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Story Publication logo November 1, 2007

Lessons from the islands

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Jeffrey Barbee set off Across The Great Divide with boat maker/Captain Andre Watson and first mate...


In mid-winter three of us boarded a 55ft sailing yacht under Cape Town's Table Mountain to rediscover islands in the Atlantic and what they can teach us about coping with climate change. With the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and prompted by a dog-eared copy of The Song of the Dodo by the science writer David Quammen, we uploaded video segments of our adventure and thousands of concerned viewers joined the expdition through the website

Islands are unique, each one of them. Their isolation breeds evolutionary specialization. Species evolve in relative isolation, and are often weird, wonderful and rare. Most of the endemic (surviving there and nowhere else) plants of the island of St Helena are preserved on islands by lack of competition.

"The She Cabbages are ancient relics, left over from a time long ago when Africa was wetter and different, and they thrived on St Helena, 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's edge through a breeding program that has seen the St Helena Redwood rebound from seven individuals in 1993 to more than 35 now. But the last St Helena Olive disappeared recently, never to cast a shadow across the volcanic soil of St Helena, or anywhere else, ever again.

A 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 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 poisoned air.

Islands, like canaries, are more sensitive to environmental change than continents. Of the eight endemic birds of St Helena, only the Wirebird is left. "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 behavior over their nests. "Last status count we did there are 322 single adult birds, by far that's critically endangered, that means they are going downhill." The other ten species disappeared after the arrival of people.

These dark stories of loss and extinction are a 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 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.

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, it is clear that without a change in how humans live within the natural world 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 in Senegal, is changing our beliefs in wilderness protection. "It was a tough period some years back, because we were thinking that wildlife conservation is just for wildlife." The wind blows through the reforested mangrove trees nearby, "And we have failed worldwide of course. We have challenges, everywhere in the world, because 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."

In the Saloum Delta, local communities 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, and many other migratory bird species that end up nesting in the accumulated filth. Please visit the dedicated page for more info below.

"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?

Scientists like Dr. Cairnswicks, 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, many species depend upon us.

All of us have a role to play and it is up to each one of us to decide what that might be. Deon and I are looking for another boat to sail across the Pacific, sharing our curiosity through television and new media, bringing news both scary and encouraging.

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.

Site to clean up Bird Island:

Visit the St Helena Trust site to plant a tree in your name:

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