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Low public concern about alien plants and animals is hampering conservation efforts on island nations as scientists battle the rapid decline of pristine habitats, a conference has heard.

As the impact of alien species on fragile island ecosystems is becoming increasingly clear, public awareness of the issue is sorely lacking, a panel of experts told the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii last week. They said that locals do not mind invasive species, especially plants, which makes it difficult to get community support for conservation efforts.

“We see very low public concern about many invasive plant species,” says Christy Martin, a spokeswoman for the international Coordination Group on Alien Pest Species, which unites scientists and NGOs. “Many people think: ‘I have it in my garden, so it’s not a problem’.”

“Scientists need the support of communities to identify which invasive species are most risky or most manageable.”

Piero Genovesi, Institute for Environmental Protection and Research 

Low awareness of the risks hampers research on how alien species arrive in a country, according to scientists at the conference. Many people will not remember trips they have taken where clothing and luggage may have become contaminated. Others might find invasive species attractive or use them for business purposes, meaning they are reluctant to banish them from their gardens and farms, Martin says.

For example, an invasive blackberry species that damages grazing lands on the Easter Islands of the south-eastern Pacific is used by many locals for berry picking.

Researchers at the event told a packed audience that most extinction of rare species happens not because of climate change, but because alien plants and animals take over their territory. Piero Genovesi, a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research in Italy, presented work showing that 61 per cent of recently lost island species have gone extinct due to invaders.

Genovesi told the event that 31 per cent of plants and animals now present on islands worldwide are not part of their original fauna and flora.

“Scientists need the support of communities to identify which invasive species are most risky or most manageable,” he says. “Locals are also important to tell us which regions and sites are most in danger.”

The event, which took place on 2 September, heard that scientists working with invasive species need better training on how to communicate the risks posed by invasive species and help educate the people living with and using alien plants or animals every day.

On large landmasses, education is not feasible as too many people are affected by the issue, the panel agreed — but island nations have an advantage, Martin says. They are usually small communities where messages spread quickly and community self-policing is easily established.

“The remaining problem is that on islands you have to constantly deal with a lack of infrastructure,” she says. “We need more funds for research and technology to get the job done properly.”