The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see

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Unexpected Achievements: Unconventional Partnerships

The final blog of the “Unexpected Achievements” series follows the progress made to the livelihoods of communities living around the Shukla Phanta National Park through an unexpected partnership. If you would like to read the entire “Unexpected Achievements” series, please click here for the first blog.

The Role of Unconventional Partners in Conservation

The Shukla Phanta National Park (ShNP) is in the far west of Nepal and boasts some of the country’s greatest biodiversity. The area is home to several globally threatened and iconic species, but the lowland of Terai is only one of the most densely populated areas of the country.

Nepal 22-009 Shukla Phanta Grasslands, Credit - ZSL

The grasslands located in Shukla Phanta National Park, Credit – ZSL

The communities living around ShNP rear large numbers of livestock, mainly cow and buffalo for milk production; the sale of milk products in nearby markets provides most of their income. Despite the plethora of natural resources, poverty is widespread around ShNP and therefore a large number of the local population is dependent on forests for fuelwood, fodder, timber and grazing grounds for their livestock.

A three year Darwin Initiative funded project was launched to address the problem of illegal livestock grazing in the ShNP. The project aimed to promote a more productive, but more expensive breed of livestock which would reduce the grazing pressure within the park.

In order to make this vision into a reality the communities needed the financial capital to purchase them, the veterinary services to keep them healthy, and the access to fodder to feed them. In order to meet these needs the project established a women-led savings cooperative, veterinary clinics as well as local nurseries, stall feeding and community managed grasslands.

Nepal 22-009 Inauguration of Darwin Initiative supported veterinary centre, Credit - ZSL

Inauguration of Darwin Initiative supported veterinary centre, Credit – ZSL

Usually organisations that don’t have a direct link to conservation are not recognised as stakeholders, however in an effort to establish veterinary clinics to provide better health care and reduce the risk of disease transmission led to the project team engaging with a range of unconventional stakeholders – most notably the District Livestock Services Office (DLSO).

In addition to the technical expertise that the DLSO brought, they also took direct ownership of the clinics and ensured their long-term financial sustainability. With the DLSO as a key partner, the project achieved a 222% increase in the number of households with access to veterinary clinics around ShNP, nearly twice the increase targeted at the project outset.


For more information on the project please click here, or read the full article in our November 2018 Newsletter also featuring “Unexpected Achievements” from many more of our Darwin Initiative projects.


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Youth in Conservation – Youth Collaboration

In this series of Darwin blogs, we have been celebrating International Youth Day and the inspiring work of Darwin projects with local youth groups, schools and colleges around the world. In the previous two entries in this series we looked at how Darwin projects seek to educate, from elephant board games in Burma (Myanmar) to a Marine Awareness Week in St Helena, and to engage, through the innovative use of video-based engagement in Guyana and the Cayman Islands.

In the final entry to this series, we look at how Darwin projects collaborate with local youth. First, we visit a project in Mali that is training young “eco-guardians” to protect the rapidly declining elephant population, before setting off to Timor-Leste to see how Blue Ventures are collaborating with and training local young people as certified scuba divers and seagrass monitors.

Local youth are fundamental to elephant conservation in Mali

The Mali Elephant Project (MEP) has been empowering local populations to work together to develop a model of conservation that benefits both people and elephants, that delivers very tangible local benefits, and which puts natural resources under the control of local communities. They gain, for example, from having pasture at the end of the dry season because they have protected it from bush fire. They can sell this and grazing access rights to others, and their livestock are healthier and worth more, and the proceeds are shared between the management committee of elders, the women and the eco-guardians, making it self-sustaining. Protecting the forest prevents its loss to agriculture, and safeguards the wood and many useful fruits, seeds, resins, forage and medicines that can be marketed by the women. It also secures vital ecosystem services linked to the healthy forests, such as water retention and erosion control.

Mali 23-022 Clearing the fire-breaks by hand, Credit - WILD Foundation

Eco-guardians clearing the firebreaks by hand, Credit – WILD Foundation

The 670 youth recruited by the project as eco-guardians are fundamental to all these achievements. Not only do they conduct patrols to ensure community rules of resource protection are respected, but they conduct resource protection activities such as building fire-breaks and fences, and providing manual labour for the women who establish revenue generation activities. They provide information on elephant locations and movements and, crucially, on poaching.

Across the world societies are witnessing problems of unemployed youth, environmental degradation and violence. This experience demonstrates the power of a systemic approach to tackling such challenges.

Young people in Timor-Leste engage in conservation for themselves, their communities and their future

Blue Ventures is working to engage young people in marine conservation on Ataúro – an island where communities depend on the sea for their livelihoods. Blue Ventures staff lead school classes on Timor-Leste’s marine ecosystems, reaching over 100 students who are keen to learn about how conserving their natural resources will affect life on the island.

Young people also make up the majority of the community-based monitoring programmes on the island; 85% of the seagrass and fisheries monitoring groups are under the age of 25. The seagrass group have mapped significant portions of Ataúro’s seagrass meadows, and are now shifting their focus towards long-term monitoring efforts. The all-female fisheries group are using smartphone technology to collect much-needed fisheries data and are helping change the role of women in Timorese society by getting involved in community decision-making and resource management.

East Timor 24-012 Children on Ataúro Island, Credit - Blue Ventures Martin Muir

Children on Ataúro Island  involved in Blue Ventures’ education programme, Credit – Martin Muir/Blue Ventures

Timorese youth are also flourishing within the Blue Ventures team. Jemima Gomes, aged 23, has recently completed her PADI Divemaster qualifications, making her the first Timorese woman to achieve this professional-level scuba diving certification. It’s largely thanks to her leadership and example that many more young people in her community are now beginning to participate in marine conservation and pursue their ambitions. Jemima believes that this participation is a great opportunity for her friends:

For more information on the Mali Elephant Project, project 23-022, please click here, and for more information on Blue Ventures’ work in Timor-Leste, on project 24-012, please click here or read the full articles in our August 2018 Newsletter.

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Youth in Conservation – Youth Engagement

In the first blog of this “Youth in Conservation” themed series, we looked at some examples of Darwin projects providing youth education through activities, board games, and local events. In this blog we take a look at a different form of youth engagement – the use of interactive video. Two Darwin projects, one in the Cayman Islands and another in Guyana, are using interactive video to engage local youth on conservation matters, raising awareness and improving overall conservation knowledge in the region. In the Cayman Islands, marine biologists and other experts are answering questions underwater through the innovative “Reefs Go Live”. In Guyana the local indigenous youth groups are using participatory video to capture and preserve traditional conservation practices.

The underwater world comes to classrooms via live video lessons

For children from the Cayman Islands, marine debris, overfishing, and the disruption of the balance of life on coral reefs is not a distant threat a world away. Rather, it has a real and lasting impact on them, their families, and their future.

The Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) hosts a variety of short and long-term residential courses for elementary, high school and university students throughout the year. However, not all children are able to visit the Little Cayman Research Centre. Financial, physical, and time constraints can make it an impossible task. In response to this, the CCMI team had to think creatively about how to make the underwater world accessible to children wherever they are. This gave rise to Reefs Go Live, CCMI’s innovative approach to engagement, broadcasting interactive lessons live from underwater on the reefs.

Cayman DPLUS061 RGL Broadcast Snapshot, Credit - CCMI

A snapshot of the Reefs Go Live broadcast, Credit – CCMI

Following nearly a year of planning, preparation, testing, development of lesson plans and teacher training, Reefs Go Live was officially launched as part of CCMI’s International Year of the Reef. School children in the Cayman Islands were the primary target of this initial Reefs Go Live rollout. Targeted lessons during the piloting stage were also delivered directly to classrooms in Peru and the United States. As the series developed, the Reefs Go Live videos were broadcast on social media, broadening the audience to include viewers around the globe. The pilot lessons achieved an estimated 16,000 views, and the total reach of the videos was nearly 70,000.

