St Helena's environment "of global importance" in climate change crisis

11 October 2019 By Emma Weaver

St Helena is the most bio-diverse location in the whole of the UK and its Overseas Territories.

The 47sq.-mile remote island houses at least 154 more endemic species than the whole of Great Britain. The island has been nicknamed the Galapagos of the South Atlantic, and it's no wonder why.

Of course, the island's biodiversity has benefits for tourism appeal, for bringing environmental funding into the island and for enhancing daily life.

But the biodiversity of St Helena – and of the whole of the UK – is in danger.

Increasing numbers of species are facing extinction, and the effects of climate change and other factors continue to increase, despite positive environmental work also increasing.

How do we know this?

A report called State of Nature 2019 was released Oct. 4 and is quickly becoming some of the biggest news in the scientific community.

The report studied 7,000 species and involved 70 organisations.

State of Nature found that in the UK and its Overseas Territories (OTs), almost 50% of wildlife species have declined since 1970. One in seven wildlife species is currently facing extinction.

Modern-day farming, housing developments and climate change were found as key factors to blame.

"Areas where wildlife live and hunt for food have been destroyed to make way for farming and housing," reported the BBC in relation to the report. "Pollution has [also] caused huge problems for populations of wild animals, birds, insects and fish. [And] extreme weather, rising temperatures and wildfires caused by climate change have all added to the problem."

The impacts of invasive species and pollution were also found as significant.

"The removal of invasive species is a major undertaking, but many control and eradication schemes are underway," the report says.

The declines in biodiversity and the environment are despite an increase in environmental work and volunteering.

Volunteering has nearly doubled in the past 13 years, and volunteers alone have donated a financial value to the environment of £20.5million per year. NGO expenditure, as well, is up by 26% since 2010/11 – although public sector expenditure on biodiversity has fallen by 42% since 2008/9.

State of Nature supports other findings and reports that the "silent crisis" of climate change is the single most important global issue – and the report places significant focus on the south Atlantic OTs, and specifically on St Helena, in terms of protecting important biodiversity.

St Helena is a hugely important environment

"The OTs in the South Atlantic are of global importance," State of Nature says.

While one in seven species is facing extinction in the UK, on St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, that number is just one in five.

"The OTs hold wildlife populations of global importance," the report says. "[...]They hold many unique species and wildlife concentrations found nowhere else in the world."

So far 32,216 native species have been recorded across the OTs, but the actual number is estimated to exceed 100,000 (as information/research has been patchy).

The OTs also hold significant numbers of endemic species.

"Many of the OTs are isolated oceanic islands, and as a result they typically hold high numbers of endemic species," the report says. "At least 1,549 have been documented to date, with 30% found on St Helena alone. This compares to 348 known endemic species in Great Britain."

The report also says the causes of environmental decline in the OTs are similar to those for the UK.

For instance, St Helena's 502 (at minimum) endemics developed in "extreme isolation" and therefore had a perfect environment in which to thrive – but with increased travel to and from the island, the threats and impacts of invasives are significant. Invasive plant management continues at Diana's Peak and biosecurity control, etc are in place, but the island's main, Darwin-funded invasive plant project is nearing its end and no news has been released about any further mitigation.

Environmental impacts of housing developments, modern-day farming and more could also become increasingly apparent for St Helena.

Habitat loss has occurred for species like the Wirebird, which lost habitat due to the Airport and potentially other developments. Notably, though, the resilient land bird's population increased last year despite this.

For the Giant Earwig, of course, habitat loss hit harder.

"The endemic St Helena Giant Earwig was declared globally Extinct in 2014, with the last confirmed adult seen in 1967," says the report. "Habitat degradation and the impact of non-native species is thought to have contributed to its demise."

Habitat fragmentation – where for instance insects used to have acres of endemic-plant habitat available but now the habitat is divided by patches of invasive plants that the insects cannot cross – has also occurred in significant areas like Diana's Peak National Park.

In the Peaks, endemic insect as well as endemic plant populations need restoration. At least five of St Helena's endemic plants have been significantly impacted by habitat fragmentation.

"Four of St Helena's endemic plants, including the St Helena Tea Plant, have been up-listed to Critically Endangered since 2015," the report says. "These species are threatened by habitat fragmentation and very few individual mature plants remain. [And] the St Helena endemic She Cabbage Tree was up-listed to Extinct in the Wild in 2015 following the death of the last wild specimen in 2012. Some cultivated specimens have been replanted in semi-wild situations."

Of course, hard work remains ongoing on-island to revive these populations. Last year's opening of the new shade house at Millennium Forest and Open Day with the ANRD team, for instance, showcased how the conservation team is propagating tea plants and other endemics. And last week's Sentinel showcased the work of the Peaks team, which was also mentioned in the State of Nature:

"Much of [St Helena's] threatened wildlife is associated with the island's cloud forest. Only small isolated fragments of this habitat remain. A Darwin Plus-funded project is underway and aims to secure the future of this rare habitat and its endemic invertebrates."

And of course, all of the above is even without diving in to the importance of St Helena's ocean.

The UK and its OTs are together responsible for the fifth largest area of ocean in the world – so it seems to make sense that the Blue Belt programme is one of the largest conservation initiatives ever undertaken.

Almost £20 million in UK Government funding has gone into the programme, with the aim being long-term protection for 4million km2 of ocean across the OTs between 2016 and 2020.

"The fundamental approach of the Blue Belt programme is to work with OT governments and communities to ensure local priorities for marine conservation management are adopted, and that local capacity is built for monitoring and management," the report says.

So far some of the key findings focus on marine pollution, and on improving the amount (currently 50%) of sustainable fisheries and unknown fish stocks (currently 18%).

The State of Nature report can be found in full online, and The Sentinel will continue providing important environmental coverage.