A strong wind blew over the party that had gathered above St Helena’s wildest cliffs to honour Charlie Benjamin as an island hero. And nearly 5,000 miles away in London, a heavy drizzle blattered against the windows of the elegant room at Kew Gardens where his daughter was getting married.
Speeches at both locations recalled the perilous climb Charlie made, 35 years and one day earlier, to bring back the St Helena ebony from apparent extinction. No living specimen had been seen growing for more than a century: now there are thousands of them.
The famous George Benjamin had spotted the unfamiliar plant on a near-unreachable ledge, but he declined to risk climbing down to it. But his brother was reckoned the best climber on the island; it was his bravery in bringing up cuttings of the plants that was finally, belatedly celebrated on Saturday 14 November 2015.
The spot where the two last surviving plants were sighted has now been given the name Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. It will appear on island maps.
The ceremony came two and a half years after his daughter Wendy – now Mrs Duncan – decided it was time his bravery was formally acknowledged.
George received the British Empire Medal for his years of work to revive the fortunes of St Helena’s precious endemic species, she said, but Charlie had died in 2007 without ever receiving official recognition for risking his life.
Various ideas emerged, including reviving the past campaign for the ebony to become the island’s national flower, in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. Then it was realised that the cliff Charlie climbed had no name: perhaps it could be named in his honour.
On the island, Councillor Gavin Ellick – better known as Eddie Duff – took up the cause, holding a competition for school children to come up with a name for the cliff.
In the UK, Wendy was making plans for her wedding to fellow Saint Cambell Duncan when it was suggested she could marry at Kew, where botanists invented a new technique to propagate seeds from the ebony. Staff helped to make it happen when they heard about her connection with the plant, which grows in the Temperate House at Kew.
The date for the wedding was set for the Saturday nearest to the anniversary of Charlie’s first climb (he actually made two – but declined to go down a third time). The ceremony on the island would take place on the same date.
Out in the wind at Blue Point, ebony seedlings were planted by Charlie’s step-daughter, Rosie Peters, and her grandson Taylan. They also planted one on behalf of half-sister Wendy, to mark her marriage to fellow Saint Campbell Duncan in London.
The deputy governor, Sean Burns, and the island’s chief secretary, Roy Burke, also planted seedlings.
And then most of the 23-strong party of adults and children ventured down to stand at the spot from which the botanist Quentin Cronk had taken a single photograph of Charlie’s climb, hundreds of feet above the waves that crash against the wildest part of St Helena’s south coast.
Derek Henry, deputy director of the environment directorate, noted that the setting was one of the most spectacular on the island. “The weather was a little blustery,” he said, “but that did not dampen the spirit of the event.”
In 1980, Rosie Peters drove George Benjamin and Quentin Cronk round the island when the botanist – now a world-renowned professor – visited St Helena to investigate its plants. She watched Charlie climb down to the ledge with just a rope round his waist.
“As for Saturday and me standing on that cliff,” she wrote after the commemoration, “it was very emotional but I was also very proud that I could actually show my partner and my grandson where I was on the day that my stepfather retrieved the ebony slips.
“I had flashbacks of that actual day as I stood there surveying the cliff. I remembered the climb as my stepfather Charlie descended and then later reappeared with the ebony flower in his mouth.”
Charlie carried cuttings up the cliff in a bag, but gripped a single flowering stem in his teeth – keeping his hands free for climbing – so Quentin and George could confirm it was the ebony.
Dr Cairns-Wicks said after the ceremony: “A wild, windswept and breathtakingly beautiful landscape, this was a rather special pilgrimage for both those connected personally to Charlie and his historic climb and also to those who had never been out to Blue Point before.”
In her speech, she told how the island had benefited from the recovery of the first ebony cuttings.
“It inspired commitment from the local and international community to fight to save the ebony and the island’s other rare and endangered endemics, securing for the first time in the island’s history a dedicated section for conservation, which was very successfully set up and run by George Benjamin.
“Sean Burns also gave a short speech, followed by Father Dale who gave a reading and blessing and dedication to Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge.” Good wishes were also sent to Wendy.
“It was a touching ceremony and one that was particularly poignant for Rosie.
