Darwin Project highlights biodiversity

Conservation of Cayman’s rich environmental diversity for future generations received a hefty boost last week with the official launch of the Cayman Islands Darwin Project.

Funded by a six-figure UK Government grant, the project includes creating satellite imagery maps of the Islands’ physical features that will be used as baseline information, said a GIS press release.

Acting Governor George McCarthy hosted the launch at Government House. Attendees included Director of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie and her staff; Darwin Project partner Dr. Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, UK; Dr. Michael Coyne, Research Scientist from Duke University, North Carolina; Acting Chief Officer in the Ministry of Environment Gloria McField-Nixon; representatives of the project’s local partners from nine non-governmental organizations and two government departments – Agriculture, and Mosquito Research and Control Unit.

Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie noted that Cayman’s bid for the US$300,000 Darwin grant had been successful in the face of global competition. As project head, she outlined the three main components of the CI Darwin project.

‘The first is the creation of habitat maps for the marine and terrestrial environments using a combination of remote sensing and biological survey techniques,’ she said.

Dr Coyne will partner with DoE’s Geographic Information Systems Analyst Mr. Jeremy Olynik to produce the maps, which will provide a visual estimate of different habitat types that exist at the present time which in turn will establish the baseline for measuring future rates of change.

Additionally, the maps will help project personnel draw inferences about the extent of habitat lost to development and Hurricane Ivan, and use the information to monitor the rate of natural recovery, she said.

Second, the project will aid the development of a biodiversity action plan for the Cayman Islands outlining a specific set of actions that need to be taken to preserve the diversity of life on the Islands.

Mrs. Ebanks- Petrie explained that plans will be developed for habitats that support endangered and endemic species; provide vital ecological and economic services; and support an extraordinary diversity of species.

Currently under development by Darwin Research Fellow, Dr. Mat Cottam and Marine Turtles specialist Janice Blumenthal of the DoE, these action plans will focus on habitats and species of both ecological and commercial significance, such as conch and lobster; indigenous species unique to the Cayman Islands, such as the silver thatch; and threatened and endangered species, such as the Grand Cayman Blue iguana and the Nassau grouper.

Such a plan has already been drafted for the Grand Cayman blue iguana, the Island’s largest existing land animal. It is based on a plan developed by the National Trust’s Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, with input from the DOE and a number of international experts, the Director explained. One of the action plans under this programme calls for the establishment of a protected area capable of sustaining a target wild population of 1,000 animals.

Third, funding from the Darwin project will be used to provide public education and outreach. Workshops and collaborative activities are now planned around practical conservation projects to promote the Islands’ biodiversity, Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie said.

One such is the proposed native tree nursery at the QEII Botanic Park. ‘We hope to establish the nursery as a self-financing source of native plant material which will hopefully encourage the use of native plants in landscaping by a wide cross section of the community,’ Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie said.

The Director announced that a dedicated Darwin website is being set up at www.caymanbiodiversity.com which will provide many opportunities for public participation and interaction.

Dr. Godley of the University of Exeter explained that the UK grant goes to more than 100 countries that are rich in biodiversity but relatively poor in resources. The funding is specifically for research, education and capacity building he noted, and added that the majority of the Overseas Territories have much more biodiversity than the UK including many endemic species.

Dr. Coyne of Duke University outlined that both the marine and terrestrial habitats of Grand Cayman will be mapped by satellite imagery.

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