Saving the Dying Kingdom of Redonda

Restoration program is removing invasive goats and rats from remote Caribbean island, reviving native biodiversity

“Overwhelming.”

That was the first word Sophia Punnett-Steele, the Eastern Caribbean projects coordinator for Flora and Fauna International (FFI), used to describe her experience upon initially encountering Redonda, a tiny, 200-hectare island just off the coast of the small twin island Caribbean state of Antigua and Barbuda. “I couldn’t believe how degraded it was,” she continued, before trailing off. “I had seen photographs and video footage, but…”

photo of Island of RedondaPhoto courtesy of Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora International Redonda, a once-forested island, has been transformed into a “moonscape” by invasive goats.

If one were to view Redonda from a distance, her description appears to be apt. Located 35 miles from Antigua, and 15 miles from the closest inhabited island of Montserrat, Redonda is often described as a “moonscape.” Sharp inclines, with cliffs jutting almost straight down to the sea, give way to its nearly barren landscape.

But despite the sterile surroundings, Redonda is a biodiversity hotspot, hiding secrets in almost every nook and cranny, including at least three species of reptiles found nowhere else in the world, one of which is a yet to be named species of dwarf gecko. And because of these hidden secrets, international efforts are now under way to save the dying biosphere of Redonda.

***

Redonda wasn’t always a wasteland. It was once a lush and fertile island used as a waypoint for the traveling Indigenous people called the Kalinago (also known as Caribs), who made their way through the islands in dugout canoes, and who had named the island Ocananmanrou before the European settlers arrived to the Caribbean. In 1493, Christopher Columbus spotted the tiny island on his second voyage to the Caribbean. Although he never set foot on it, he named it Santa Maria la Redonda for its round shape, and noted the large number of birds on the island.

At that time, Redonda was an untouched paradise — visited only by the occasional seafarer — home to a rich variety of flora and fauna, including iguanas, borrowing owls, and thousands of birds. By the 1860s, however, the modern history of Redonda began to blossom, ushering in a period of corresponding negative impacts on the biodiversity of the island.

Ironically, it was the large population of seabirds nesting on Redonda that brought about the first permanent settlement there. Every year the birds produced several tons of waste, or guano, which contained the calcium phosphate that was then widely used in gunpowder and fertilizers. The British government, which had control of Redonda, eventually realized the island’s economic potential, and in 1869 the Redonda Phosphate Company was established, employing more than 100 miners. For several decades the miners stripped the island of guano, irreversibly affecting the landscape.

At the same time, a Montserratian trader alleged that the British monarchy had granted him the island. While his claim never received serious attention from the British government, the “monarchy” of Redonda achieved some fame in literary circles. After a few years, the “title” for the kingdom was passed down, sold, and resold by a number of individuals, with currently no fewer than five persons claiming the monarchy.

After the outbreak of World War I, mining on Redonda ground to a halt, primarily due to attacks on trade ships and changes in trade relations. A skeleton crew remained on the island for some time but left after a hurricane in 1929 destroyed most of the settlement.

The departure of the phosphate miners, however, left an even bigger problem: rats and goats. Goats had been brought to the island, ostensibly as a food source for the miners. But with the miners’ exit, the goat population exploded. Over the course of a few decades, the island, which still had some level of native vegetation left, was almost completely denuded. Without the plants and trees necessary to hold the soil in place, the island literally began to slide into the sea.

photo of Island of RedondaPhoto courtesy of Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora International Goats, initially brought to the island by phosphate miners, have denuded the island of much of its vegetation.

But goats weren’t the only problem. Black rats, brought to the island during the time of European colonization of the Caribbean, are thought to have been the predators of a number of native species, including the Redonda iguana and burrowing owl. The rats, of which there are now thousands, also harass the local seabirds, eating their eggs and baby chicks. Redonda was being pushed to the brink.