“But also it felt special and good, to give recognition to a silent local hero by making an indelible mark in the history of the island, naming the spot 35 years ago where Charlie climbed down the ledge in search of what turned out to be a very special flower.
“There are thousands of ebonies on the island today, and perhaps one day there will be thousands thriving around Charlie’s Ebony Revival Ledge. I am sure that would make Charlie and George Benjamin very proud.”
The St Helena ebony, rescued from extinction by Charlie Benjamin, has found a place in UK national ceremonial – and on his daughter’s wedding cake. Simon Pipe of St Helena Online was honoured to give a speech telling Charlie’s story.
Wendy Benjamin would have liked to have living ebony flowers at her wedding to Campbell Duncan. But they’re classed as critically endangered, and it just wasn’t going to happen.
No matter. She had them on their cake instead, crafted in icing by her aunt Mary – Charlie Benjamin’s sister.
It was given pride of place in the fine Cotswold barn where more than 150 people, mostly Saints, gathered to celebrate both the wedding, and Charlie’s unique role in St Helena’s natural history.
Most guests knew of George Benjamin BEM, the man who spotted two surviving ebony plants growing on a treacherous cliff.
Fewer knew how his brother Charlie risked his life to climb down and take cuttings from those surviving plants.
His brave act spurred a conservation effort that has brought St Helena international recognition.
Charlie did not live to give away his daughter. He died in 2007. It was Wendy’s son, Bronwyn Joshua, who took that role in the marriage at Kew Gardens, where ebonies grow today.
But through the telling of his story, Charlie could be part of the occasion.
Wedding guests were told of the ceremony that had taken place earlier in the day on St Helena, to name the site of Charlie’s brave act in his honour.
But his climb had left another legacy in UK ceremonial, they heard.
“At about this time of year, you might also see the ebony on national television” they were told. “Because here’s a coincidence: Charlie’s climb was made on the 13th of November, 1980. But Georgie actually spotted the plant on the 11th of November – the anniversary of the ending of the First World War.
“On Remembrance Sunday, the nation’s leaders mark that event by laying wreaths of poppies at the Cenotaph in London. But the Foreign Secretary lays a wreath that’s crafted at Kew, made up of plants from the UK’s overseas territories, including – very often – the St Helena ebony.
“There can be no finer tribute for Charlie Benjamin than that.
“But he has one other legacy, in his children, and their children, and as of now, his new son-on-law. And if he were with us today, he might well say that was the legacy that gave him the most joy.”
A forgotten strand of St Helena’s unique tea plant has been rediscovered below Longwood, it has been reported.
The bushes found in Fisher’s Valley are much larger than any other known specimens on the island, some reaching 1.5 metres in height.
It is believed that their existence was known to George Benjamin, the man who discovered the “extinct” St Helena ebony. But no record of it was ever made.
The plants were spotted by members of the Landscape and Ecology Mitigation Programme (LEMP), set up to address possible harm to the environment from the island’s airport construction work.
A government press release says: “This handsome tea plant population is not mentioned in any of the current literary sources or species records, and no seed is known to have been collected from it before now.
“For the wider conservation community this population has thus been effectively re-discovered.”
The St Helena tea plant (Frankenia portulacifolia) is a dry land endemic, with petite white flowers, tiny leaves and delicate branches. It is listed as vulnerable on the international Red List of threatened species, but its status is under review.
“The inclusion of this population in island records is extremely important,” says the release.
Tea plant populations are known in the dry coastal areas in both south-west and north-east St Helena.
Ecologist Mikko Paajanen said: “The tea plant population at Prosperous Bay Plain has naturally been affected by airport construction activities so it is very positive to see this little known population in Fisher’s Valley doing so well.”
Seeds from six of the plants are already germinating in the project nursery at Half Tree Hollow. Plants grown from them will be used in restoration of the environment.
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.
When the Royal Navy first “invaded” Ascension Island, it did so not with weapons of war, but with plants – creating what is said to be the only man-made tropical forest in the world.
The result is either a beacon for re-greening the planet, or a biological abomination, says writer Fred Pearce on the Yale Environment 360 website.
