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St Helena Olive turns to stone in island’s extinction project
Bamboo sculpture on the skyline with graveyard in foreground and quarry rubble in mid-distance

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A giant fossil sculpture, viewed across a graveyard, marks the site of a planned memorial to extinct species

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.

The Memo Project will be established above Portland’s high cliffs. Picture: Jim Champion/Geographia

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.

Lonesome George, the last of his kind, is being carved in stone. Picture: Jean Spector/fotopedia

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.

George Benjamin standing next to an arboretum sign
George Benjamin: the man who saved “extinct” plants

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.

The great survivor: how Jonathan turned out not to be extinct
Wirebird remains on global danger list, thanks to airport
George Benjamin: the man who saved the St Helena ebony

The Memo Project
The red list of endangered species (search the site for “St Helena”)
St Helena Olive
Ascension Island fern rediscovered


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