Years ago I was given a copy of the Song of the Dodo by the science writer David Quammen, outlining the nature of ecological diversity and why islands seem to have so much of the stuff. It was a gift that sparked the beginning of my fascination with islands and prompted me to take my life in my hands and board a 55ft sailing yacht out of Cape Town in mid-winter to discover more about island ecology and what it has to teach us about climate change.
Like the ancient mariners of old, one bright June morning we hoisted our sails underneath Table Mountain, slipped the mooring, passed a lolling Right Whale at the entrance to the dock and sailed out into the big blue.
Islands are unique, each one of them. Their isolation breeds evolutionary specialization. This specialization expands to fill every nook and cranny of the island. Plant and animal species evolve to fill niches that would normally be taken up by other species. Other species, like the She Cabbages of St Helena, are a throwback to an earlier time on earth.
“The She Cabbages are ancient relics, left over from a time long ago when Africa was wetter and different, and they thrived, …at least until people arrived here”. Explains Dr. Rebecca Cairnswicks, standing in the spotty rain among her nursery of She Cabbages, He Cabbages, Redwoods and other endemic St Helena trees. These trees have an otherworldly grandeur that is hard to explain, an appealing island quirkiness.
Dr. Cairnswicks has been trying to bring species back from extinction through a breeding program that has seen the St Helena Redwood rebound from seven individuals in 1993 to more than 35 now. Yet other species like the St Helena Olive disappeared in the last decade, never to cast a shadow across the volcanic soil of St Helena, or anywhere else, again. Its sister species, the St Helena Ebony (no relation to its African namesake) is down to one single tree. “Its all about whether we can pull these extremely rare species back from the brink of extinction, and create opportunities for them to be reproducing naturally” she explains, squinting into the sun holding a rare She Cabbage seed.
What possible significance does a lonely little rock in the Atlantic have for the rest of our planet? A lot, it would seem, according to concerned researchers. In the old days a canary would be taken down into a mine serving to keep the men safe by dutifully collapsing before they became ill from the bad air.
Islands, like canaries, are more sensitive to environmental change than continents. If the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker of southern Africa can’t find enough food to eat due to changes in seasonal rainfall, he just moves on. On islands like St Helena, he goes the way of the Dodo.
Of the eight endemic birds of St Helena, only the Wirebird is left. On Madeleine Island, off the coast of Senegal, there are just a few breeding pairs of Red Billed Tropic Birds still nesting. The Cap Verde Islands have but one tree of Purple Herons, numbering around 20.
“The St Helena Wirebird is a very hardy bird”, explains Eddie Duff, an expert from the St Helena Trust, looking off across the Deadwood Plain, the only habitat that supports them in any number. In the grass a few Wirebirds showed protective behaviour over their nests. “Last status count we did there are 322 single adult birds, by far that’s critically endangered”. Yet the Wirebird is a success story, simply because it is still around, its population kept safe by laws protecting crucial habitat.
These dark stories of loss and extinction are a grim foreshadowing of what is to come for the rest of the earth as we cut back our forests and encroach on the last few reserves of biodiversity. By separating humans from the natural world through reserves and parks we are creating separate islands of biodiversity, and laying these new “islands” open to the sort of extinctions and die-offs that have happened on islands surrounded by water. This separation due to human population pressures makes movement outside of the reserves impossible.
As climate change advances, Quammen points out that small fluctuations in rainfall, seasonal changes and prey dispersal that would have driven the animals to relocate, will now contribute to species loss because there is nowhere to go. Taking a page from the historic losses on islands of the world, its clear that without a change in how humans live within the natural world final extinction is the future for many species.
The Deputy Director of Wetlands International for West Africa, Adoulayi Ndiaye, explains how environmental education in the Saloum River Delta, a group of islands on the border of Senegal and Gambia, is vital to migratory birds moving from Africa to Europe. “It was a tough period some years back, because we were thinking that wildlife conservation is just for wildlife, not involving communities.” The wind blows through the nearby reforested mangrove trees, and he sounds sad as he explains in his gentle voice, “And we have failed worldwide of course. Senegal and Gambia are not exceptions. We have challenges, everywhere in the world, because they (National Parks) can’t do it on their own, we have to involve surrounding villages and neighbors of the park, who the wild resources belong to on a daily basis”. Brightening and smiling warmly, he adds that this new approach, “has worked very well, marvelous I can tell you.”
Quammen agrees, “For conservation efforts to succeed within human occupied landscapes, local people must be the proprietors and managers of those efforts, sharing in the tangible benefits”.
The need to see people as part of a natural system is not an easy task, but a fisherman can see that less fish means less money for him, or an end to his lifestyle, and in that spirit will accept regulations to control over-fishing. The people of St Helena came out in their thousands to help plant the Millennium Forest, a project put together by the St Helena
Trust seeking to repopulate the endemic St Helena Gumwood which used to cover 40% of the island.
In the Saloum Delta, local game guards are being trained to protect marine resources and to help Wetlands International start to clean up Bird Island, a long thin barrier island where rubbish from the cities of Dakar and Conakry washes up. This island is host to thousands of Red-Headed gulls, Caspian Terns, Royal Terns, Herons and many other migratory bird species that end up nesting in the accumulated filth. Wetlands International and I pledged to oversee donations for these community game guards to make sure Bird Island is cleaned up and patrolled.
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left." Said Einstein famously. This year American beekeepers reported a massive die-off of bees, never before seen.
Like many island species, could our bees become extinct? These issues affect us in the here and now, but there is a silver lining to the cloud of island ecology. If we can follow the success of environmental leaders and pave the way for more, then we may be able to save this planet’s fellow species. If we can do that, we can save ourselves.
People and groups, from Charles Darwin to Earnst Mayr (the father of island ecology) and others like Dr. Cairnswicks and Eddie Duff and the St Helena Trust have been stopping extinctions that once seemed inevitable, and it is not too late for humans to exercise our preeminent role, the bees and many others may depend upon us.
Unseasonable weather, sideways rain, large storms and odd currents at sea marked my days in the boat. Are these the hallmark of climate change? Yes. Can we prove it? In the words of Climate scientist Dr. Jim Bishop, from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, we would need to compare it to a month of data to prove it is anomalous. The fact that we could no longer trust our charts based on 300 years of weather data is a fairly good indicator that things are not right in the Atlantic.
Islands contain the lessons of survival, and it is time to start using those lessons and apply them to the rest of our worldwide ecosystem so we can face the coming challenges. Our actions now decide the fate of almost all that share this little island in space, and the show’s not over until the last canary sings.
A dedicated site for Bird Island:
Visit their website to plant a Gumwood tree in your name: