Lands of Priolo: Integrated management to save a bird, recover natural habitats and promote sustainability

Pedro Monteiro
Published: 09 May 2018
Last edited: 17 July 2019
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Summary

The Azores bullfinch Pyrrhula murina, Priolo in Portuguese, is one of the rarest and most endangered birds in Europe and can only be found in the east of the island of São Miguel, Azores. 
For the last 15 years, habitat restoration and other conservation actions have been conducted on the Special Protected Area (SPA) where this bird is found. These projects have had excellent results for the conservation of this bird, improving its status from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable”, and recovering unique habitats: laurel forest and peat bogs. 
Management strategy included maximizing positive local socio-economic impacts, like job creation, expenses, educational opportunities, infrastructure creation and ecosystem services provision. This positive local impact, as well as efforts to raise awareness, have turned this bird into a symbol. The “Lands of Priolo” are now working to develop sustainable tourism that contributes to conservation of natural resources and local development.

Classifications

Region
West and South Europe
Scale of implementation
Local
Subnational
Ecosystem
Forest ecosystems
Freshwater ecosystems
Tropical evergreen forest
Wetland (swamp, marsh, peatland)
Theme
Ecosystem services
Invasive alien species
Islands
Protected area governance
Protected area management planning
Restoration
Tourism
Challenges
Ecosystem loss
Invasive species
Lack of access to long-term funding
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 11 – Sustainable cities and communities
SDG 15 – Life on land
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals
Aichi targets
Target 1: Awareness of biodiversity increased
Target 2: Biodiversity values integrated
Target 5: Habitat loss halved or reduced
Target 9: Invasive alien species prevented and controlled
Target 11: Protected areas
Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction
Target 13: Safeguarding genetic diversity
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge

Location

Nordeste, Azores, Portugal | Nordeste Azores Portugal, Povoação Azores Portugal
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Challenges

The main environmental challenges are that invasive alien species (IAS), namely Hedychium gardneranum, Clethra arborea, Pittosporum undulatum and Gunnera tinctoria and invasive tree ferns, have dominated the original laurel forest reducing the food availability for the Azores bullfinch. Restoring these habitats is a costly and time consuming effort, intensified by the rough terrain, with very steep slopes that require adapting and developing techniques for IAS control, land stabilization and recovery of vegetation.

On the socioeconomic side, the project takes place in rural municipalities affected by depopulation and unemployment. It has been a challenge to turn a conservation project, not initially regarded as a priority, into an opportunity for development that is owned with pride by most locals.

Finally, ensuring long term economic sustainability is a challenge that we are still struggling with. We intend to address it by promoting economic opportunities linked to the Protected Area.

Beneficiaries

Local community has benefited from project investment, job and infrastructure creation.  Tourism companies benefit from a more attractive destiny and training. Local schools have benefited from an outdoors science education programme.

How do the building blocks interact?

Ecological restoration of natural habitats (1) is the main action of the project and was the first one to be started after the scientific diagnosis and the definition of a Species Action Plan. These actions are essential to ensure the long term conservation of the Azores bullfinch and natural habitats, and the continued provision of ecosystem services. Production of native and endemic species (2) is essential for the success of habitat restoration and it can also be used for environmental education and raising awareness.

However, ensuring support for these costly actions was an important issue. The Environmental Education Programme (3) was developed allowing dissemination among students and their families.

Raising awareness and spreading information through a visitor’s centre (4) improved the local perception of the project and, by attracting tourists, promoted local economic opportunities. Later, this increase in tourism was managed with all stakeholders through the Participatory Sustainable Tourism Planning (5).

Throughout the entire project, monitoring of Azores bullfinch population and restoration success (6) allowed problem detection and identification of management opportunities, and also provided valuable data for the project.

Impacts

This project has made it possible to recover more than 450 hectares of laurel forest and 83 hectares of peat bogs in the Azores, and to change the conservation status of the Azores bullfinch from “critically endangered” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. For this purpose, more than 200,000 endemic and native plants have been grown in nurseries and replanted.

The project also contributed to the local economy by creating an average of 21 full-time jobs, and ensuring the investment of about 85% of its budget in local businesses, developing and improving tourism infrastructure such as the visitors' centre and trails, and increasing international promotion of the Lands of Priolo and the Azores archipelago. Ecosystem services derived from ecological restoration have also been improved, such as improving water quality and supply and a reduction in erosion processes.

The project has organized environmental education actions in all schools of the island with 20,645 students reached so far; as well as general public activities with 9,451 participants and 27 training sessions for teachers and tourism guides with 1,149 participants to date.

The tourism planning process of the Lands of Priolo was awarded the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism, having implemented 36 actions and managing to involve 47 tourism companies as partners for conservation through the Priolo brand.

Story

Daniel Jareño

The Priolo: An Azorean conservation success

The priolo (Pyrrhula murina) is a small, black and grey bird with a chubby build. Globally, it can only be found in the municipalities of Nordeste and Povoação on the island of São Miguel, Azores - the Lands of Priolo. However, nothing would make the priolo different from the other species found in the Azores, if not for its history. An epic story of a bird that was persecuted as a plague almost to extinction, and later protected and cherished, managing to escape extinction.

In the past, the priolo was abundant to the point of being considered a plague and hunted by farmers. Priolos that found their food sources very reduced in the mountains due to deforestation would go in big flocks to feed in the orange groves. Later, in the mid-20th century, the priolo almost disappeared. It was so rare that the Carlos Machado Museum offered a reward to anyone who could give information about the species and it was sought after by many researchers globlly. At this time its population was estimated at less than 300 birds.

But it was not hunting or deforestation that proved to be thepriolo's worst enemy. Exotic plants brought into the island, mainly for gardens, grew at a quick pace and dominated the already degraded Azorean laurel forest – reducing its food source.

In the 1990’s, priolo conservation became of international concern and studies were conducted classifying it as “critically endangered”. At that time, the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds and the Regional Government of Azores started to remove the invasive species and plant native species that could serve as food for the priolo.

Currently, the Azores have 450 hectares of recovered laurel forest with more than 200,000 new Azorean plants, some of which were as endangered as the priolo itself. Priolo populations have increased to around 1,000 and stay stable; the species is now considered "vulnerable".

The priolo has become a symbol: it has served as a flagship species for the recovery of peat bogs, which are essential for water supply; it has been the inspiration behind an environmental education programme for almost a generation of students; and it has allowed the promotion of a sustainable tourism destination with a successful biodiversity conservation story to tell. Furthermore, it has become a source of pride for the local population.

Contributed by

Azucena de la Cruz Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds

Other contributors

SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds
SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds
SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds
SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds
SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds
SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds
SPEA- Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds