I am delighted to report an important milestone in the history of the RSPB.  We have now acquired our first bit of land on one of the UK Overseas Territories - the Cayman Islands.  This land will be leased to our partner, the National Trust of the Cayman Islands, and be incorporated into their own reserve. 

Below, I explain the rationale but first, I thought it would be timely to provide some historical context.

Earlier this week, I hosted a talk at RSPB HQ by my former colleague Alistair Gammell who started work for the RSPB fifty years ago.  Although he left the RSPB in 2009, he was keen to mark this anniversary by sharing his experiences with current staff and to provide the backstory to the growth of the RSPB’s international programme.

It was fascinating to hear that in 1969 the RSPB had just 50 staff, no strategy (because why would you need one - you were expected to know what to do) but huge passion and entrepreneurial spirit.  This was reflected in Alistair’s career as he first helped to forge new nature conservation laws for Europe (he had a hand in drafting both the Birds and then the Habitats Directives) and then creating strong partnerships in Europe culminating in the creation of BirdLife International. 

Alistair was instrumental in shaping the RSPB’s international philosophy - investing in national BirdLife partners for the long term as the best way of securing a lasting legacy – as well establishing major programmes many of which we continue today (such as our tropical forest projects - Gola and Harapan). 

Yet, it is perhaps for his impact on the UK Overseas Territories that he will be best known particularly after his post-RSPB career with Pew.  Alistair made the case for the RSPB to invest serious effort in driving conservation action on the fourteen territories (with local partners where they exist) and that’s why he was so pleased to note the recent announcement that a new Marine Protected Area will be designated covering 100% of Ascension Island’s Exclusive Economic Zone, an area of over 440,000 square km.  This will be the largest marine reserve in the Atlantic – twice the size of the UK and home to the Atlantic’s largest green turtle population, threatened sharks and one of the world’s most important seabird populations.

Having started the successful programme to recover the Ascension frigate bird (which was threatened due to predation by cats), it was Alistair that made the case for the RSPB to step up to try to remove rodents from two other UKOT islands: Henderson and Gough. While we were unsuccessful with the former, preparation for the operational phase of the Gough Island Restoration Programme intensifies especially as key personnel and material arrive on island this week.

I think Alistair will be equally chuffed that we have stepped up our work in the five UKOTs of the Caribbean: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.  We are working hard throughout this region to help save globally threatened species from extinction, protect the most important sites for nature and as the UK BirdLife Partner, ensure our local Caribbean partners are in a strong position to defend nature.

Weak or non-existent controls on development can – and sadly has - resulted in the loss of some important habitats such as mangroves, dry forest and wetlands across the region. Until better development control measures are in place and enforced, we concluded that the purchase of land is often the most effective conservation tool and this seemed particularly important in Cayman where development pressure is so high.

This was why, when a parcel of land adjacent to the National Trust of the Cayman Islands' Salina Reserve, came on the market we were keen to intervene. The existing reserve is a 647-acre Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) in eastern Grand Cayman and is home to the main remaining population of the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana (shown below).  Thanks to a concerted on-island effort led by the Trust for the Cayman Islands and the Department of Environment – which the RSPB recently supported by securing a Disney Conservation Grant - the population has recovered from a source population of 10-12 individuals to over 1,000 individuals, almost all of which are found in the Salina Reserve.

The RSPB purchase is thanks to generous support from the Rainforest Trust.  Through a lease to the Trust, the new site is now incorporated into their reserve giving it protection under the Cayman National Trust Law.  We hope that this serves as a gateway to possible larger-scale land acquisitions including within the Salina Reserve, marking the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the RSPB’s conservation programme in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories.

I look forward to reporting more success when Alistair returns to mark his 60th anniversary of starting work for the RSPB…