An appeal for money to save threatened species in UK overseas territories – including St Helena’s spiky yellow woodlouse – has raised three quarters of its £240,000 target.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds urges would-be donors to support “a team effort” with conservationists, governments and local people.
When the appeal was launched, the organisation’s website said the St Helena Olive tree was the most recent species to be lost.
Since then, the island’s giant earwig has also been declared extinct.
The appeal page says:
St Helena’s precious cloud forest is home to the black cabbage tree, which grows in only one place – and only 250 square metres are left. This habitat is the only place where the spiky yellow woodlouse is found. There are fewer than 50 woodlice left, living on just 20 ferns. We’re creating an artificial forest canopy to keep the ferns the way the woodlice like them.
The Tristan albatross is only found in this territory, with all except two pairs nesting on Gough Island. It’s on the brink of extinction, and sadly introduced house mice eat albatross chicks alive and in total kill over half a million seabird chicks here every year. We’re working on ways of getting rid of the mice.
We’re also taking steps to save the severely endangered Wilkins’ bunting, which only lives on one tiny island in the entire world, Nightingale. There are only 80 pairs in existence, so we’re helping them by planting more of their favourite trees.
The RSPB says a £15 donation can fund a square metre of shade canopy in the St Helena cloud forest.
The website also has a 17-minute film, Invaders of the UK Overseas Territories, about the diversity of Britain’s far-off islands and the threat posed by alien species. St Helenian conservationist Stedson Stroud is shown, telling how seabirds have returned to Ascension after the eradication of feral cats.
If only things had been different back in the 1960s, Dave Clarke of London Zoo might now know what it was like to have a three-inch-long earwig wriggling in his hands.
But they weren’t, and half a century on, the St Helena Giant Earwig looks set to be declared extinct. Not that Dave is giving up hope completely.
He led an expedition to the island in 1988, hoping to find live specimens for a captive breeding programme to save the species. It appears they got there too late.
The tragedy was that a team from Belgium found live specimens in the 1960s, but the idea of captive breeding just hadn’t taken hold yet. In effect, they had got there too early.
“It is a massive frustration,” admits Dave, team leader of the Bugs and Butterflies exhibits for the Zoological Society of London.
“The last time they had been properly seen was in the 1960s – the Belgian expeditions,” says Dave.
“They made an assessment of live specimens but they weren’t properly seen since, though there was a report of them being seen in 1967.
“Back in the 50s and 60s it wasn’t such a high consideration to be looking at conservation breeding. It is much more an initial consideration these days.”
To be fair, even London Zoo didn’t start doing it until the 1980s. Now it can have the main population of a threatened species in a single room. “You can do a lot in a small space,” says Dave. “It’s not quite as expensive as trying to save tigers.”
Even with invertebrates, though, funding is a problem – including on St Helena. And even if the Belgians had taken live specimens of Labidura herculeana back to the Royal Museum for Central Africa, they may not have survived.
It has since been tried with another of St Helena’s more “charismatic” invertebrates – unsuccessfully.
“There’s only a limited amount you can do with captive breeding, even with invertebrates,” says Dave. “Many species are reliant on habitats which are difficult to replicate in captivity.
“A current example is the St Helena Spiky Yellow Woodlouse, which is only found on The Peaks. That is probably a population of a hundred, but we wouldn’t want to take animals out of the wild for captive breeding because we simply don’t know the best way to keep them in captivity.
“We have tried once before, but none survived.”
Sadly, no members of the Belgian expeditions are thought to be alive either, so they cannot be asked about their adventure. The Africa museum kindly supplied pictures of the giant earwig in their collection, but could find none of the expedition itself.
Their findings were included in a 1980 book on the island’s natural riches.
When Dave Clarke led the Operation Hercules expedition to St Helena in 1988, the giant earwig was already listed as threatened and potentially extinct. But there were grounds for hope.
“We knew that the chances were slim,” says Dave.
“Knowing that specimens of the forceps were being found we thought there may be a chance, especially with the recent efforts to recreate some of the habitats with the planting of gumwoods on the side of Horse Point Plain.
“We thought, if there was a remnant population there was a chance they could improve and hang on and do better given the habitat protection that was going on.”
The Dodo of the Dermaptera, as it has been nicknamed, was always elusive. The Belgium team had described now the earwigs lived under rocks, and would quickly retreat into deep fissures in the soil.
“It was just physical searching and setting up pitfall traps, because we were also looking for the endemic ground beetle. Unfortunately we weren’t finding any of those either.
