St Helena Online

Tag: biodiversity

St Helena tops the league table for unique species

St Helena's false gumwood is now under threat. Picture by Vanessa Thomas
St Helena’s false gumwood is now under threat. Picture by Vanessa Thomas

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.

Pan tropical dolphin, by David HigginsClick for a gallery of St Helena’s natural wonders

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.

Sasha and a she-cabbage, by David Higgins
Sasha and a she-cabbage, by David Higgins

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.

READ MORE: 

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

UK ‘doesn’t even know’ about island eco threats, say MPs

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.

READ MORE:
Government must to more to protect biodiversity – UK Parliament website
Yorkshire ecologist now our man in St Helena – Yorkshire Post

SEE ALSO:
St Helena gets top rating for environmental protection
Secrecy leaves islands at risk of corruption, warns RSPB
MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings

The Saint who risked all to rescue a plant

Charlie Benjamin rescues the St Helena Ebony. Click the pic to see the full image by Quentin Cronk
Charlie Benjamin rescues the St Helena Ebony. Click the pic to see the full image by Quentin Cronk

The day Charlie Benjamin climbed up a cliff with a flower in his teeth may become part of  St Helena folklore. That perilous act brought back the island’s ebony plant from apparent extinction. There has since been talk of declaring it the national flower. Charlie’s daughter, Wendy Benjamin, wants to ensure the story of his climb will live on, just like the flower he rescued.

A single photograph was taken of Charlie’s climb in November 1980. It shows how treacherous a task he took on; and even that spectacular picture cannot fully convey how unnerving it must have been, clinging to a cliff on one of the steepest parts of the island, several hundred feet above the wild waves of St Helena’s southern coast.

An island benefactor has now promised to pay for copies of the picture to be hung in key places around the island, including the museum and the St Helena National Trust office. A copy will be offered for display on the RMS St Helena.

Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years
Wendy and Charlie Benjamin, in later years

The picture was taken by Quentin Cronk, then a young student, who was on a two-week research visit when the long-lost ebony was spotted.

His companion and guide, George Benjamin, saw a few unfamiliar flowers on a cliff during a tea break near the Asses Ears, in the rugged west of the island, when the pair stopped for tea.

“When George and I found the ebony that day in 1980,” recalls Quentin, “George said that the only person he knew who had a chance of getting it was his brother Charlie, as he was the most skilled islander in cliff climbing.

“He was able to get down to the most inaccessible fishing spots at the bottom of cliffs – and come back up the cliffs with a heavy bag of fish! This was a skill only a few of the old time fishermen knew and Charlie was the best.

“I remember that when we showed Charlie the ebony cliff he sat in silence looking at it for maybe 15 minutes, as if he was solving a chess problem. My thought was, ‘Oh no, it’s too difficult. He’s going to refuse to go down.’

Part of Quentin Cronk's photograph of Charlie's climb. Click the pic to see the full image
Part of Quentin Cronk’s photograph of Charlie’s climb. Click the pic to see the full image

“Then eventually he said, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ and George and he went off to the cliff ledge with a rope to start the descent. I stayed on the cliff opposite, watching them, and it was fascinating to see Charlie traverse down the cliff with great skill and get to the ebony.

“He put cuttings in a bag, and it was from these that we propagated the species.

“He also (to keep his hands free) put a flowering shoot of ebony between his teeth. When Charlie’s head came up over the top of the cliff and I saw the ebony flower between his teeth, that was the first time I was 100 per cent sure it was the ebony.”

Quentin, now a globally respected academic, took a single photograph from his perch on an opposite cliff. That dramatic image has been published in a pamphlet and a copy was printed for the St Helena Museum, but until now it has not been on permanent display. 

“With the excitement it was hard to remember to take any other photos,” says Quentin.

“The two small ‘stick figures’ are George and Charlie: George in black at the top and Charlie wearing blue jeans down on the cliff. The rope between them can faintly be seen. There was no climbing equipment on the island then. Basically Charlie was “free climbing” with the rope to steady himself.

“It was indeed a brave act to go down the cliff to get the ebony. When I tell the story I always mention Charlie’s role.”

Rebecca Cairns-Wicks and Phil Lambdon described the climb for a museum exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the ebony’s re-discovery.

St Helena Ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe
St Helena Ebony. Picture: Dr Colin Clubbe

“On the 11th November,” they wrote, “Quentin and George walked from Wild Ram Spring to the Ball Alley and down to Castle Rock and round under the Asses Ears. Here they found old pieces of ebony and tea plant. Fragments of wood can still sometimes be found brought to the surface after rains, a depressing reminder that the hillsides were once richly covered in vegetation. From there they walked on to Frightus.

