The entire land area of a remote UK overseas territory will be given protected status to conserve its rich wildlife, its government has said.
The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) said it intends to designate the entire 3,800 square kilometre (nearly 1,500 square miles) landmass of the islands as terrestrial protected areas.
It said the designation would complement the marine protected area around the islands which is five times larger than the UK and includes a 283,000 square kilometre (109,000 square mile) fully protected reserve where all fishing is banned.
South Georgia’s beaches teem with fur and elephant seals and vast colonies of penguins in summer.
The low-lying ice-free areas of the mostly mountainous landscape are home to birds including albatrosses, the world’s most southerly songbird – the South Georgia pipit – and a species of carnivorous duck.
The extremely remote South Sandwich Islands play host to some of the world’s largest penguin colonies.
The government says it wants to enhance the protection of the island’s incredible wildlife, while allowing visitors to enjoy sustainable trips to the territory.
It plans to develop a South Georgia protected area which will focus on guarding the ecosystem and promoting its wildlife, facilitating scientific research, and allowing sustainable visits.
A South Sandwich Islands protected area will recognise their pristine nature, and the absence of non-native species introduced by humans, and strengthen the protection that arises from their inaccessibility, it said.
The government will draw up management plans in consultation with partners, in preparation for drafting of legislation on the protected areas, while a second phase of the project will identify areas in South Georgia that need additional research, monitoring and management.
The move to further protect the islands’ nature comes after the success of a £10 million rat and mice eradication scheme to protect native birds, which saw South Georgia declared free of the introduced rodents in 2018.
Introduced reindeer have also been removed from the island, which was once a whaling and sealing site, and there are ongoing programmes to remove non-native plant species.
Mark Belchier, director of fisheries and environment at the GSGSSI, said: “The move towards designating South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands terrestrial protected areas (TPAs) will further strengthen the protection offered to one of the world’s most iconic biodiversity hotspots, home to millions of seals, seabirds and penguins.
“Increasing the legal protections and clear management objectives for the Territories’ landmass complements our existing marine protected areas, whilst facilitating globally significant science alongside sustainable visits to the islands.
“This is a hugely important step forward for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and for all the wildlife that call this special part of the world home.”
The move has been welcomed by conservationists and scientists.
Chief executive of the UK’s advisory Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Dr Gemma Harper said: “The Government of SGSSI has shown real commitment to the protection of species such as Albatrosses and Petrels through its highly successful marine protected area and the intention to create territory wide terrestrial protected areas.”