Isolation has meant Green Mountain has been “badly under-researched”, he writes – but it is now being hailed as a reason to look again at established thinking on the environment.
Because it works.
Bermuda cedar, Chinese ginger, Cape yew and Brazilian guava trees thrive on Green Mountain, alongside Japanese cherry trees and Madagascan periwinkles – and screw pines that grow higher on Ascension than they do on their native Pacific islands.
On St Helena, they’re following conventional practice by grubbing out alien species that threaten the survival of endemic plants.
If conservation officer Stedson Stroud took that approach on Ascension, there’d be almost nothing left. But actually, he says, some native ferns are growing on introduced species, and faring better because of it.
Three others, though, are believed extinct. A fourth was rediscovered by Stedson himself, and is now being propagated at Kew Gardens in London, ready to be reintroduced.
Green Mountain’s unnatural success is creating controversy among ecologists, says Fred Pearce.
He asks: “What are we to make of this confected cloud forest? Is it nature or a garden? Is it a beacon for re-greening the planet or a biological abomination?
“The British government’s environmental policy for the island is the ‘control and eradication of invasive species’ in order to ‘ensure the protection and restoration of key habitats’.
“But the policy has nothing to say about the protection of — or even ecological research into — the extraordinary novel ecosystem in their midst on which the indigenous species often depend.”
Click hereto read the full article on the Yale Environment 360 website, published by Yale University.
Bug experts have been astonished by the rediscovery of one of St Helena’s smallest creatures. Conservation officer Lourens Malan was lucky to spot the missing leaf hopper on his day off: it’s only three millimetres long.
by St Helena Government writer
St Helena is a small island, but it is still possible to lose things. Just occasionally, however, they turn up again.
The 3mm-long leaf hopper Chlorita edithae was described from eight specimens collected by Vernon Wollaston during his visit to the island in 1875 and it hasn’t been seen since – until now.
On the 1 April 2013 bank holiday, while exploring tiny fragments of remaining natural vegetation above Wranghams on the high central ridge of the island, Lourens Malan noticed a few brightly-coloured leaf hoppers.
Quickly grabbing his camera, he managed to get several photographs of them. He later showed these to David Pryce, invertebrate conservation co-ordinator at the St Helena National Trust, who nearly fell off his chair – it hadn’t been seen for 137 years.
This major discovery is all the more important as the hopper was found on the endangered endemic Whitewood Tree, of which there were only 80 surviving in 1995.
Active conservation work on the Island has helped safeguard this species for the immediate future.
Most of the new stock has been grown from seedlings collected from the wild, and then grown on in more accessible areas where they could be tended and monitored.
As the plants collected were small it is less likely that they will provide habitat for the creatures associated with them.
Many of these insects are very poor at dispersing, which also restricts their ability to form new colonies.
Discoveries like this mean that steps can be taken to conserve these species as well as their plant hosts.
The isolated island of three Whitewood Trees where the hopper was found is in a sea of invasive New Zealand Flax.
This shows how rare invertebrates can persist for long periods in very low populations.
It is hoped that future work by the National Trust and the government’s environment staff will uncover more of these isolated pockets.
The UK’s Buglife charity is supporting the work, through a three-year project funded by the British government’s Darwin Initiative.
Their health will be assessed by looking at the diversity of their invertebrate populations. Conservationists hope more discoveries – and rediscoveries – will be made.
Tara Pelembe, Head of the environment division, said: “We are very excited about this find.
“Our rarest plants and animals exist in tiny pockets of native habitats. These unique habitats need to be safeguarded.
We are very pleased to be working in partnership with the National Trust and Buglife on a much-needed Darwin invertebrate project, which will help us to better understand the invertebrate species and habitats that exist on this unique island.”
Lourens Malan is a terrestrial conservation officer in the Environment Management Division of St Helena Government.
The rediscovery of a lost St Helena leaf-hopper, not seen since 1875, came only weeks after the launch of the Bugs on the Brink project on the island. As the UK charity Buglife reports on its website, it’s almost come too late.
Many of St Helena’s unique invertebrates are on the brink of extinction, with some of its most iconic species, such as the giant earwig, feared lost within living memory.