By engaging with scientists and having their questions answered by researchers on the coral reefs, students are learning about coral reefs in an active way, no matter where they are in the world. The underwater world is drawn closer and made more understandable; as a result, students are able to understand how threats to coral reefs affect us all.

Participatory video empowering Indigenous youth

This project in Guyana seeks to facilitate communication between communities and decision-makers by dialogue through participatory video. Participatory video is a great way of exploring and capturing the views and opinions of the local people on issues that are important to them. It allows for several voices and opinions to be heard and recommendations to be recorded and subsequently shared with relevant stakeholders and partners. This project focuses particularly on Indigenous communities located in and around Protected Areas and seeing how traditional knowledge could better inform the management of these areas.

The Makushi people of the North Rupununi are no strangers to supporting local conservation efforts. In fact, a total of 21 villages are affiliated with the management of the Iwokrama Rainforest. The rights of Indigenous communities to access resources in these rainforests and rivers continue to be respected.

Guyana 24-026 Young Indigenous woman are also having their voices heard, Credit - Claudia Nuzzo

Young Indigenous women are also having their voices heard through the participatory videos, Credit – Claudia Nuzzo

Through the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-going Darwin Initiative project, many young Indigenous men and women have had the opportunity to be trained in participatory video skills to improve engagement and pass on traditional knowledge. The project uses a methodology whereby video dialogue allows local Indigenous communities, through the youth, to voice their opinions, concerns and recommendations to decision-makers for improved management of the Iwokrama Rainforest. Young people in the community are provided with the knowledge and skills to develop storyboards, conduct interviews and, most importantly, use video equipment including smart tablets with tripods. They are also gaining valuable experience in taking responsibility among their peers, working together as a team and building good leadership qualities. Through their work on the project they have the opportunity to actively engage with elders and other community members, facilitating intergenerational interaction.

For more information on CCMI’s project DPLUS061 please click here and for more information on the Environment Protection Agency’s Guyana project 24-026 please click here, or read the full articles in our August 2018 Newsletter.

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Youth in Conservation – Youth Education

On 12th August 2018 we celebrated International Youth Day, a United Nations endorsed global celebration of young people and their contribution towards the Sustainable Development Goals, with the launch of our latest newsletter. Working with youth groups, providing training in schools, or partnering directly with universities and their students are often key aspects of Darwin projects, and engaging with local youth is a cornerstone of the Darwin Initiative.

In this series of blogs, we will be exploring projects which exemplify these values as we look at how Darwin projects educate, collaborate with, and engage young people in conservation around the world. In this, the first blog of the series, we look at education and knowledge sharing. We begin by visiting a school in Burma which has found creative ways to educate children about the importance of elephants, before attending “Marine Awareness Week” in St Helena to learn about plankton and plastics.

Integrating biodiversity and elephants into peace and development in Burma (Myanmar)

August 12th is a special day for Elephant Family. Not only is it International Youth Day, it is also, coincidently, World Elephant Day. Teaching youngsters about elephants and the role they play in their ecosystem, as well as how to live safely alongside them, is one of the strategies employed by a dynamic partnership of NGOs supported by the Darwin Initiative, ensuring a future for Asia’s elephants.

Elephant Family’s Darwin project is forging an alliance between two local partners – Burmese-led Grow Back for Posterity (GBP) and WCS-Myanmar – who work with rural communities in Burma (Myanmar). In the course of this project, the human-elephant conflict (HEC) education teams will reach over 12,000 families in key areas for elephants and biodiversity, giving them the knowledge and skills they need to conserve their natural resources and avoid conflict with elephants. Our common aim is for elephants to be seen as an ecological asset rather than an economic risk. This seems to be paying off. In recent months villagers who have engaged with GBP are those that have shopped elephant poachers to the authorities.

