December 2015

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Union Island Gecko Initiative – An emergency project to save the critically endangered Gonatodes daudini

REPORT

Update to St Vincent & the Grenadines Preservation Fund, February 2016

The Union Island Gecko Gonatodes daudini is one of the most endangered animals in St Vincent & the Grenadines, being threatened by habitat loss, invasive alien species and a rising demand from reptile collectors in the West. This small but attractive lizard is endemic to Union Island, specifically to the forested slopes above Chatham Bay: a range of not more than 50 hectares. First described in 2005, little is known about the Union Island Gecko, other than it inhabits rocky areas in mature dry forest. In 2011, the species was listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, signifying it is at very high risk of extinction.

The Union Island Gecko Initiative (UIGI) was launched in 2016 by the SVG Forestry Department, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Virginia Zoo to prevent the extinction of the gecko and use it as a flagship for forest conservation on Union Island. Our achievements in the first month include:

  1. The Forestry Department (Mr Glenroy Gaymes, Dr Joanne Gaymes, Mr Bradford Latham and Mr Cornelius Lyttle), Fauna & Flora International (Dr Jenny Daltry) and Union Island Environmental Attackers (Mr Rosemond Adams) conducted a total of 5 days of surveys of the gecko population and Chatham Bay Forest, with additional assistance from local residents Mr Matthew Harvey (co-discoverer of the gecko in 2005) and his son Joshua. Key observations included: 
    • A dozen Union Island Geckos were found, one quarter of which had broken tails (an indicator of predator attack and/or careless human captures). 
    • Gecko collectors had evidently been very active in this area, leaving many rocks and logs overturned (thereby depleting the available habitat for geckos and other small animals).
    • Access trails lead directly into the gecko’s range from Chatham Bay beach, where many yachts and other vessels are moored.   
    • The Chatham Bay forests are exceptionally rich in wildlife, including at least 15 species of reptiles. This could well be the most biodiverse deciduous coastal forest in the Lesser Antilles.
    • Ominously, the presence of new concrete monuments and flagging tape could indicate that construction projects are being planned in at least part of the gecko’s range. 
    • Although part of this area is shown on maps as “Reserve”, it is unclear whether these were ever fully gazetted as Forest Reserves. Some areas appear to have been recently sold.
  2. A lively 2-day stakeholder workshop on Union Island to develop the Union Island Gecko Action Plan, facilitated by Dr Jenny Daltry (FFI) and Mr Glenroy Gaymes (SVGFD). Key observations included 
    • The meeting was well represented by nearly 40 persons from government agencies, NGOs and local businesses, all of whom were fully engaged and participated very actively.
    • The meeting included participatory planning exercise as well as short educational presentations on the findings from ‘1’ and methods used for conserving endangered species in other areas.
    • Most Union Island residents had never heard of, let alone seen the Union Island Gecko, but were surprised and proud to learn they are unique to this island. They expressed great enthusiasm to conserve the species.
    • The participants identified a suite of objectives and actions to conserve the gecko. Agreed priorities include: raising awareness and pride in the gecko; protecting critical parts of Chatham Bay Forests and recruiting local persons as Forest Rangers; promoting sustainable tourism; and listing the species on CITES Appendix I.   
    • The workshop was featured on national TV and Radio Grenadines social media sites. 

Immediately following the workshop, Director of Forestry Mr Fitzgerald Providence and Dr Jenny Daltry debriefed Hon. Minister Saboto Caesar, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries and Rural Transformation and the Permanent Secretary Raymond Ryan of these findings. Both expressed strong support for listing the Union Island Gecko on CITES and improving management on the ground. It was noted that another shipment of geckos was reported by a trader in the UK as recently as 27th January.

Next steps include: 

  • Circulate the draft action plan for review (by all persons who participated in the workshop, plus other key experts who were unable to attend). 
  • Conduct an evening or weekend presentation on Union Island to present the draft plan to a larger number of residents and solicit their feedback.
  • Meet with Lands & Surveys to clarify ownership and development plans in the Chatham Bay Forest area, and halt the sales of lands marked as Reserve. 
  • Prepare the justification for listing the Union Island Gecko on CITES Appendix I.
  • Urgently secure funding to implement all priority actions in the plan.

Other accomplishments

In addition to the work on Union Island Geckos, the project team also opportunistically collected DNA from five iguanas on Union Island and Palm Island, to support a much-needed study of the taxonomy of the genus Iguana. The iguanas in this area are morphologically very distinctive and are being illegally exported from Union Island under the trade name ‘Pink Rhino Iguana’. The samples have been sent to Dr David Schlikorski’s Genindexe lab in France for analysis (at their cost), and any news will be relayed to SVGPF.