Objectives

=>Protect natural heritage

– Improve our knowledge of and identify colonies of Mascarene Petrels in the highest peaks of the island, previously unknown and inaccessible settlements, using innovative methods – Reduce numbers of introduced predators (cats and rats) in the environment and reduce light pollution – Raise public awareness

=>Protect cultural heritage

– Make a compendium of stories and legends based around petrels – Develop cultural events – Implement new practices, projects and teaching tools – Raise local awareness and involve local stakeholders in the sustainable conservation of petrels

=>Create, innovate and educate

– Create partnerships and exchange programs with other countries (training, techniques, seminars etc.) – Bring in experts and visit similar sites (Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand) – Train students – Create advanced local technology (beacons, GPS, Smartphone applications) – Become a leader in the conservation of these species without affecting economic development

This project will contribute to the development of personal and organisational skills in conservation, which will be transferable to other islands with similar problems.

Challenges

Halting biodiversity loss and preventing the extinction of these heritage species are the major challenges this project will face. To achieve this goal, a concerted conservation strategy will be implemented in partnership with local stakeholders. The project will be the first in Reunion Island to establish large-scale, concerted conservation efforts across the island, from the coastline up to the highest peaks.

Petrels are ideal pilot species to demonstrate that social acceptance, also called “Ecological Solidarity”, is essential to improve the link between natural, protected upland areas, where petrels nest, and urbanized coastal regions through which petrels must pass in order to reach the sea.

The entire population of the island needs to be made aware of the plight faced by Petrels. Therefore, this project will not be limited to conservation projects in upland areas and the National Park, but will also target the island’s socioeconomic actors with the ultimate aim of establishing a collaborative program which will boost local initiatives.

Biodiversity conservation requires the development of modern and suitable techniques and everyone needs to get involved.

Indeed, the island context of Reunion, its diversity of habitats and its extremely mountainous terrain make it unique and extraordinary. However, it also makes it harder to use conventional conservation tools. Research and innovation are thus essential for a coherent and sustainable conservation strategy.

On a larger scale, these innovative initiatives will bring knowledge which will be shared around the world, making Reunion’s plight better known in the Indian Ocean and further afield.