island conservation obama midway preventing extinctions

Obama Highlights Island Restoration Among U.S. Conservation Legacies

By Karen Poiani, CEO, Island Conservation

In a speech at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference in Washington D.C., President Obama spoke to the importance of one of the world’s most effective biodiversity conservation interventions: the removal of invasive alien species from islands. This testimonial for island restoration was made in the context of the United States’ history and hopefully future of meaningful conservation action.

island conservation obama midway

President Obama visits Midway Atoll. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

President Obama highlighted the value of the kind of work Island Conservation is dedicated to: preventing extinctions by removing invasive species from islands. And we have hundreds of friends and partners around the globe working with us to protect biodiversity, save some of the world’s rarest species, and help these ailing islands ecosystems and communities become more resilient in the face of a changing climate. Together, we have salvaged precious biodiversity hubs by halting and reversing damage by invasive mammals. We are returning island ecosystems to the natural conditions that once allowed for the flourishing of native plants and animals.

Take the example of the Pinzón Tortoise, native to the Galapagos Islands. This species was unable to breed in the wild for over 150 years due to the presence of invasive rats, which prey on tortoise eggs and hatchlings. Following the removal of rats, Pinzón Tortoises began to recover, and today are able to survive and reproduce in the wild.

Island conservation science galapagos pinzon giant tortoise hatchling photographer rory stansbury

Pinzón Giant Tortoise hatchling, Galápagos. Credit: Rory Stansbury/Island Conservation

The Pinzón Tortoise is not alone in its need for island conservation. Most recorded animal extinctions have occurred on islands, with invasive species as the leading cause. In fact, invasive species constitute the second leading cause of extinctions globally. But unlike many other conservation interventions, removing invasive species from islands is incredibly effective, with clear, relatively fast, and long-lasting results. Island native ecosystems and species almost always recover and thrive once invasive species are eradicated—sometimes with little additional intervention.

This kind of conservation intervention is increasingly receiving the recognition and celebration it has long-deserved. Just after designating the world’s largest marine protected area, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, President Obama spoke off-script, reflecting on a number of the United States’ conservation legacies. A native of Hawai’i, he incorporated a specific, close-to-home example of island restoration into a broader message for the nation. In his remarks, delivered at the 2016 Our Ocean Conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry at the U.S. Department of State, Obama recalled an inspiring recent visit to Midway Atoll:

Midway [Atoll]…is right in the center of this new marine preserve…this is a historic monument, not only for conservation reasons but because this was a major turning point for…World War II. At its peak there were about 5,000-6,000 troops on this island…The bird population had shrunk drastically, and then we figured out that if you eliminate…the rats that the people had brought to the island, the birds would actually do pretty good. Now there are about three million birds…and they are thriving.

 Thanks to these conservation interventions, birds are indeed thriving on Midway. The island and surrounding marine ecosystems are benefiting. President Obama continued:

Nature’s actually resilient…It’ll come back, and certainly the oceans can come back, if we take the steps that are necessary. I saw it! It was right there—evidence—of the incredible power of nature to rebuild itself…My hope is that my children, and your children, and our grandchildren—they’ll be able to take that trip to Midway at some point. And they’ll be able to watch seals swimming through water. And they’ll thank us for it. And we will have done what is probably the most important thing that you can do on this planet Earth, and that is make sure that you’re making it just a little bit better for future generations.

 In my first six months as the new CEO of Island Conservation, I have learned that hope is an integral constituent of our work, and the satisfaction that comes out of successful projects only generates further enthusiasm. Almost all island ecosystems, and the unique native species that inhabit them, need conservation intervention. Some islands and some species need interventions urgently. For example, Midway Atoll is home to one of the world’s most famous and charismatic seabirds, “Wisdom,” a Laysan Albatross. But she and nearly 500,000 other Laysan Albatross on the island are now being preyed upon by thousands of invasive, alien mice.

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Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. Credit: Brenda Zaun/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The overwhelming role invasive species play in the current extinction crisis, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem degradation have been spotlighted in Obama’s last days in office. President Obama’s message brings us one step closer to attaining the island restoration resources, capacity, and tools required to match the magnitude of this conservation opportunity.

We believe whole-heartedly that beautiful, exciting ecosystem recoveries are just around the corner as we continue to expand the island restoration frontier – and we believe the president knows it too, from his experience on Midway Atoll. It doesn’t take more than one trip to a small island with over three million birds to understand the biodiversity return on these island conservation investments. We agree with President Obama when he said:

These are problems we can solve. Part of [our] power…is to insist on human agency. To not give in to hopelessness or to suggest that somehow these problems are just too big. We can solve them. We just have to have the will to pursue collective action.

 We are excited to be partnering, once again, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other key agencies to explore removing invasive mice from Midway. Thousands more islands and hundreds of native species can be restored and protected by our proven methods, technologies, and partnerships.

The evidence is clear that we can prevent species extinctions, protect biodiversity, and make island ecosystems more resilient to climate change. I am proud to be part of such a steadfast organization that is leading the way. I am proud to share with you one more message of unwavering hope…Our work is hard, challenging, and far from complete, but we can, and will, get it done!

island conservation french polynesia

Frigatebird and island resident on Tuamotu Island, French Polynesia. Credit: Jason Zito/Island Conservation

Featured photo: President Barack Obama visits Turtle Beach on Midway Atoll, Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: IIP Photo Archive (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

About Karen Poiani

Karen Poiani, PhD was appointed as Island Conservation’s CEO in July, 2016. Karen came to IC with 25 years of experience in conservation organization management, fundraising, board engagement, international and local partnership development, and conservation science research.

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