Vanishing Islands

(By Duane Silverstein) In a few weeks millions of viewers will be tuning in to Survivor-Palau to see which of 18 castaways will be the last to be voted off one of Palau's...

In a few weeks millions of viewers will be tuning in to Survivor-Palau to see which of 18 castaways will be the last to be voted off one of Palau's beautiful Rock Islands. Yet a far more consequential contest of survival is taking place in Palau and all of the world's 100,000 plus islands. Will these islands themselves be voted off the planet?

Although islands conjure up images of pristine tropical paradises, they are actually among the world's most threatened ecosystems. In the last 400 years, over 50 per cent of all plant and animal species extinctions including an astonishing 90 per cent of all bird species extinctions have occurred on islands. Seventy- two percent of all the plant and animal extinctions ever recorded in the U.S. have occurred in Hawaii, a state that makes up less than two-tenths of one per cent of the nation's land area. In the last 400 years Lord Howe Island, a small island located in the Coral Sea between Australia and New Zealand, has had more bird species and subspecies extinctions than Africa, Asia and Europe combined.

Much has been written about global warming and climate change. Nowhere in the world will its consequences be felt more strongly than on islands, some of which will cease to exist if the seas continue to rise due to melting polar ice caps. Some low-lying atolls such as Tuvalu in the western Pacific have already begun discussing contingency plans to evacuate residents if this trend continues. During the recent tsunami for a brief period of time every inch of every one of the 300 plus islands of the Maldives was submerged under water.

And islands are far more than the inconsequential specks of land with one palm tree pictured in a New Yorker cartoon. The 125 largest islands alone have a combined landmass equal to the size of Europe. If one includes the exclusive economic zones that cover ocean resources several miles off shore, islands have claim to one-sixth of the world's surface harboring one half of our planet's marine biodiversity. It surprises most people to learn that one out of every ten people on earth is an islander, so this struggle for survival has enormous consequences.

Four hundred years ago poet John Donne wrote "No man is an island." But in a modern age of jet travel, international fishing fleets, satellite communications and far reaching ecological trends such as global warming and acid rain, he might correctly write, "No island is an island."

The very isolation that until relatively recently protected island environments from encroachment now makes their ecosystems extremely vulnerable to damage from such outside threats as introduced species. The devastating impact of introduced foxes on the seabird colonies of Alaska and the destruction caused by feral pigs in Hawaii are only two such examples. Compounding this problem on land, the coral reefs and mangrove forests that surround most tropical islands are rapidly disappearing due to human interventions such as cyanide and dynamite fishing, sewage discharge, pesticide runoff, and dumping of waste from ocean liners.

The devastation of island cultures is happening at an even more alarming rate. There are over 800 languages spoken in one island -- Papua New Guinea -- alone, yet an alarmingly high percentage of these languages are spoken only by a small number of tribal elders over sixty years of age. When this generation dies so will many of the world's languages and cultures.

Most of the world's islands have small populations and on an international basis, little political clout. Non-governmental organizations such as Seacology are doing what we can to save these invaluable island environments and cultures. It will take a concerted effort by all nations to develop policies that will protect islands, the great repositories of the world's biodiversity. Without such a new initiative our tribe will have spoken. By our inaction we will have voted precious island ecosystems and cultures-and in the case of rising sea levels, the islands themselves-off our planet.

Duane Silverstein is the executive director of Seacology, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization whose sole focus is preserving the environments and cultures of islands throughout the globe.

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