“It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and whilst sitting down to have rest and a drink of tea (George’s was always black and very sweet) George spotted an unusual plant growing on the cliff.”

George told Quentin he could not climb down to it: “Not if you give me one thousand pounds I won’t be going down there. Perhaps my brother Charlie would go”.

Charlie agreed to go along, with his step-daughter Rosie Peters, who had been giving George and Quentin lifts round the island for their explorations.

“So it was, two days later, that George and Quentin returned with Charlie and Rosie, and with ropes and stakes they made an attempt to recover the plant: a plant they dared hope might prove to be a long-lost endemic.

“With one rope firmly anchored to stakes to climb by and another tied around his waist as a safety line that George held fast to, Charlie descended the cliff. Quentin, standing where he could see Charlie, helped with directions.

“When Charlie returned he brought with him a few precious cuttings from one of the two plants he found on the cliff, together with a flower and a seed pod.

“On seeing the plant up close, Rosie recalls, George and Quentin knew immediately that it was the ebony. The experience of that moment on the cliff was one not to be forgotten – it was a very happy moment for all.

“Collecting the cuttings had required heroic effort and was a cause for celebration as the men shared a well-deserved drink of brandy that evening on their return to Pounceys.

“Charlie was to return once more to the ebony site in 1983 to collect cuttings from the second plant on the cliff. He declined a request to go a third time, to collect soil samples. He knew his wife would be worried.”

George Benjamin went on to be awarded the British Empire Medal for his great efforts to re-establish the ebony, which now grows around the island, and to raise public awareness of the importance of the island’s endemic plants – those that grew nowhere else in the world. George died in May 2012.

Charlie’s reward was the satisfaction and honour of knowing his bravery and skill had made possible the recovery of the ebony. He died on 28 April 2007.

As the anniversary of his passing came round, Wendy contacted St Helena Online to see whether his role could be commemorated in some way, partly for the benefit of future generations of her family. She was delighted to be told that pictures of the climb were to be printed for hanging on the island:

“What can I say… emotions have sure kicked in. But thank you so much. My son will be overwhelmed with this news.”

Some more permanent recognition may yet be possible. 

And perhaps one other event of 2012 will also serve as a tribute to Charlie and George: the birth of a baby girl to Rémi Bruneton and Sophy Thorpe.

She was born on the island, and they named her Ebony.

Gallery: click a thumbnail to see the original picture of Charlie’s climb

SEE ALSO:

George Benjamin, the man who saved the St Helena Ebony
Thefts hit effort to revive endangered island plants

LINK:
St Helena National Trust

St Helena gets top rating for environmental protection

An investigation has highlighted “legal neglect” of biodiversity in the UK’s overseas territories – but not on St Helena.

The territory, which formally includes Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, is one of only three to have been singled out for praise in a report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

It says:

  • Gibraltar is the Overseas Territory that best demonstrates good practice across the board
  • The British Virgin Islands have notable good practice in its site protections
  • St Helena has notable good practice in its development control mechanisms

The RSPB also praised the island while giving evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in London. It also acknowledged the careful stewardship of the marine environment and fisheries around Tristan da Cunha.

However, it also had criticism for the lack of government transparency in territories – a problem that has been highlighted in St Helena.

The Ascension Island Conservation organisation has been highly active in projects to monitor turtles and land crabs, and improve habitat for frigate birds by eradicating wild cats.

St Helena’s environment department has begun identifying marine life around the island, and is working on a new protection plan for The Peaks.

Read more here.

Secrecy leaves islands at risk of corruption, warns RSPB

Entrance to the Castle - home of St Helena Government. Picture: John Grimshaw
Entrance to the Castle – home of St Helena Government. Picture: John Grimshaw

A paragraph in this story has been toned down in response to a comment made privately to St Helena Online. The paragraph, about information being made available to legislative councillors, was capable of mis-interpretation. 

Secretive decision-making by governments in St Helena and other British overseas territories leaves them vulnerable to corruption, MPs in London have been warned.

The same lack of transparency had already brought down the government in the Turks and Caicos Islands, said Clare Stringer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Her warning echoed strong concerns raised about the conduct of St Helena’s executive council, which meets almost entirely in secret and refuses public access to agendas, reports and minutes.