“We did come across some of the pincers of the earwig but we weren’t able to tell how recently they were alive. They did look quite fresh, although may have been decades old.”
At the time, there was little understanding of the global significance of St Helena’s invertebrates. In 2014 the island was declared to have more endemic species of them, per square mile of land, than the Galapagos Islands.
London Zoo saw its importance, sending a second expedition in 1993. “We did quite a lot of publicity, including going on the Wogan programme, which was one of the biggest TV slots in the UK.
“We ran a symposium in London – St Helena Natural Treasury. That did stimulate more interest.
“The giant earwig was very much a flagship for endemic invertebrates, and something that would capture the general public’s imagination, having an earwig over three inches long.”
Even the most glamorous of St Helena’s invertebrates are no match for the marine iguanas of the Galapagos in terms of public appeal, admits Dave. “But they can be flagships for protecting the habitat, which has a knock-on for other species.
“That is being done on The Peaks. But it’s a slow process.”
Dave supported the recent idea of choosing a new national flower in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. It makes a poor symbol for St Helena’s efforts to protect the endemic plants that are unique to St Helena.
“St Helena has suffered more than most from introductions having a negative effect on the native flora and fauna,” he says. “So I would support it being an endemic.”
And what about a national invertebrate?
“I hadn’t thought about that. Certainly highest in our mind is the spiky yellow woodlouse, because it does still exist. We might have considered the giant earwig before but I think we are too late.
“It will be 50 years next year since the last definitive living specimens were collected. But we never know: it might still reappear.
“A species of snail from the Seychelles was declared extinct in 2007 but was found this year, alive.
“Maybe there are some earwigs clinging on there somewhere. But they will only survive if we reinstate those habitats.”
Dave had strong praise for his namesake Dave Pryce, who has been assessing the state of St Helena’s 400-or-so endemic invertebrates for the Bugs on the Brink project – and who warned that he expected to submit a formal proposal to declare the giant earwig extinct. But there were concerns about whether there would be enough funding for him to continue his work on the island, especially his efforts to conserve the spiky yellow woodlouse.
Takeshi Yamada, a collector of strange creatures, is the proud owner of what appears to be a St Helena giant earwig – a specimen made more valuable by last week’s news that the species is likely to be officially declared extinct.
But it doesn’t deceive Dr Roger Key, who visited St Helena in 2013 as part of the Bugs on the Brink project.
He has posted a picture of the creature on the internet, with the following caption:
“Don’t be fooled! This a clever fake, produced by Takeshi Yamada. As far as I can gather it is the head of a longhorn beetle, various bits of probably two cockroaches (the thorax, abdomen and wings) and the ‘pincers’ are probably jaws from a large beetle or dobsonfly.”
Mr Takeshi is no fraud. He is an artist who creates fantastical creatures, including a vast sea monster, using his skills as a taxidermist.
Charles Darwin glossed over it, but now St Helena has been officially recognised as Britain’s wealthiest spot on Earth when it comes to natural treasures.
The island is home to a third of the endemic species that are found on British territory around the world – that is, plants and creatures that appear naturally in only one place.
A “stock-take” by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds puts it far ahead of second-placed Bermuda. But it also highlights severe ignorance in London about the ecology of Britain’s far-flung territories, and a lack of strategy for protecting it.
St Helena even beats the iconic Galapagos Islands – seven times over – when it comes to unique invertebrates (judged on land mass).
Sadly, spiders and insects don’t attract eco tourists in quite the same way as the natural wonders of the Galapagos, but perhaps that’s just as well, given the massive strain that tourism has brought to those islands.
Their human population has grown five-fold since the 1970s, when it had the same number of people as St Helena has today. And with three airports and a stream of cruise ships visiting, they’re under daily threat of alien species being brought in and causing havoc to a fragile eco-system.
Bio-security is already being strengthened on St Helena in readiness for the opening of its first airport in 2016.
A press release from The Castle in Jamestown describes the island as “a mid-Atlantic life-raft of rare and irreplaceable species”.
Concerns about protecting agriculture and public health are cited as further reasons to control what comes in to the island.
The RSPB’s findings have been welcomed by Linda Houston of Shelco, the group planning to build an eco resort at Broad Bottom on St Helena.
She said: “This is great news and underpins the importance of a low volume, high value tourism strategy for St Helena.
“As illustrated by our approach to invasive species clearance and the establishment of [our] wirebird sanctuary, St Helena’s biodiversity is a central component of our scheme.
