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.
George Benjamin: the man who saved the St Helena ebony
St Helena National Trust
Tourism threat to the Galapagos Islands
The UK’s Wildlife Overseas: RSPB report
Picture gallery: St Helena’s natural wonders