RSPB to unleash army of predatory insects onto island to protect world's rarest species of bunting

Helena Horton
There are thought to be only 85 pairs of these buntings left in the world - RSPB

The RSPB is to release predatory insects onto an island in order to protect the world's rarest bunting, in a new government-funded programme.

The Wilkins Bunting is one of the rarest birds in the world, found on Tristan da Cunha, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. There are thought to be only 85 pairs left.

Invasive bugs are to blame for their population's crash towards extinction; scale insects have been destroying the native Phylica trees, which the birds depend on for food.

Not only are they beautiful, but the colourful little birds on the island are important for the study of evolution, as they evolved much like Darwin's finches on the Galapagos.

The rarest, the golden Wilkins’ bunting, has a large beak evolved for eating the Phylica fruit.

To save the birds, scientists will be releasing predatory insects to eat the invasive species and prevent them from destroying more of the trees. Researchers are still studying which insects will be used, but ladybirds have been used before in similar projects.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced over £5m of environmental funding for the UK Overseas Territories, including a £600,000 grant to fund this project.

Head of the RSPB UK Overseas Territories unit Jonathan Hall said: “This Darwin funding announcement comes in the nick of time to save an incredible bird and an entire forest ecosystem from potentially disappearing forever. There is much work to be done, but we hope this vital grant may provide a lifeline to the islands’ extremely vulnerable wildlife."

Other wildlife to benefit from Defra's new fund include the British Virgin Islands’ turtle populations. They are funding education for local people on turtle conservation, and preserving and their reefs and seagrass meadow habitats.

Additionally, a number of species, such as Antarctic fur seals, albatross and penguin species including macaroni, king and Gentoo, in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands will be surveyed through drones to establish their baseline populations to help monitor and manage their long-term recovery .

International Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith said:  “Through our Darwin Initiative and Darwin Plus programme, we are restoring many precious natural environments across the world, helping to transform the lives of the poorest communities and prevent the extinction of some of the world’s most wonderful species.”