“In our work at Broad Bottom we aim to encourage innovation and knowledge transfer amongst local and international renowned centres of excellence, which can be applied across the island.”
The RSPB’s stock-take of Britain’s overseas territories is the first one ever to be undertaken.
It was commissioned after a cross-party body of Members of Parliament in London attacked the British government for failing in its duty to protect the environment in its overseas territories.
The Environmental Audit Committee said the government did not even know what it was supposed to be looking after.
The survey brought together all known records from the past 300 years.
Many of the species recorded in those archives are now lost, including the St Helena olive that was rescued from apparent extinction by George Benjamin BEM, who first woke St Helenians up to the importance of their endemic plants.
He also began the planting of gumwood trees on the east of the island that evolved into the Millennium Forest.
A battle is currently being fought to save the false gumwood tree, which has died out in one of its two last remaining outposts. Just seven adult trees survive in a single location, and efforts are being made to harvest and propagate its seeds.
The same delicate technique recently saved the bastard gumwood when it became the world’s rarest tree, with only one specimen surviving.
Jeremy Harris, director of the St Helena National Trust, said: “Over 14 million years, St Helena has developed a totally unique biosphere of incredible diversity protected by thousands of miles of ocean.
“Five hundred years ago, it was discovered by people who brought goats and rats and other species that had a huge impact on its fragile environment.
“What remains today is still clearly remarkable and unique and of international significance. St Helena, now more than ever, needs our protection and care as the airport approaches, bringing with it new risks and challenges.”
Senior Veterinary Officer Joe Hollins said the opening of the airport would remove the “quarantine effect” of a five-day sea voyage to reach St Helena.
“Biosecurity on St Helena is necessarily being tightened,” he said.
“We already have laws in place for live animals and related genetic materials, and for fruit, vegetables, plants and related products; and the Bees Ordinance protects our disease-free bees and honey.
“But remaining loopholes to be closed include certain meat, dairy and fish imports.”
RSPB report highlights woeful ignorance and lack of plans
Glaring gaps in knowledge about Britain’s overseas territories and their wildlife are highlight in the RSPB’s report on its findings.
“Whole groups of species remain almost entirely undiscovered,” says the report, which was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Whilst some excellent conservation work is underway on the ground… the UK Government still has no strategic overview of where the most urgent priorities lie, or even a simple understanding of actions undertaken, such as the number of nature reserves established.”
The UK’s environment department, Defra, has “no dedicated evidence plan for the OTs”, and its advisory body on nature conservation has no strategy for dealing with “biodiversity knowledge gaps”.
It says: “The OTs hold at least 1,500 endemic species, compared to around 90 endemic species in the UK. This is equivalent to 94 per cent of known endemic British species.
“Much of the endemic OT fauna and flora is threatened, although only 145 species (9 per cent) have ever had their global conservation status assessed. Of these, 111 (77 per cent) are listed as Globally Threatened.”
The RSPB adds that there could be 50,000 unrecorded species in the island territories – more than two thousand of them endemic.
Three stowaways have been found hitching a ride to St Helena’s airport, nearly two years before it is even due to open.
Even though they had no papers on them, David Pryce of St Helena National Trust had no trouble identifying them as pachylomera femoralis – giant flattened dung beetles.
Their remains were spotted in the back of a trailer by Basil Read workers who were assembling new plant in upper Rupert’s Valley.
The discovery sparked a bio-security alert, and was promptly reported to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Division (ANRD).
Giant flattened dung beetles burrow beside fresh dung of various mammals for feeding, as well as rolling away balls of dung to brood their young. They are attracted to a wide range of dung types, carrion and fermenting fruit. Their native distribution is wide, from South Africa up to the Congo.
Basil Read has mapped the trailer’s journey from Port Elizabeth on the coast of South Africa up to Walvis Bay in Namibia, where it was loaded on to the company’s supply vessel.
A press release from St Helena Government said: “The beetles are believed to be attracted to lights and they probably fell into the open trailer while it was parked under security lights at some point.”
Ravi Michael, logistics manager for Basil Read on St Helena said the discovery was investigated swiftly so that any weaknesses in biosecurity could be closed up.
Sandy Bay’s arid landscape could be the setting for a science-fiction fantasy and Diana’s Peak would need no make-up for a role in a remake of Jurassic Park, according to writer Captain Greybeard on the Cruise International website.
