Durrell Lecture 2022: Small but Mighty

Rathbone Greenbank and Rathbones were delighted to support the 2022 Durrell Lecture.

30 November 2022

In the shadow of King George III’s private collection of rare volumes at The British Library, explorer and broadcaster Monty Halls, veteran conservation biologist Professor Carl Jones MBE, and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust CEO Dr Lesley Dickie discussed how focusing conservation efforts on individual species is helping to redefine extinction prevention and accelerate the recovery of struggling ecosystems. The lecture’s theme – “Small but Mighty” – highlighted two important elements of the Trust’s conservation ethos: that the preservation of smaller, lesser-known species can generate big opportunities for wider environmental restoration, and that the passion, determination and perseverance of small conservation groups and individuals in the field can achieve extraordinary things. 

Carl Jones is renowned for having saved more vertebrate species from extinction than any other conservationist. His rationale for concentrating on individual species stems from observing how important small, seemingly insignificant animals are to the overall health of their habitats. Because of that connection, he believes species conservation is one of the most effective ways of restoring failing ecosystems. His work to save the Mauritius kestrel in the 1970s – the world’s rarest bird at the time – led to the creation of a protected national park and in more recent times, efforts to save the endangered pygmy hog have resulted in the recovery of alluvial grasslands in Assam. 

The link between species conservation and ecosystem recovery teaches us that there are no quick fixes for centuries of environmental decline. We must all endeavour to “be a good ancestor” and understand the value of restorative actions that one generation starts for others to continue. Durrell’s strength over the years has been to recognise that conservation is a long-term commitment, and that species decline must be understood before it’s addressed. Captive breeding programmes are undertaken at Jersey Zoo and in country at specialist breeding facilities in Saint Lucia, Montserrat, Madagascar and India to observe the habits and functions of critically endangered species. Where the species is extremely rare, Durrell may turn to an analogous species to experiment with conservation techniques. The skills learned during these programmes are eventually transferred to conservationists working in the wild.  

Durrell’s captive breeding facility in Saint Lucia, for example, will help them to reintroduce the world’s rarest snake – the Saint Lucia racer which is restricted in desperately small numbers to the offshore island of Maria Major, to a secured, predator-free site on the Saint Lucia mainland.  Decimated by the introduction of non-native predators like the Indian mongoose, cats and rats in the 19th century, the racer was declared extinct in 1936 before the discovery of a specimen in 1973 gave hope it could be saved. Durrell has monitored racer habitats since the 1990s and worked on habitat enhancement measures to help increase the population. Sightings of juveniles in recent times suggest these measures are working. 

In the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, Durrell’s work to prevent the extinction of species like the Saint Lucia racer sends a powerful and positive message: that if we can save the rarest, we can save them all. Durrell’s greatest asset – perhaps the most important ‘species’ in play – is its global network of conservationists and biologists drawn from local populations. Continually supported and mentored by Durrell, this energised and committed network has been invaluable in mobilising quickly to mitigate the damage of crises threatening the Trust’s programmes. 

When the deadly fungal disease chytridiomycosis reached Montserrat in 2009, it spread rapidly through the Caribbean island’s population of mountain chicken frogs, reducing their numbers by 99%. With local support, the Durrell team in Montserrat was able to rescue 50 frogs and establish a captive breeding programme at Jersey Zoo to ensure the species’ survival. The project team’s success in saving the mountain chicken frog from extinction has created a base model for protecting other amphibian species threatened by chytridiomycosis. 

The 2020 MV Wakashio oil spill off the coast of Mauritius presented the Trust with a far greater challenge. On 25 July, the Japanese freighter MV Wakashio ran aground on a coral reef. Within days, 1,000 tonnes of fuel oil had leaked into the ocean, threatening nearby nature reserves and national parks. Working with local and international partners, Durrell mobilised quickly to save three of the island’s rarest species of reptile: the lesser night gecko and the Bojer’s and Bouton’s skinks. Unique to Mauritius, all three species play a vital role in the island’s ecosystem as predators, prey for other endangered species, pollinators, and seed dispersers.  

Operating in hazardous conditions, the team including Durrell, Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and Mauritian Government rescued founders for a sustainable safety population to place with expert care at the Trust’s Jersey Zoo. Keeping ahead of the spill, the team also had to work out how to preserve their reptiles on a long-haul flight from Mauritius and how to negotiate the difficulties of organising such a flight at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The Jean Boulle Group responded with air rescue and helped to monitor cabin temperatures throughout the 30-hour transit. 

 The long-term care the reptiles will receive in Jersey will ensure the growth of their populations away from the disaster zone and provide Durrell with more insight into how they might support their reintroduction onto Mauritius once the impacts of the oil spill are better understood. 

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once declared: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Durrell’s thoughtful and committed approach to ecosystem recovery is helping to change the world, one species at a time.