three and liesoff the western tip of Robinson Island.Daniel Defoe may have madethis part of the world famous(although he never acknowl-edged in print that his fiction-al epic was inspired bySelkirk’s adventures), but thereal story of these dramatical-ly beautiful islands is one of invasive alien species. Theseanimals and plants have beenintroduced by humans, eitherdeliberately or accidentally. Theyquickly establish themselves in a waythat wipes out the endemics that arosethere. They are different from the native,non-alien species that evolved some- where else but have cometo the islandsnaturally, living alongside the en-demics. Scores of alien specieshaveestablished themselves on the islandssince Selkirk’s day. The goats have been joined by rabbits and rats, feralcats and domestic cattle. Alien plantsinclude blackberry brambles and Chilean myrtle berry shrubs – two of the most invasive and dan-gerous of the invading flora.The endemic flora on Robinson and Selkirkislands are especially rich – and vul-nerable – which is why botanistsrefer to the archipelago as “theGalápagos for plants”. Todate, scientists have identi-fied 131 endemic plants onthe islands, which meansthat nearly two thirds of thetotal number of native plantspecies found on the islandsarose there – a floral endem-ism of 62 per cent. The islandshave the highest density of endem-ic plants anywhere in the world.But it is not just plants. Theislands are home to three endemicavian species and four endemic sub-species – which means 45 per centof Chile’s entire quota of endemic birds can be found on these smallPacific outcrops of volcanic rock.The level of species endemism in birds and other vertebrates alone,combined with the dire threatsposed by the invasion of alienspecies, led to the Juan Fernández Archipelago being rated by the Durrell Wildlife ConservationTrust in Jersey as the most important eco-regionin the world out of list of 100 threatened sites indire need of preservation.“Juan Fernández hasgenerated a large number of endemic speciesand the proportion of endemic species to totalspecies richness is extremely high,” says StephanFunk, senior conservation biologist at the trust.“And endemic species on very small islands havenowhere else to go, which is why conservationefforts there are so important.”Of the 123 endemic plants that have been clas-sified in a risk category, five have been declared“extinct”, 72 are “endangered and rare”, 21 are“endangered” and a further 21 have been classedas “vulnerable”. Some 14 plant species have few-er than 10 individuals living in the wild, and ahandful of plant species are represented by justone known individual growing in its natural habi-tat – the most precarious position for an endem-ic island plant.The archipelago represents less than 1 percent of Chilean national territory but accountsfor 60 per cent of the country’s extinct species,55 per cent of the nation’s “endangered” plants,and 59 per cent of those labelled “endangeredand rare”. It is easily the most critical region inChile for plant conservation, and this is a coun-try that is recognised as a global “hotspot” forplant biodiversity.The deforestation of previous centuries has been largely stopped and the islands are now aprotected national park as well as a biodiversityzone, but the problem of invasives is, if anything,getting worse. “The forests arefully protected, sothere is no longerdirect anthropogenic impact, but there are indirect effects of invasive species,”says Peter Hodum of theUniversity of Puget Soundnear Seattle, who has studied the islands extensive-ly. “We are no longer cutting forest but the fact that we’ve brought in species that have establishedthemselves in remnant patches of intact forest isnow the greatest threat to that habitat,” he adds.
Almost all the threats posed to the survival of theendemic animals and plants living in the JuanFernández Archipelago stem from contact withEuropeans. When Alexander Selkirk fell out withhis captain and chose to abandon ship for theisland of Mas á Tierra (Robinson Crusoe Island),he took a Bible, a pouch of tobacco, some cloth-ing and bedding, a musket and powder, naviga-tion instruments and a few tools, including ahatchet for chopping wood.He thought he would only be there for just a few weeks before being rescued by a passing ship butthe weeks turned to months and years. He sur- vived by hunting the feral goats that had beenintroduced to the islands by previous mariners
alien specieshave establishedthemselves onthe islands”
I am monarch of all I survey, My right there is none to dispute; From the centre all round to the sea, I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
William Cowper’s poem,
The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk
, immortalised a man whoseexperiences weresaid to have also inspiredDaniel Defoe’s
. The seventhson of a cobbler, William Selkirk was born in1676in Lower Largo, Fife. He ran away to seato avoid an appointment with the local courtsover a fracas with his brother and ended upon the 16-gun privateer the Cinque Ports witha royal licence to plunder Spanish ships.He fell out with the ship’s captain, con-vinced the vessel was unseaworthy, and askedto put ashore on the uninhabited island ofMás a Tierra. But almost as soon as the shipweighed anchor in September 1704, Selkirkhad second thoughts and pleaded to be letback aboard –a request the captain refused.Selkirk took with him a few tools, a cookingpot, a musket and powder, tobacco and aBible. He ended up staying on the island forfour years and four months. He lived on cab-bages and turnips and hunted the island’sferal goats, which he caught by runningthem down on foot.When his clothes wore out, he sewedgoat-skin trousers, jacket and hat. He spentmuch of his time reading his Bible or waitingat his lookout post on a mountain pass,where he would scan both east and west hori-zons for passing ships.Once, a Spanish ship docked in the bay andhe had to run away and hide in a tree, fearingthe Spanish would make him their slave.Eventually, in 1709, he was rescued by aBritish ship. The captain, Woodes Rogers,remarked that Selkirk could barely speak andlooked wilder than the island’s goats.
The real CrusoeAlexander Selkirk
TUESDAY17 NOVEMBER 2009
Paradise lost: El Padrebay on RobinsonCrusoe island (far left);a male firecrownhummingbird (left)