He highlights the familiar attractions of St Helena in a stylish piece, but many might challenge his statement that the “incredible blue waters” around the island offer no safe location for swimming or sunbathing.
The Captain finds the cabins on the RMS St Helena “as basic as those on a cross-Channel ferry” but is nonetheless keen to spend more time in them: “It’s a long journey,” he says, “but it’s one I’d like to make again.”
Perhaps he wants a second taste of victory in the ship’s quiz.
The full article is here – and it’s worth a click just to see the superb accompanying photographs, including one of a tropic bird flying over Jamestown.
Swimming with whale sharks is nothing new on St Helena. Fishermen used to have to fend them off, to avoid taking an unplanned dip alongside them, according to video-maker Julian Beard.
He used a high-tech Go Pro camera to record an encounter with five of the giant creatures off Jamestown – though only two feature in the video he has posted on YouTube.
The camera’s ultra-wide lens makes them appear far closer to the swimmers than they really were, says Julian.
Click the pic to see Julian Beard’s whale shark video
“This is only my second time swimming with whale sharks,” says Julian, “but I saw them on numerous occasions during my childhood. I know loads of people who have been swimming with them for years.
“The last two years are the most I have ever seen: last year 17, this year 35 individuals.
“I remember talking to fishermen about how these giants have lifted the bows of their
boats out of the water as they rub themselves against the boats. Usually you would have to use an oar to push them away from the boat in fear of being flipped over.”
Whale sharks are harmless to humans, but even so, with adults reaching the size of a bus, you’d want to keep them at a safe distance from a small boat.
Scroll down for a gallery of images from Julian’s video
“Swimming with these gentle giants is an experiance of a lifetime,” says Julian. “You feel so tiny beside them as they glide along.
“As long as you respect them they don’t mind you being there. If you start to splash around or jump into the water near them and act erratically they will swim off.
“At the end of the video you will see some tourists from another boat jumping into the water and splashing around, which scared the shark off.”
Julian has also published videos shot while motorcycling around the island, some of them with a large group of fellow bikers.
“I’m trying to compile some videos of activities that Saints get up to during their spare time,” he says. “Many of these activities are slowly dying out. For example, the motorcycle rides use to consist of 60 bikes or more; now they are down to a handful.
“People used to go down to the ocean after work daily and compete in water sports. Now barely anybody does this anymore.
“I’m trying to get a video of people sliding down the Ladder to get into town, which is now something rarely seen. I can remember 15 years ago watching loads of people slide down at the same time.”
An electronic tag attached to a whale shark – nicknamed Bella and thought to be pregnant – has enabled scientists to track her movements for several hundred kilometres. Click here to follow Bella’s journey.
Click on the thumbnails below to see images from Julian Beard’s video
A satellite tracker attached to one of the whale sharks gathered off St Helena in early 2014 has begun sending signals to scientists – and the movements of the creature, nicknamed Bella, can be followed on the internet.
The reading for 30 January 2014 shows Bella some 60 kilometres or more to the south-east of the island, but she was meandering much closer in shore when transmissions began.
The tag sends a signal whenever Bella breaks the surface. The readings will help test a theory that developed after a pregnant whale shark was tagged off Mexico, as the researchers’ website explains:
“A female whale shark satellite-tagged off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula travelled through the northern Caribbean Sea and across the equator to the South Atlantic Ocean, a distance of more than 7,200 km in 150 days.
“We hypothesize this journey to the open waters of the mid-Atlantic was to give birth to her young, for she appeared to be pregnant when tagged off Mexico. In support of this hypothesis, direct observations of large, pregnant-looking female whale sharks have recently been reported in the waters off St Helena.”
Whale sharks have been present in small numbers off St Helena for many years, but 17 were spotted in island waters in the summer of 2012/13, and that number is estimated to have doubled a year later.
The environment department is urging divers to stay at least three metres away from the giant but harmless creatures.
The UK has been accused by a Westminster committee of failing to protect endangered plants and creatures in its overseas territories.
The Environmental Audit Committee said the UK was not taking proper responsibility for the 517 globally threatened species in its care.
Its chairman, Joan Walley MP, said: “The UK government doesn’t even know precisely what it is responsible for, because it has failed accurately to assess and catalogue those species and habitats.
“During our inquiry, the UK government expressed vague aspirations to ‘cherish’ the environment in the overseas territories, but it was unwilling to acknowledge or to address its responsibilities under United Nations treaties.”