Funded by the Darwin Initiative, the project will help to conserve St Helena’s globally threatened invertebrates.
This is the first time that anyone has set out to create a long-term plan for conserving St Helena’s invertebrates. Buglife is working alongside local partners – the St Helena National Trust and St Helena Government – and the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
The island’s flora and fauna evolved in extreme isolation, resulting in more than 400 invertebrate species found nowhere else on Earth. For this reason, St Helena has been called the ‘alapagos of the South Atlantic.
Unfortunately, following its discovery in 1502, St Helena suffered immense environmental destruction, caused by introduced livestock and forest clearance. Today, much of the island’s unique wildlife is threatened with extinction.
Iconic invertebrates such as the giant earwig (Labidura herculeana), giant ground beetle (Aplothorax burchelli) and St Helena darter (a dragonfly – Sympetrum dilatatum) are believed lost within living memory.
The remnants of the native flora and fauna are struggling to survive in habitat fragments, which occupy tiny fractions of their original areas. They also face a wide range of pressures from non-native plants and animals.
The Bugs on the Brink project aims to support invertebrate conservation in the long-term, by training local staff, helping to restore native habitats, teaching school children about the vital role played by invertebrates, and raising public awareness of the special place invertebrates have in St Helena’s natural heritage.
This work will help St Helena meet future challenges, such as the airport construction and associated expansion of tourism and development.
It is hoped that invertebrates can play their part in supporting sustainable eco-tourism, on an island that is surely one of the jewels in the crown of UK biodiversity.
Richard Smith, Buglife conservation officer, said: “It is so important for us to be working with local conservationists, St Helena Government and the people of St Helena. Only together can we forge a long-term future for its unique biodiversity.”
The Bugs on the Brink project will run until January 2016.
St Helena’s endemic large bellflower could become extinct within a few years – even though it is raising new plants.
The fear for conservationists is that the few remaining wild plants are getting mixed up with another endemic species, the small bellflower – and soon their may be no true specimens left.
A conservation programme is on hold because it’s not even clear which plants can safely be used for raising seedlings.
On top of that, landslips threaten to sweep away the few surviving wild plants.
Phil Lambdon of St Helena National Trust said: “It is currently our most threatened flowering plant, with a few wild plants scattered between High Peak and the Depot only.
“Aside from being very rare, all of the sites are on unstable cliffs prone to landslips, and the species is hybridising extensively with the small bellflower, so we are in real danger of losing it completely through genetic contamination.
“This could leave a mix of plants with an ‘in between’ appearance, and no true individuals left.
“And it could happen within a few years.”
Fuschia and New Zealand flax are seen as the main causes for decline in the plant’s fragile habitat.
A genetic study is under way, funded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, to try and work out which of the remaining small, shrubby plants are pure.
The charity put up £9,000 for the work in December 2012.
“Until we have done this we can’t really assess true numbers, or mount a proper conservation plan,” said Phil.
“The cultivation programme is partially on hold too, as it may not be safe to breed unless we know that the parents we pollinate from are guaranteed to be pure.”
The nursery at Scotland has conducted trial cultivations over a number of years.
Phil said: “There are about seven or eight individuals in cultivation at present, and there are 50 in the wild which might be pure – mostly very small and ailing, but still hanging on.”
The global “red list” of threatened species says they face “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.”
St Helena once had four types of bellflower, but two are now lost. The large bellflower was common in the 19th Century, often growing out of the tree fern trunks in the cloud forest.
The website for the bin Zayed foundation says: “The reasons for the alarming decline in the large bellflower are unclear, but a sharp decline in the area of mature tree fern thicket and forest in the early 20th Century is likely to have been the major factor.”
The plant was listed as critically endangered in 2003, “and since then its status has deteriorated further.”
The project aims to prevent immediate extinction by weeding out invasive species and taller native plants, working out which plants are pure, working out how to prevent cross-pollination, and establishing a population of pure individuals in the conservation nursery.
Leaf samples have been sent to Canada for analysis by Professor Quentin Cronk – one of the men who rescued the St Helena ebony plant in the 1980s.
If conservation efforts succeed, pure specimens could be reintroduced on high ground across the island.