***

And then the international community stepped in. In 2009, the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds identified Redonda as the highest priority island in the Eastern Caribbean for restoration and conservation of seabirds and endemic wildlife. With this recognition, a number of entities involved in conservation came onboard with the idea of restoring the island. Some of the principals included the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), a leading Antiguan and Barbudan conservation non-profit that had already spearheaded rat-eradication efforts in Antigua and Barbuda. Also involved was Punnett-Steele’s organization, Flora and Fauna International (FFI), which had been supporting the EAG and other local conservation groups for well over two decades, and which has had the primary responsibility for executing the restoration project. The government of Antigua and Barbuda also joined the effort.

Along with other partners, these groups mounted a number of exploratory visits to the island with the idea of restoring Redonda. What they found astounded them.

Despite the fact that Redonda was slowly dying, there were still a number of rare and unique species found on the island. Chief among these was the Redonda ground lizard (or ground dragon), a jet-black lizard that had somehow managed survive, and even thrive, despite the competition for food from the rats. They also found the Redonda tree lizard, which inhabited the handful of trees that still stood on Redonda. What was most surprising was the discovery of the Redonda dwarf gecko, which, unlike the other two species, was previously unheard of on the island.

In addition to the three endemic lizard species, a number of rare bird species were discovered to be nesting on the few trees and on parts of the outcroppings on the island, including the magnificent frigate bird, as well as the masked, red-footed, and brown boobies. Their presence on the island played a pivotal role in having it declared an Important Birding Area. Given Redonda’s remote location, the conservation groups thought it possible that these species and others would have a nearly undisturbed location to rebound and thrive if restoration efforts were to succeed.

***

With the rare and endemic species in mind, the partner agencies came up with a two-phased strategy in 2016, known as the Redonda Restoration Programme, to revive the island. The first step is capturing the goats and removing them to Antigua, where researchers will investigate whether the animals have developed any special drought-resistant properties that may be useful to breed into other goats. The second phase of the plan is eradicating the rats, which involves laying an anticoagulant-based bait across the island.

Of course, the plan is not without challenges. One of the largest is the terrain, which according to Punnet-Steele, “has been very difficult to work with” in terms of hindering teams from easily capturing goats, which are extremely wary of humans. In addition, the rocky landscape makes some places difficult, if not impossible, to access by foot. To deal with this complication, mountaineers will be used to access these areas and plant bait manually. For areas that are simply impossible to access, bait will be thrown via helicopter.

The hope is that the removal of the goats and eradication of rats will allow native animals and plants to return to their previous levels. The return of native flora will not only help the land-based animals and seabirds, but the surrounding ocean as well. Falling rocks and debris have damaged nearby coral reefs and affected the water quality, but with trees and plants to hold the soil in place, the coral and nearby sea life should also begin to see improvements.

As with any major project, here are potential drawbacks, especially related to the use of rat poisons. These include the small but real chance that non-targeted may be affected by the poison, though Elizabeth “Biz” Bell, leader of the rat eradication team and Senior Ecologist at Wildlife Management International Ltd, says that rodenticide bait has been used to address rat problems on several other Caribbean islands without harming native species. Goats, attracted by the availability of a new food source, may end up consuming the poison, for example. The same can be said for the seabirds, including the possibility of secondary poisoning of birds that eat contaminated rodents.

In addition with near inaccessibility of large portions of the island, it is possible that some rats may escape being poisoned and reinfest the island, wasting time and money that could have been invested in other projects.

***

The Redonda Restoration Programme is already under way, with a number of local and international volunteers forming the bulk of the project team. Program partners expect to complete goat removal and rat baiting by June 2017. The restoration of Redonda could lead to a boom in seabird populations in the region, which could have a positive knock-on effect on biodiversity in the Eastern Caribbean region. The possible economic impact has not been overlooked either — talks on how to integrate Redonda as an eco-tourist or historical tourist attraction are already underway.

Overall, there is still a great deal of optimism about the success of the Redonda Restoration Programme, and the possibilities in store. According to Punnett-Steele, “We are expecting spectacular changes to the ecosystem, and hope that this is an opportunity for more to become interested in learning more about the importance of biodiversity conservation.”

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