The EAC report reveals that the government’s environment department, Defra, has refused to allow any of its staff to visit the territories.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long had staff working on St Helena, estimated the UK needed to spend £80 million over a five-year period to protect the wildlife in some of the most ecologically rich places on the planet.
During the committee hearings, St Helena was singled out for introducing controls on development, thanks to efforts to minimise the ecological impact of its new airport.
The air access project has sparked intensive efforts to study and protect the island’s wildlife, including 45 plants and 400 invertebrates that are unique to the island.
The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum welcomed the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee.
It said: “The EAC finds that successive governments have failed to give sufficient priority to safeguarding 90% of the UK’s biodiversity.
“The present government is criticised for being unwilling to address its responsibilities despite fine words in the 2012 White Paper, The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability.”
UKOTCF Executive Director Dr Mike Pienkowski said: “Time is not on our side and, given the level of concern expressed in the report, immediate action is required.”
In an article for the St Helena Independent, Vince Thompson writes: “It remains to be seen if the Men from the UK Ministries, who appear to be so easily confused when questioned in detail about their Overseas Territories, find the report so overpowering they will actually take action on the report’s recommendations.”
The sensitivity of island ecology was illustrated by conservationist Dave Higgins, the man writing action plans for St Helena’s conservation areas, in an interview with the Yorkshire Post.
He told the paper the “museum rarity” of the island’s ecology was both frightening and exciting.
“The 823m-high summit of Diana’s Peak, which is 50 hectares of mountain range, holds more endemic species than any European country,” he said.
“Almost half of the invertebrates living in the islands’ national parks cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
“To date conservationists know of 200 species of endemic invertebrate just in the Peaks. Some of these are reliant on a single tree species.
“Local conservationists tell me that if we lose one of our endemic plant species there could be a suite of invertebrate extinctions.
“All around these biological jewels lies the threat of non-native species and habitat loss. The island’s wonder is under constant siege.”
St Helena and Ascension appear to fare better than many of their sister territories in the Caribbean, which are under greater pressure from both tourist developments and climate change.
St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha make up one of 14 UK overseas territories. The others are the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, Gibraltar, Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus.
It takes a brave person to attach an electronic gizmo to a shark that’s as long as a bus. Two brave people, in St Helena’s case.
But the presence of whale sharks off the island has got scientists excited, and so it fell to Jeremy Clingham and Anthony Thomas to try to tag a couple.
Whale sharks feed on plankton, not people, but even so, the two females chosen were each at least ten metres long, with very big mouths. It was a daunting job.
But Jeremy and Anthony succeeded, and made scientific history for St Helena.
Thanks to their efforts, marine biologists can now add to the little that is known about the wanderings the creatures make through the world’s oceans.
According to a note from St Helena’s marine conservation unit, their presence in St Helena waters has long been taken for granted.
“They show up every November and disappear April/June. It really wasn’t until last year that it became apparent that a number of the females seen during a large gathering of whale sharks appeared to be pregnant.”
Anecdotal evidence and local records were compared with theories by researchers around the world, and it was realised that the presence of the leviathans “could be more interesting” than anyone had realised.
In October 2013, Elizabeth Clingham travelled to Atlanta, in America, to present a paper at the third international whale shark conference.
She returned with the two satellite tags, provided by the Mote Marine Laboratory and the Georgia Atlanta Aquarium – along with training in how to deploy them.
A single whale shark was spotted off St Helena on 30 November 2013, and by early January, there were thought to be 18 of them in island waters.
“On Saturday, 4 January 2014,” says the conservation department, “two suspected pregnant females were sighted.
“Under the instruction of the marine section, just outside of Thompsons Valley Island Jeremy Clingham and Anthony Thomas bravely stepped up to the challenge of inserting the tags into the large 10-metre-plus female whale sharks.
“The two tags were successfully deployed.
“Steve Brown was in charge of the camera and ensured that pictures of the whale sharks were taken of their left flanks, above the pectoral fin, to allow for photo identification.”
The first tag is a transmitter on a long tether. When the whale shark surfaces, the transmitter floats up and communicates directly with the Argos satellite, tracking the whale shark’s movement.
The second tag – called an MK10 – is attached to the creature itself. “It will collect data on the depths that the animal is swimming at, temperature, light levels, etc.
“This data is collected and stored in the memory of the tag. In this case the tag has been programmed to collect data for 150 days. On the 150th day the tag will detach itself from the animal and float to the water surface, where it transmits the data to the satellite.
“This tagging is the first ever for St Helena and a huge achievement.”