At One with Nature – RIAS Revisited

Sue Parker ponders the prospects of endangered species at Ria Formosa Nature Reserve

Based on an article by Sue Parker in Algarve Resident, January 23rd 2015. Algarve Resident is the leading English-language newspaper and the source of essential information for Residents and would-be Residents in the Algarve. More information about Algarve Resident...

In the seemingly endless battle between people anxious to preserve the best of the Algarve’s natural environment and those striving to smother what remains with yet more hotels and golf courses, it is always heartening to learn of a better future being forged from something bad in the past. A shining example of this is RIAS, a Wildlife Rehabilitation and Investigation Centre based in Ria Formosa Nature Reserve to care for injured or debilitated wildlife. This is not simply reactive work; an important aim of RIAS is to investigate and head off threats to wildlife conservation and to promote understanding of the importance and value of biodiversity.

Staff at RIAS Animal Hospital in the Algarve
Above: Sue’s husband Pat with three of the most endangered species on the Algarve - conservation workers and volunteers. (The fourth member of the group is a European Pond Turtle.)

RIAS owes its existence to ANA Aeroportos de Portugal’s development at Faro Airport impinging on land that was designated for nature conservation.  Through the Business and Biodiveristy initiative, the compensation paid for this encroachment enabled the establishment of the RIAS centre in 2009. The institute for Nature Conservation and Forestry provided the buildings which they had previously run as a bird hospital. Initially the project was funded until 2012, but due to further construction work at the airport this has now been extended until 2018.

Three Eagle Owls at RIAS
Above: Eagle Owls are more than happy to bite the hand that feeds them!

Four employees are assisted by three student volunteers, and between them they run the facility seven days a week, caring around-the-clock for ‘patients’ ranging from lost turtles to badly injured or abused birds of prey. They also staff an Environmental Interpretive Centre where visitors can learn more about wildlife and the work of RIAS, and obtain books that have been donated to support the work.

On one visit I met three young Eagle Owls recovering from serious abuse. To keep them as ‘wild’ as possible, human contact is kept to a minimum - a policy I would particularly applaud were I the one required to feed these huge and fearsome birds. The skill and courage of RIAS staff and volunteers in caring for them was awe-inspiring.

Another project entailed breeding native European Pond Turtles, a species whose survival is jeopardised by the more aggressive Red-eared Slider Turtles - unwanted pets released into the wild once their owners tire of looking after them. RIAS staff fear that renewed interest in Ninja Turtles, which feature in a new generation of computer games, will lead to many more non-native turtles being dumped in ponds and streams.

People from countries where nature conservation is much higher up the political and personal agenda are shocked by the evident disregard for nature that pervades the Algarve. It’s not that other countries are immune to the scourge of fly-tipping and other environmental crimes, but they benefit from powerful government-funded bodies tasked with fighting back on behalf of the natural world. They also have non-governmental bodies with strong public support and hence significant political clout despite many of their conservation volunteers being retired and getting on in years. At the end of their working careers they become the opposite of their cash-rich, time-poor former selves and can help with tasks in a sector where time is at least as important as money.

The animal operating theatre at RIAS
Above: the operating theatre at RIAS. Many of the animals are so seriously injured that surgery is crucial if they are to survive.

It’s not like that in the Algarve. Here the volunteers are mostly students working part time on projects to gain experience that might lead to employment in wildlife conservation. There are no ‘oldies’ at RIAS; the staff are refreshingly young idealists passionate about securing a better future for the Algarve’s wildlife despite the huge pressures driving developments that erode vital habitats. Their future and that of the idealists who follow behind them is dependent on educating schoolchildren in the importance of protecting at least some of our natural environment. RIAS staff and volunteers visit schools whenever they can, but sadly the current level of funding does not stretch to a full-time Education Officer.

Not just here in the Algarve but everywhere, major donors expect something high profile in return - publicity posters, a prestigious project launch, cutting a ribbon to tumultuous applause. It’s a tragedy if the funding of day-to-day conservation work and environmental education is dependent on the next violation of the natural world. Conservation needs a throng of unsung heroes, supporters who seek neither publicity nor personal gain but who make ongoing donations because they enjoy living in the Algarve and truly value the work of conservation staff and volunteers such as those at RIAS.

To learn more about the essential work of this critically endangered animal hospital, make a donation or sponsor an injured animal visit the online links below. Even better, take a stroll around this lovely coastal nature reserve and call into the Centre to meet some truly inspirational volunteers.

Campanha de Apadrinhamentos de Natal

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