Burma 24-024 Children playing the WCS educational elephant board game, Credit WCS-Myanmar

Children playing the WCS educational elephant board game, Credit – WCS Myanmar

So far, the GBP teams have held Human Elephant Conflict awareness workshops in 61 schools and community centres with over 10,000 students. These are hugely interactive events involving educational films, Q&A sessions, memory games and other learning tools that grip these novelty-hungry audiences ranging in age from 8 to 80. Tightly packed in cross-legged groups, children eagerly participate while their parents and grandparents stand around watching, highly amused and equally engaged. One game requires players to pair elephant-related pictures on individual boards. The first to fill a board wins, and the contest is lively! The students are intensely focused, their parents actively encouraging. The WCS team has also developed a beautifully illustrated board game similar to Snakes and Ladders which explains the challenges faced by a young elephant as it grows up. This game has been piloted in six villages in the Tanintharyi region of southeast Burma (Myanmar) and is a hit! GBP looks forward to adding this to its suite of educational tools.

Elephant game

Board game of young elephants growing up in the forests of Burma, Credit – WCS Myanmar

Getting young people on St Helena talking about plankton and plastics

Darwin is helping young people on the island of St Helena to understand how their marine ecosystem works and how all the marine organisms link together in the food web. The aim is to help the island’s youth to make more informed management decisions about the marine environment.

When work started on this project the word ‘plankton’ was used a lot. Local people, who identify as ‘Saints’, weren’t sure what plankton was or why it’s so important. Through our Darwin project work we started spreading the information. The message was simple: plankton are the base of the food web, everything eats plankton, and everything needs plankton to survive.

But everywhere we found plankton we were also finding plastic. When we dragged nets through the water to scoop out plankton we also scooped out plastic. When we looked in our fish stomachs we found plankton but we also found plastic. When we went to our sea bird nesting sites little pieces of plastic were being used to mark their territories. We wanted to tell Saints about plankton, but we couldn’t do that without also talking about plastic.

Each year on St Helena the Marine Conservation Section of St Helena Government run ‘Marine Awareness Week’. A topic is chosen and a week of outreach activities are organised to educate and inspire school children about their marine ecosystem. This year the theme was ‘Our Invisible Ocean: from plankton to plastics’.

Every class from every school on the island was invited to attend. The younger children learned through games: circling what doesn’t belong on the beach, or trying to fish in the paddling pool and answering ‘What did you catch and should it be there?’ The older children had a more challenging day learning how long different plastic items stay in the ocean for. They then created St Helena’s food web with plankton as the base, working out what happens if you take away plankton and replace it with plastic.

St Helena DPLUS070 Schools on the island decorate their classrooms for Marine Awareness Week, Credit - St Helena Govt

Schools on the island decorate their classrooms for Marine Awareness Week, Credit – St Helena Government

Small actions by lots of individuals can add up to big changes. The children were given simple things to try to swap some of their single use plastic items with more ocean safe options. This included things like encouraging re-usable shopping bags and water bottles, taking metal cutlery on picnics instead of plastic and saying no to the straw when they buy a drink. St Helena relies heavily on imported food goods that bring in a lot of plastic packaging. Many locals feel that this is beyond their control but by adding their voice to those around the world saying ‘no’ to plastic, they can have a powerful effect.

For more information on Elephant Family’s project 24-024 click here and for more information on the Saint Helena Government’s project DPLUS070 please click here, or read the full articles in our August 2018 Newsletter.

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International Day of Biodiversity – Benefit Sharing

The previous two Darwin blogs in this series have looked at the first two core objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity: conservation of biodiversity through community engagement and sustainable use of biodiversity components. This third and final entry in the series celebrating 25 years of the CBD looks at the third CBD objective: fair and equitable use of all benefits arising from the use of biodiversity assets. This blog covers an eco-tourism project near the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar, which aims to improve local livelihoods and channel profits into expansion of the project to create more benefits for the fishing communities charged with the management of this important biodiversity site.

Addressing CBD objectives – a view from the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar

The locals call them ‘labai’ and the visitors ‘the Irrawaddy River dolphin’. For the Myanmar fishing communities these almost mystical cetaceans are their friends – aquatic sheep dogs who for generations have helped the fishermen and women find, corral, and catch the river fish (for an excellent video of this see here).

The Harrison Institute has been leading a Darwin Initiative supported project to help protect the dolphins in a way that engages and benefits local communities in a fair and equitable way through eco-tourism. In terms of conserving biological diversity, after years of decline, dolphin numbers finally appear to be on the rise with a reported 10% increase in 2017. Despite this, they remain Critically Endangered, with only 76 individuals; just as ‘one swallow does not make a summer’, one successful year for the dolphin does not make a trend. But it is a possible indication of better things to come.

Myanmar 21-012 2d Destination Ayeyarwady Award 2, Credit - Paul Bates

Destination Ayeyarwady Award, Credit – Paul Bates

As for the equitable sharing of benefits of conserving wildlife, the project’s community programme has been an amazing success and in November 2017 won a national award for ‘Best Community Involvement in Tourism’, Myanmar. Known as ‘Destination Ayeyarwady’, it has three clear aims:

  • Conserving the Irrawaddy River dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) and other wildlife on the Ayeyarwady River;
  • Conserving the traditional culture of cooperative fishing with dolphins with cast nets; and
  • Providing additional income for fishing communities who have traditionally fished co-operatively with the dolphins.

All money from the community programme stays in the village and is divided between the service provider, community projects, and wildlife conservation.

The success of the 1st Phase of ‘Destination Ayeyarwady’ has triggered a wonderful follow-up response, with over $16,200 (in money and in kind) being raised in donations for a 2nd Phase. The 2nd Phase has seen the construction of a new building at Hsithe village, which will not only be used as an Eco-lodge for visiting tourists to stay overnight (improving the visitor experience and boosting income to the village) but also as a rural Environmental Learning Centre. It will help expand the training in issues such as waste management, especially plastics. This was begun under the Darwin project but will be further developed through new programmes, bringing in school children, students, and villagers from throughout Singu District and beyond.

His Excellency the Minister of Hotels and Tourism has become a strong supporter of the project, encouraging site visits not only from staff in his own ministry but also those in state ministries including Chin State and Mandalay Division. He sees the project as a role model for Myanmar (Burma) in community-led tourism. Great interest is also being shown by other Myanmar (Burma) conservation and ecotourism organisations which are keen to replicate many of the ideas.

Myanmar 21-012 8 Destination Ayeyarwady Hsithe Visitor Centre, Credit - Paul Bates

Destination Ayeyarwady Hsithe Visitor Centre, Credit – Paul Bates

One important output of this is the new ecotourism website, which the Harrison Institute wrote in conjunction with the MTF (Myanmar Tourism Federation) and which highlights opportunities for bird watching, trekking, cycling, sailing, as well as visiting ‘Destination Ayeyarwady’, of course!

For the full version of this articles, please see the May 2018 edition of the Darwin Newsletter.

You can find out more on the Harrison Institute and dedicated project webpages. For more information on the ‘Destination Ayeyarwady’ project click here.

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Life Below Water – International Year of the Reef

This latest series of Darwin blogs has been focused on Sustainable Development Goal 14 – “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. In the first blog of the series, we looked at the incredible work by Darwin projects in the Coral Triangle of the Pacific Ocean. The next blog focused on marine reserves and protected areas, particularly around coral reefs in Central America and the Southern Atlantic. Now, in our final post of the series, we look at a project in the Caribbean, promoting and celebrating the International Year of the Reef and striving to change international perceptions and approaches.

In order to achieve SDG14, global leaders and scientists must provide and communicate a deeper understanding of the complex interspecies dynamics that determine the balance of life under the sea.

In response to this, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) has developed a range of impactful outreach activities to support stronger action on coral reefs during this third International Year of the Reef (IYOR). IYOR 2018 is an excellent opportunity to boost public, private, and governmental efforts to ensure that our seas and especially coral reefs are protected via sustainable efforts and regulations which benefit our society on numerous levels.

Cayman Islands DPLUS061 CCMI's IYOR outreach Jan 2018, to engage local stakeholders in protecting Coral Reefs, Credit Maggie Jackson
CCMI’s IYOR outreach in January 2018 engaged local stakeholders in protecting Coral Reefs, Credit – Maggie Jackson

One area of CCMI’s research, funded through Darwin Plus, is examining which key herbivorous fish species on Caribbean coral reefs are consuming the most problematic species of algae. Careful evaluations of 11 dominant fish species have led to a new discovery that both chubs and certain species of parrotfish are eating the largest volumes of algae over large areas. At a time when climate change is pushing competitive interactions to a tipping point, protecting these species provides additional resilience to the coral reef ecosystem as a whole. CCMI is also working with local fishermen and stakeholders to engage the community in a dialogue that hopes to find new solutions to age old problems.

Cayman Islands DPLUS061 Tangs eating algae from the trial rope, Credit - Claire Dell
Tangs eating algae from the trial rope, Credit – Claire Dell

In addition to maintaining over 25% of all marine species, healthy coral reefs provide a powerful physical barrier that shields coastal communities from over 90% of the wave energy generated by storms. Corals create the framework and calcareous algae that cements reefs together. As the reef structure degrades, lagoon habitats become open to ocean waves, and mangroves and shorelines erode. In the end, protecting key species on the reef relies on our community of stakeholders making informed decisions based on good data. CCMI are asking citizen scientists and tourists to join their “IYOR – Zero Impact” campaign which describes how we as individuals can help protect coral reefs for the future.

To find out more about the IYOR, visit To find out more about their Darwin Plus project, see here.

For the complete article on these projects, and a variety of other interesting updates from Darwin coastal and marine projects, see the latest Darwin Newsletter themed on “Life Below Water”.

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Life Below Water – Conserving Marine Areas

This is the second in our series of Darwin blogs celebrating the remarkable and innovative ways Darwin projects contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 14 – “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”. Our last blog explored two projects in the Western Pacific’s Coral Triangle, working to minimise unsustainable shark fishing and implementing collaborative community schemes to better manage seagrass beds.

This blog looks at projects working to establish marine protected areas. With the first project, we travel to Belize and look at a protected area in the heart of the Mesoamerican Reef. From the Caribbean Sea we then move to the South Atlantic to learn about the Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary Project and their plans to establish the largest marine reserve in the Atlantic.

Conservation and socioeconomic benefits of a marine protected area at Glover’s Atoll, Belize

Marine protected areas (MPAs) are now common, and have evoked considerable public interest. They have become one of the more popular tools within an ecosystem-based management approach because they are able to balance environmental health and biodiversity conservation with the socio-economic needs of fishing communities across the world’s oceans.

Areas within MPAs where all extractive use is prohibited are traditionally referred to as ‘no-take areas’. However in Belize the term ‘replenishment zone’ (RZ) has recently been adopted in place of ‘no-take zone’. ‘Replenishment zone’ has a less negative connotation for resource users concerned about being restricted from fishing in traditional waters.

