By David Higgins
It’s Friday 27th September and we’re opening a national park to coincide with World Tourism Day. The theme this year is ''Tourism and Water: Protecting our Common Future'. This is fitting as the new national park is the major watershed of St Helena. To confirm this, heavy clouds hang along the high ridges as they often do in late winter. The sweeping arc from Acteon to High Peak was made official by His Excellency the Governor, Mark Capes. In designating the Peaks National Park he cuts a fern frond with a machete.
One hundred and fifty people watch. That is less than the number of endemic species in this thin stretch of cloud forest. These are the ragged fragments of something wonderful. If you look close enough wonder still lifts from the soil. From the head-rush steepness of volcanic ravines to less threatening summits you can see biological gems. In my first weeks here I watched a golden sail spider tight-rope a silken thread between a black cabbage tree and a whitewood.
Lourens Malan, the island's 'terrestrial conservation officer', guided me into the darkness of the forest. Tree ferns curled over the trail. A matt of invasive bramble tore at our legs. Flies sapped the blood. We stepped carefully onto wet marl, mindful of the fragility of the ecology. Near the bottom of the ravine we stood beside the world’s rarest plants: the bastard gumwood tree, with one wild individual remaining, the whitewood, with less than 100 individuals left, and the he-cabbage tree, with less than 40.
The museum rarity of the place that Malan is tasked to conserve is worrying. As we stood looking into volcanic crevices, the stunning-yacht-sail abdomen of the golden sail spider came into view. It offered a little hope.
As I drive from Hutts Gate to Black Gate, beside the track to Teutonic Hall, I see incredible things. The christmas-scarlet brag of the Madagascan fody. The quick streaks of the yellow canary. Long shard-leaves of New Zealand flax. Rigid displays of pheasant tail fern. Dulux-cream inflouresence of whiteweed. Two indian mynah birds take starling flights into stands of eucalyptus. Cape yew, faint through the mist. None are native to St Helena.
To my right is the 823m high summit of Diana’s Peak. This 50 hectare mountain holds more endemic species than any European country. David Pryce, or ‘Bugman’ Pryce as he’s known, tells me that "48 percent of the invertebrates in the Peaks National Park are endemic". To date they know of 200 species of endemic invertebrate just in the Peaks. Some of these are reliant on a single tree species. Many of these trees are hidden on cliffs or in ravines, offering a Schrodinger’s metaphor for extinction.
Little isolated hotspots of wonder are surrounded by a sea of New Zealand flax. All around these biological jewels lies the threat of non-native species and habitat loss. The island's wonder is under constant siege.
Other threats are hard to quantify. It isn’t yet known how climate change will impact here. St Helena is so small it falls through the scale of climate models.
As I track these hills there is death-in-waiting. All around are living ghosts pushed into precarious states of rarity. Shayla Ellick, a local conservationist tells me "there are so many plants that are critically endangered it's hard to prioritise where to start". Then there are the invertebrates that depend on these rare trees. Shayla says, "if we lose one of our endemic plant species there could be a suite of invertebrate extinctions".
Within the last few months the final wild she-cabbage trees died at Osborne’s. Had the population been in the hundreds rather than in single figures the species may have tolerated the drought. Vanessa Thomas, the 'endemic nursery officer' points to the lack of resources: "we haven’t been able to check them for months", she said. Even if they had checked them it’s difficult to know what could have been done. Drinking supplies were down to seven days. Trees lose priority at such times.
Over the national park clouds stream from the south-east Atlantic. They drag over the mountains. On rare days they cling to Diana’s Peak. Mostly they whip over the hills, rapidly rising upwards and falling to the lee side of the slopes. Windy valley draws in cloud from three angles. The trees bluster uncertainly. My car hums like a tuning fork. The notes change each night. Within a few metres vegetation is blown in four directions. It boggles perception. The clouds either shed their load or moisture is sapped from them.
Native vegetation has structure adapted to draw out water. The Peaks National Park is the major water catchment of St Helena. Non-native plants don’t give as much. New Zealand flax traps water and maintains it on the leaves. From their long shard-leaves it evaporates away. This means less reaches the reservoirs.
The Peaks National Park is one of 23 National Conservation Areas (NCAs) on the island. These are being developed over the next two years. When all the NCAs are legally designated, 43 percent of St Helena will be protected. Of the NCAs, 14 will be concerned primarily with the natural heritage of the island. These areas are being created to protect the best of St Helena’s unique nature and geology.
Since 1502 it has only been possible to reach St Helena by ship. In 2016 an airport will open for the first time. In his opening speech, the governor Mark Capes said, "as we prepare for the arrival of air access ... it is right that we should raise awareness of the priceless asset we have in St Helena’s natural beauty and take steps to preserve it for the generations to come".
St Helena has 45 endemic plants, one endemic bird and over 450 endemic invertebrates. Dr Judith Brown and the marine conservation team are intensively surveying the marine environment. They regularly turn up new endemic species to add to a list of uniqueness. The work of the marine section will result in a Marine Conservation Area to complement the terrestrial conservation work.
St Helena could well be a mecca for eco-tourists. The Saint Helena Government need to recognise that more resources for conservation are needed. Without staff and financial support the NCAs could end up being nothing more than colourful polygons on maps.
The opening of the Peaks National Park attracted 11 of the 12 St Helena councillors. The governor of this little territory gave the opening speech. Could this support translate into budgetary improvements? If it does, the endangered species clinging to isolated spots may be lifted back to viable populations. What better legacy could there be?
I imagine planes passing over the igneous cliffs. They’ll be full of eager tourists. Local 'Saints' may watch them from the high peaks. What will the visitors see? It could be a thriving ecology re-establishing itself despite past threats. Equally, they could be greeted by an even more impoverished nature.
All photographs by David Higgins
David Higgins is a conservationist currently working in St Helena.