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.
If only things had been different back in the 1960s, Dave Clarke of London Zoo might now know what it was like to have a three-inch-long earwig wriggling in his hands.
But they weren’t, and half a century on, the St Helena Giant Earwig looks set to be declared extinct. Not that Dave is giving up hope completely.
He led an expedition to the island in 1988, hoping to find live specimens for a captive breeding programme to save the species. It appears they got there too late.
The tragedy was that a team from Belgium found live specimens in the 1960s, but the idea of captive breeding just hadn’t taken hold yet. In effect, they had got there too early.
“It is a massive frustration,” admits Dave, team leader of the Bugs and Butterflies exhibits for the Zoological Society of London.
“The last time they had been properly seen was in the 1960s – the Belgian expeditions,” says Dave.
“They made an assessment of live specimens but they weren’t properly seen since, though there was a report of them being seen in 1967.
“Back in the 50s and 60s it wasn’t such a high consideration to be looking at conservation breeding. It is much more an initial consideration these days.”
To be fair, even London Zoo didn’t start doing it until the 1980s. Now it can have the main population of a threatened species in a single room. “You can do a lot in a small space,” says Dave. “It’s not quite as expensive as trying to save tigers.”
Even with invertebrates, though, funding is a problem – including on St Helena. And even if the Belgians had taken live specimens of Labidura herculeana back to the Royal Museum for Central Africa, they may not have survived.
It has since been tried with another of St Helena’s more “charismatic” invertebrates – unsuccessfully.
“There’s only a limited amount you can do with captive breeding, even with invertebrates,” says Dave. “Many species are reliant on habitats which are difficult to replicate in captivity.
“A current example is the St Helena Spiky Yellow Woodlouse, which is only found on The Peaks. That is probably a population of a hundred, but we wouldn’t want to take animals out of the wild for captive breeding because we simply don’t know the best way to keep them in captivity.
“We have tried once before, but none survived.”
Sadly, no members of the Belgian expeditions are thought to be alive either, so they cannot be asked about their adventure. The Africa museum kindly supplied pictures of the giant earwig in their collection, but could find none of the expedition itself.
Their findings were included in a 1980 book on the island’s natural riches.
When Dave Clarke led the Operation Hercules expedition to St Helena in 1988, the giant earwig was already listed as threatened and potentially extinct. But there were grounds for hope.
“We knew that the chances were slim,” says Dave.
“Knowing that specimens of the forceps were being found we thought there may be a chance, especially with the recent efforts to recreate some of the habitats with the planting of gumwoods on the side of Horse Point Plain.
“We thought, if there was a remnant population there was a chance they could improve and hang on and do better given the habitat protection that was going on.”
The Dodo of the Dermaptera, as it has been nicknamed, was always elusive. The Belgium team had described now the earwigs lived under rocks, and would quickly retreat into deep fissures in the soil.
“It was just physical searching and setting up pitfall traps, because we were also looking for the endemic ground beetle. Unfortunately we weren’t finding any of those either.
“We did come across some of the pincers of the earwig but we weren’t able to tell how recently they were alive. They did look quite fresh, although may have been decades old.”
At the time, there was little understanding of the global significance of St Helena’s invertebrates. In 2014 the island was declared to have more endemic species of them, per square mile of land, than the Galapagos Islands.
London Zoo saw its importance, sending a second expedition in 1993. “We did quite a lot of publicity, including going on the Wogan programme, which was one of the biggest TV slots in the UK.
“We ran a symposium in London – St Helena Natural Treasury. That did stimulate more interest.
“The giant earwig was very much a flagship for endemic invertebrates, and something that would capture the general public’s imagination, having an earwig over three inches long.”
Even the most glamorous of St Helena’s invertebrates are no match for the marine iguanas of the Galapagos in terms of public appeal, admits Dave. “But they can be flagships for protecting the habitat, which has a knock-on for other species.
“That is being done on The Peaks. But it’s a slow process.”
Dave supported the recent idea of choosing a new national flower in place of the arum lily – a beautiful but invasive alien species. It makes a poor symbol for St Helena’s efforts to protect the endemic plants that are unique to St Helena.
“St Helena has suffered more than most from introductions having a negative effect on the native flora and fauna,” he says. “So I would support it being an endemic.”
And what about a national invertebrate?
“I hadn’t thought about that. Certainly highest in our mind is the spiky yellow woodlouse, because it does still exist. We might have considered the giant earwig before but I think we are too late.
“It will be 50 years next year since the last definitive living specimens were collected. But we never know: it might still reappear.
“A species of snail from the Seychelles was declared extinct in 2007 but was found this year, alive.
“Maybe there are some earwigs clinging on there somewhere. But they will only survive if we reinstate those habitats.”
Dave had strong praise for his namesake Dave Pryce, who has been assessing the state of St Helena’s 400-or-so endemic invertebrates for the Bugs on the Brink project – and who warned that he expected to submit a formal proposal to declare the giant earwig extinct. But there were concerns about whether there would be enough funding for him to continue his work on the island, especially his efforts to conserve the spiky yellow woodlouse.
St Helena’s unique Spiky Yellow Woodlouse species is struggling to survive, a comment by visiting expert Dr Roger Key has suggested.
The plight of the “amazing little creature” was noted back in 2003, when Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks of St Helena National Trust said it was “not as common as it was just ten years ago”.
Dr Key referred to the unusual tree-climbing woodlouse in an interview, after several weeks of surveys of “all the creepy-crawlies that St Helena is so special for”.
He told SAMS radio that a number of endemic invertebrates on the island appeared to be going the way of the giant earwig, which is listed as critically endangered but may now be extinct.
“All the way through Britain and all its overseas territories,” he said, “half of all the bugs that only occur in one place are actually in St Helena.
“There are 400 odd species that only occur in St Helena. Unfortunately, that number’s going down.
“Everybody’s heard of the giant earwig, which was last seen in the Sixties and it was four inches long, so it probably isn’t around any longer.
“You also have things like the Spiky Yellow Woodlouse, which is still here, just, but is only hanging on by the skin of its feet.”
The giant earwig is the only St Helena invertebrate to feature on the global “red list” of endangered species – along with the wirebird and several species of fish.
He said that fellow scientist Dr David Price would be working out the rarity of various species and seeking international help conserving them, during a two-year contract on the island.
That may mean finding a balance between the needs of invertebrates and other sensitive species, said Dr Key.
“Sometimes doing the right things for the plants and the birds might be a little bit different to what you do for the invertebrates, so it’s working out what works for everything.”
In a 2003 report for the St Helena National Trust newsletter, Dr Cairns-Wicks described the Spiky Yellow Woodlouse’s unusual liking for climbing the branches of tree ferns and other endemics.
“It has been called a ‘living’ fossil because it is an ancient species,” she said. “It has distant relatives as far apart as South America, Madagascar, South Africa and Australia.
“It is because it is so unique and ‘ancient’ that it is highly important, and it could help in the study of how today’s continents came to be formed.
“Unfortunately, however, the Spiky Yellow Woodlouse has only ever been recorded from High Peak in recent times. Only a tiny fragment of tree-fern thicket and cabbage trees survive at High Peak, and they are heavily invaded by flax, fuchsia, bilberry and other invasive plant species.
“Occasional observation suggests that the Spiky Yellow Woodlouse is not as common as it was just 10 years ago.”
The Trust has since begun a programme to revive the cloud forest along High Peak and the ridges above Broad Bottom by removing invasive species and planting endemics.
He didn’t quite get his hands dirty… but St Helena’s governor has been helping, in a small way, to create a “cloud forest” across the highest parts of the island.
Mark Capes and chief secretary Owen O’Sullivan planted a few endemics at High Peak, where St Helena National Trust has been clearing invasive species to help endangered plants survive.
But His Excellency wore rubber gloves for the job.
They were at High Peak – one of the last pockets of endemic cabbage tree woodland and tree fern thicket – during a tour of island conservation work. They also visited High Knoll Fort and the Heart Shape Waterfall.
The High Peak habitat work is being done under a £300,000 Darwin Project grant.
The moist, high-altitude habitat was once typical of St Helena’s high ground – which reaches close to 3,000 feet – but is under threat because of its isolation from other forest areas.
The National Trust is planting native plants and eradicating invasive species – including St Helena’s national flower, the arum lily – to give native plants and animals a better chance of survival.
The ultimate aim is to extend the native woodland to join up with the Peaks, to form a “cloud forest” of endemic plants – those found nowhere else in the world.
Marcia Benjamin, an apprentice on the project, wrote about it in the Trust’s December 2011 newsletter:
“We have so far partially cleared many invasive species from the site such as Arum Lily, wild bilberry, whiteweed, kikuyu grass, fuchsia, ginger, and furze. The removal of invasives will be a lengthy process.
“In one particularly important area we call the Dell we have been planting out with he cabbage, she cabbage, lobelia, redwood and dwarf jellico to re-establish lost canopy cover and prevent it from drying out.
“High Peak is an important site for endemic fauna such as the spiky yellow woodlouse and the blushing snail. Increasing native species will encourage the endemic fauna to flourish.
“I have always been at home in the outdoors. I believe we should do all we can to preserve our natural surroundings and protect our endemics. It is really sad that we have allowed so much of what makes St Helena unique to become extinct or to become under threat.”
The Darwin Project is a three-year programme, funded by the UK government and managed by the St Helena National Trust, which aims to build up a skilled team with the knowledge and expertise to help conserve St Helena’s threatened native biodiversity for years to come. The Trust works in partnership with Enterprise St Helena, the Adult Vocation and Education Service and the Directorate of Agriculture and Natural Resources (source: St Helena Government).