Belize 22-014 Spiny lobster is the most important fishery and the largest seafood export for Belize, Credit - Alex Tewfik

Spiny lobster is the most important fishery and the largest seafood export for Belize, Credit – Alex Tewfik

This Darwin project, led by the WCS Belize Programme, works with fishers in Belize to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fisheries they rely on, particularly queen conch and Caribbean spiny lobster. The cooperation of local fishers is crucial, and so their perception of the role of these protected areas is pivotal to project success. Interventions are focused on the Glover’s Reef Atoll which has an area of 350 km2 and lies approximately 42 km east of the central Belizean mainland. This atoll is 1 of 7 protected areas that comprise the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

A study carried out through the project demonstrates the positive impact of protection within the RZ. Importantly they also identify the benefits of RZs for small scale fisher livelihoods. The benefits observed following the establishment and enforcement of the RZ at Glover’s Atoll have been supported by a broader set of fisheries conservation strategies, such as size limits, closed seasons, and species bans. The sustainability of this approach will be assured by continuing long-term community consultations that support the core objectives for the management of GRMR, enhancing economic benefits for Belizean fishers.

The results of this research (published in Marine Ecology Progress Series) will also be used to inform the ever-evolving conservation and management strategies employed by WCS across Belize. Ultimately the aim is to achieve a balance between biodiversity and ecosystem services protection, including fisheries and tourism-based livelihoods. Doing so will help to secure the future of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Belize Barrier Reef System, and will generate findings with broader applicability across the Mesoamerican Reef.

Belize 22-014 A free diver searches for Queen Conch within Glover's atoll lagoon ,Credit - Alex Tewfik cropped

A free diver searches for Queen Conch within Glover’s Atoll lagoon, Credit – Alex Tewfik

The Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary: Planning for the Atlantic’s largest marine reserve

Although many people would struggle to find it on a map, the remote UK Overseas Territory of Ascension Island is on the verge of entering the ‘big league’ of ocean conservation, joining such notable company as the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands as home to one of the world’s largest marine reserves.

The intention to close at least 50% of Ascension’s 440,000 km2 exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to all forms of commercial fishing by 2019 was formally announced by the UK Government at the UN Our Oceans summit in September 2016 and will establish the largest fully no-take MPA in the Atlantic Ocean. Providing the scientific and technical data to support these decisions is currently the focus of a Darwin Plus project led by the Ascension Island Government Conservation & Fisheries Department and the University of Exeter.

The Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary (ASIOS) Project aims to address many of the challenges and controversies common to all remote, large-scale MPAs: How can it be enforced? How effectively will it conserve the highly mobile species of the open ocean? How do we measure its success? The project is also responding to the mandate of local and UK Government stakeholders to assess whether an economically-viable and well-managed fishery can coexist with a future MPA in a portion of the EEZ, and, if so, which areas should be protected.

Galapagos DPLUS063 Aggregation of Galapagos sharks, Credit - Ascension Island Government Conservation and Fisheries Dept

A Galapagos shark being released after fitting acoustic tag, Credit – British Antarctic Survey

Oceanic islands and seamounts are known to be hotspots of abundance and diversity for pelagic species and are obvious focal points for the creation of marine reserves. In order to better understand the scale of their ‘bio-aggregating’ effect, the ASIOS project team surveyed the biodiversity of three previously unstudied seamounts lying 260-320 km to the south and west of Ascension. To determine how large an area needs protecting, the expedition set out to measure how the abundance and diversity of marine life at all levels of the food chain varies with distance from each mount, as well as mapping the movements of individual top predators associated with them. These datasets will hopefully provide a rare insight into the “biodiversity footprint” of a tropical seamount system that can contribute to MPA planning on Ascension and beyond.

With less than two years until designation there is still much to be done; however, with the support of Darwin Plus, the European Union’s BEST 2.0 initiative and other donors, the Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary promises to put the Territory firmly on the map as a global leader in MPA science and management.

For the complete articles on these projects, and a variety of other interesting updates from Darwin coastal and marine projects, see the latest Darwin Newsletter themed on “Life Below Water”. For more information on WCS’s project in Belize see here, and for more information on the Ascension Island MPA see here.

Our next blog will look at the International Year of the Reef.