There’s a powerful way to support wildlife and communities facing climate change impacts, but not many people are talking about it yet.
By: Ray Nias
Island residents and native species are on the frontlines of climate change impacts, and this conservation intervention can be life-changing for today’s most vulnerable communities and ecosystems.
You’re likely familiar with the basic ways to address climate change—reducing CO2 emissions, protecting forests, and reducing consumption. But Island Conservation has an approach to safeguarding ecosystems and biodiversity in the face of climate change that you may not have thought of.
The prevention, control, and eradication of invasive species are important strategies for supporting ecosystem-based adaptation to the effects of climate change in Palau and other islands of the Pacific.
Invasive species such as rats alter ecosystems as they consume the seeds, plants, invertebrates, and seabirds that provide nutrients to forest systems and coastal waters. Invasive plants alter the structure of forests and can lead to reduced water collection and erosion, exacerbating the impacts of droughts, floods, and storm surges on local communities. Reducing the impacts of invasive species promotes forest health and the natural resilience of island ecosystems that Pacific communities depend on for their livelihoods.
Resilience is the key word here. Removing invasive species from islands does not directly address rising CO2 levels. What it does is better position island residents and wildlife to adapt to the impacts climate change will have (and is already having). For an island to have invasive species present is like having a sickness—it weakens the system.
A variety of invasive species in Palau are known to impact human livelihoods through their effects on agriculture, by transmitting disease, or by diminishing economic opportunities such as tourism. The presence of invasive species makes it more difficult to cope with droughts and floods, which create challenging conditions for growing crops, and with receding shorelines and coral bleaching events from warming sea temperatures and severe climate conditions that impact coastal food resources. Wherever possible, Island Conservation invests in projects that generate benefits to both biodiversity and human communities. Palau is a striking example of not only the many links between invasive species and human livelihoods, but also the potential for island communities to become more resilient in the face of climate change.
The plan developed by Island Conservation, Birdlife International, and the Palau Conservation Society to achieve a rodent-free Kayangel would have a direct positive impact on the livelihood of the islanders who have few commercial opportunities and often must leave the island to seek employment in the national capital. A previous attempt to remove rodents from Kayangel showed that once rat numbers had been suppressed, coconut production increased. This meant not only more copra (dried coconut kernel) for sale, but also allowed the operation of a small coconut oil factory. A greater variety of food types could also be grown and local food production increased, directly benefiting the health of the local community. Permanently removing all the rats from Kayangel would dramatically benefit local food production. Community health would also improve by protecting the quality of drinking water and reducing the incidence of leptospirosis and other rodent-borne diseases.
In 2013 Kayangel was hit by two super typhoons within the span of one year (Bopha and Haiyan). These devastated wetland taro farms and forests and the community had to evacuate the island for many months. Unfortunately, the typhoons put an end to the coconut oil venture, at least for now, and it may take many years for the coconut trees to again produce enough to support commercial oil production. But in terms of making the link between invasive species and their negative impacts on island communities, Palau represents opportunity and hope; managing invasive species can help communities be better prepared to withstand the impacts of climate change.
Featured Photo: Footprints in the surf. Credit: Tommy Hall/Island Conservation
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