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.