Clare Stringer delivered her warning in evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday, 17 April 2013. She referred to a recent RSPB review that found widespread lack of openness.

Speaking as head of the RSPB’s overseas territories unit, she said islands were vulnerable to unhealthy outside influence if they did not have “robust legislation and transparency systems.”

She went on: “Our recent review of environmental governance showed that in a lot of the territories those aren’t in place.

“Very few if any have transparency legislation, freedom of information doesn’t exist, decisions are made by a Foreign Office appointed governor or by elected council members – but often behind closed doors – and it’s very difficult to know why decisions are made in the way that they are. 

“And it does leave administrations open to corruption, and we have seen that in the Turks and Caicos Islands in recent years.

“The fact that these decisions aren’t made openly, it leaves an atmosphere where corruption can occur.”

An inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands corruption affair found that it resulted from circumstances very similar to those that are now emerging on St Helena, with the building of an airport attracting outside investors.

In fact, the RSPB’s review has singled St Helena out for praise for the strength of its developing environmental protections, which greatly restrict opportunities for developers to apply undue pressure to obtain Crown land. 

But Clare Stringer’s criticisms of secretive government exactly describe the clandestine decision-making that takes place in the shady confines of the Castle in Jamestown.

Even a member of St Helena’s legislative council, Christina Scipio O’Dean, has reported being repeatedly refused information about government funding for the South Atlantic Media Service. Other legislative councillors have complained at public meetings that they were not told about structural reforms in the government, despite their scrutiny role.

The refusal to meet openly and make vital documents available for scrutiny means that it is impossible to know how much influence is being applied by unelected officials.

In the past, a St Helena Government official has justified the lack of openness on the basis that it was the same in most other territories.

The RSPB’s concerns were echoed by Dr Mike Pienkowski, who was giving evidence to the MPs as chief executive of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. 

He said: “We are dealing with small communities whose legislative bodies are more on the scale of parish councils, in some cases.

“So it’s really very difficult for them to negotiate or avoid legal but excessive influence by international companies.

“And there are problems with openness and accountability in their systems.”

Dr Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics at Leicester Business School, said in January that the limited information released about St Helena’s ExCo meetings “may fulfill some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”

He said: “You can only be representative if people know what you are doing. It is just simple and healthy for people to know. It leads to a more informed and engaged citizenry and that is a good thing.”

SEE ALSO: 
MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings
Evidence to UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, 17 April 2013
Evidence to UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, 17 April 2013

LINKS:
Turks and Caicos Commission of Inquiry report released
An Assessment of Environmental Protection Frameworks in the UK Overseas Territories – RSPB report

MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings

A Member of Parliament has reacted with dismay to allegations about the British government’s performance on protecting the environment of UK overseas territories.

Caroline Lucas, the country’s only Green Party MP, said the government’s systems were “constitutionally not working.”

She said: “The more I hear, the more shocking the situation seems to be.”

She expressed her concern during a hearing of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which is investigating the sustainability of the territories.

There was praise for environmental protection on St Helena and Tristan da Cunha – including for island students who have gained qualifications in the UK – but much of the 90-minute hearing was taken up with criticisms and concerns.

The small group of MPs also heard that lack of government transparency in most territories meant it was difficult to know why decisions were made.

It also exposed islands to risks of corruption – as seen on the Turks and Caicos Islands – said Clare Stringer, giving evidence for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Strong criticisms also came from the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF)

St Helena Online published a live feed of reports via the micro-blogging service, Twitter. Tweets included:

UK overseas territories biodiversity group ‘barely functions’, lacks authority, doesn’t report to ministers, UKOTCF told Parly envir cttee

Tristan da Cunha praised for exemplary fisheries management in RSPB evidence to MPs’ environment committee.

Decisions in most overseas territories are made behind closed doors and hard to understand, RSPB told MPs. Creates risk of corruption.

Overseas territories citizens in UK buy lottery tickets so their home islands should benefit from funding, UKOTCF tells Select Committee

UK overseas territories lack access to big EU funds while French outlying islands can apply, thanks to constitutional differences RSPB tells MPs.

DfID ‘has supported’ eco protection alongside St Helena airport ‘and that’s good to see’, RSPB told Parly’s environment audit cttee

An edited version of the full stream of reports can be seen here

WATCH:
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Hearing 17 April 2013
(note: sound and picture fail at the start; keep playing and it will come on)

LINKS:
Committee takes evidence on sustainability in the UK overseas territories
UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: hidden treasures in the UK overseas territories

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