The lost St Helena olive looks set to be recreated in stone, as part of a project to record the world’s extinct species.
The Memo Project is being established on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, where the RMS St Helena docked before the ship’s UK voyages were stopped in 2011.
It involves creating carvings of all species known to have become extinct around the world since the last live sighting of a dodo, 350 years ago.
The last St Helena olive died in 2003, and the St Helena cuckoo is thought to have been wiped out as a result of forests being cut down across the island in the 18th Century.
Other birds were “presumably driven to extinction soon after the island was discovered in 1502”, according to their listings on the international “red list” of endangered species.
The St Helena earwig is so elusive that experts are divided on whether or not it is extinct.
The Memo Project is being set up in a former quarry on Portland. The site is marked by a giant bamboo sculpture of a fossil, the Portland screw.
Portland is famous for its stone, which was used to build many of London’s greatest buildings. It is also part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which celebrates the fossil-rich geology of the Dorset and east Devon coast – said to record the history of life on earth.
Many artists carve with Portland stone, and sculpture parks have been set up in its eerie abandoned quarries.
A carving of Lonesome George, the last Pinto Island giant tortoise, is expected to be one of the first to be created for the project, following his recent death.
The project has been conceived by Tim Smit, who created The Eden Project in Cornwall. He built giant domes in a former clay pit that now contain plants from around the world, including from the South Atlantic.
St Helena National Trust donated a gumwood and a redwood to the Eden Project in 2008 to draw attention to efforts to save the island’s botanic survivors.
At the time, Dr Tony Kendle of the Eden Foundation said: “The people of St Helena are providing inspiration to the rest of the world in the way they are fighting to preserve their plants and animals – rescuing several from the very brink of extinction.”
The Memo Project is to serve as a “mass extinction monitoring observatory”. Its launch coincided with the staging of the 2012 Olympic sailing events at Weymouth and Portland.
The St Helena olive is one of at least 860 species to have become extinct in the past 350 years.
It will take its place in a spiral stone monument being created overlooking Lyme Bay, according to the creators of the project. They say:
“Memo is the project to build a sublimely beautiful monument to the world’s extinct species. More stones will be added into the future if more species go extinct.
“In the middle of it will be a great geological bell, to be tolled whenever a species goes extinct from now on, and to be rung in celebration, on the International Day of Biodiversity each year.
“According to the world’s biologists 860 extinctions over 350 years amounts to a ‘mass extinction event’ akin to that which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.”
An education centre is also being set up, where the arts will be used to help people of all ages understand what is happening in nature, and solutions to biodiversity loss will be explored.
The St Helena olive was thought to have become extinct in the 19th Century until a lone tree was spotted on a steep cliff below Diana’s Peak by the late George Benjamin.
The last tree in the wild died in 1994 and the fight to save the last cultivated tree, which grew in George’s garden at Pounceys, was lost in 2003.
The tree was “self incompatible”, which meant it could not breed from its own seeds or those of closely related individuals. This made it virtually impossible to produce new plants when there were no other specimens.
George and his fellow ecologists have had more success with other plants, including the St Helena ebony, also believed to be extinct until he spotted a specimen on a steep cliff.
Fellow islander Stedson Stroud also discovered five endemic parsley ferns on Ascension, six years after the species had been declared extinct.
In an article about the discovery, he said that many species on the island must have been lost before they could be recorded, after goats and alien species were introduced by visiting sailors.
The St Helena plover, or wirebird, is the last survivor of several bird species that were unique to St Helena or the Atlantic – also known as Atlantisia.
The large and flightless St Helena crake, the St Helena dove, the St Helena rail, The St Helena hoopoe, the St Helena gadfly petrel and the so-called small St Helena petrel – actually quite a large seabird – are known only from fossils.
The St Helena cuckoo is known from a single fragment of bone. The international red list of endangered species says it probably became extinct in the 18th Century.
Its listing says: “It was presumably a small forest cuckoo, which would account for its scarcity in the fossil record.”
The giant, flightless St Helena hoopoe is also known only from bones.
George Benjamin had already discovered the last surviving St Helena Olive tree when, in 1980, he spotted an unusual plant on a cliff. It turned out to be one of the island’s “lost” endemic plants: the St Helena (dwarf) ebony, now widely re-established on the island. George died on 30 April 2012. BASIL GEORGE has written this tribute.
George was one of St Helena’s great sons. He was born on 15 July 1935, one of 11 children, to Thomas and Irene Benjamin.
He left school at 15, worked in a flax mill at Broad Bottom and in 1958 went to work for the Agricultural and Forestry Department as it was then, initially as a labourer but then as a forest guard.
In 1984 George was promoted to forest assistant to work full-time on the conservation of the island’s endemic flora.
He later held the post of conservation officer, until his retirement in 1995.
It was during the time with the agricultural department that his work in the conservation of endemic flora became a lifelong interest. He discovered several endemic species of plants thought to be extinct, the most famous of which was the island ebony in 1980, along with Dr Quentin Cronk, a distinguished lecturer at Cambridge University and a world authority on St Helena’s flora and fauna, who says: “George was an extraordinary man with great talents.”
George’s work in conservation led him to be sent to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to learn propagation and conservation techniques. Simon Goodenough, who worked with George at Kew, comments that George was “a true gentleman and a very special person”.
In 1989 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his dedication and commitment to the conservation of the island’s endemic flora.
When George started working in this field, little recognition was given to its importance. Through his hard work, enthusiasm and knowledge he laid the foundations on which others were to build, most notably the St Helena National Trust and the conservation section of the agricultural department.
George’s interest continued after he retired by taking visitors on tour, including to the arboretum that bears his name. A day with George was one of the highlights for visitors to the island.
He had a dry sense of humour and when a visitor would be going along part of a path that was slippery George would say, “Be careful, otherwise you go bulltourin’ down the hill.”
George, through his dedication, leaves a legacy in environmental conservation that is critical to the island and its future. He passed away peacefully at the general hospital on 30 April 2012.
A separate tribute has also been paid by the conservation department and the island’s national trust and nature conservation group.
It says George Benjamin’s dedication “has left the island with a far richer legacy
then we would otherwise have had,” and his gift extended to the people he touched and inspired.
“Rescuing a whole species and preventing its extinction, when there are just one or two plants in the world is a monumental task and a big responsibility. George you took
this all in your stride, without fuss or bother and your achievements
are there for us all to see.”
An article by Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, describing George’s discovery of the St Helena ebony, appears in the 12 May 2012 issue of the St Helena Independent, available here (see page 15).