Island of Providence
More than five hundred kilometres from Australia’s east coast, Lord Howe Island was, until 1788, an isolated sanctuary for a diversity of plant and animal life, undisturbed by human activity. Today it is World Heritage listed for the wealth of its unique species, for its unusual geological origins and for its extraordinary beauty.
BY ROSALIND STIRLING AND MARK KELLETT
ROUND SEVEN million years ago, Lord Howe Island was born in a clash of fire and water. A stationary ‘hot spot’, deep below the ocean had for the previous 15 million years forced molten lava through the earth’s mantle, creating
a 1000 km long chain of submarine mountains. At the southern end of this chain, a volcano burst from the depths to create an island 30 km across and a kilometre high. After the volcanic activity subsided around 6.3 million years ago, the forces of wind and rain
went to work, carving and whittling the island away until now it is just one-fortieth of its original area and half its original height. The waters that surround the island are a blending of warm and cool currents just warm enough for stony corals to grow. A barrier reef,
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LEFT: View across Lord Howe Island to Mount Lidgbird and Mount Gower. Photo
the most southerly on earth, gradually formed to create a protected lagoon that supports a mixture of tropical and temperate marine life, some of which is found nowhere else. It was the remains of coral and other marine life, pounded to sand and washed ashore, that formed the sedimentary rock called calcarenite that now makes up the island’s lowlands. With a mild climate, plentiful rainfall and rich volcanic soils and limestone sands, Lord Howe Island provided a fertile habitat for many plant and animal emigrants.
Plants arrived as seeds, blown by the wind, floating on the sea or carried by birds. Once germinated, these pioneers were cut off from others of their species and, over many generations, they evolved in response to the island’s unique conditions. Some plants, such as the ancestors of the island’s palms, evolved so much that they formed new genera found nowhere else in the world, with distinct species specialised for different parts of the island. The iconic kentia palm (Howea forsteriana) grows best in the sandy soils of the lowlands, while the closely related curly palm (Howea
belmoreana) favours the volcanic soils of the lower slopes. Many of the island’s plants evolved in this way, and nearly half of them are found only on Lord Howe Island and its surrounding islets. Once plants had taken root, animals could join them. Flying insects and spiders (whose young are able to ‘parachute’ over huge distances on threads of silk) reached the island with the wind. Snails and earthworms probably arrived on drifting rafts of debris. Again, evolution worked to create new species, and about two-thirds of Lord Howe Island’s invertebrates, including the giant Lord Howe phasmid (Dryococelus australis) (see page 64) are found nowhere else. The growing diversity of plants and insects on the island provided food for emigrant vertebrates. The ancestors of the Lord Howe gecko (Christinus guentheri) and the Lord Howe skink (Leilopisma lichenigera) were also probably brought to the island on floating debris. Two species of bats flew from Australia. The large forest bat (Vespadelus darlingtoni) is also found on the mainland, but the Lord Howe longeared bat (Nyctophilus howensis) has evolved to the point where it has become a distinct species. The most effective colonists of Lord Howe Island were undoubtedly birds. Most of the land birds evolved only slightly, and are recognisable as varieties of species from nearby lands. Amongst these were the Lord Howe red-fronted parakeet (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae subflavescens) which was larger than its relatives on Norfolk Island; the Lord Howe boobook owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae albaria), smaller than the Australian one; and the whitethroated pigeon (Columba vitiensis godmanae), whose plumage was slightly different from that of the widespread metallic pigeon. Some birds, however, like the now extinct flightless white gallinule (Porphyrio Australian Heritage 59
Golden orb weaver, one of 180 species of spider on Lord Howe Island. Photo Hallmark
Kentia palm forest at the base of Mount Gower. Photo Hallmark Editions.
albus) and the woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) (see page 64), evolved to such an extent that they were immediately recognisable as distinct species. Sea birds also came to the island to breed. Fourteen species including providence petrels (Pterodroma solandri), flesh-footed shearwaters (Puffinus carneipes), sooty terns (Sterna fuscata), and red-tailed tropicbirds (Phaethon rubricauda), congregate here in their thousands each year. It was huge flocks of seabirds that heralded the end of this pristine island’s isolation from humanity. On 17 January 1788, the French navigator Jean François de Galoup La Pérouse noted in his log “…we were surrounded by an innumerable quantity of seagulls, leading us to believe that we were sailing near to
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some kind of island or rock…” It is possible that La Pérouse was the first person to make this observation. The seafaring Polynesians had found and colonised nearly all Pacific islands, but Lord Howe Island was not among them. Though La Pérouse never found the island, he may have contributed to its discovery by sharing his findings with the British at Port Jackson. On 17 February 1788, the armed tender, Supply, sighted the island’s dramatic mountain peaks while transporting soldiers and convicts to Norfolk Island. Her commander, Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, named it Lord Howe’s Island in honour of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Richard Howe. On the return trip, the Supply stopped at the island on 13 March and, finding it uninhabited,
Lieutenant Ball took possession in the name of King George III and named some of the features for himself and his naval colleagues. Without a natural anchorage or any useful stands of timber, Ball did not recommend the island as a potential colony but the 15 turtles that he brought back with him and reports of abundant birds, fish and fruit were welcome news to the Port Jackson settlers who were already struggling to feed themselves. In May 1788, the Supply set out on a return trip to Lord Howe Island to stock up on turtles. In spite of Governor Philip’s efforts to keep this lifeline for his colony secret from the departing First Fleet, the first three ships to leave, Charlotte, Lady Penhryn and Scarborough, stopped off at the island on their way to China. To the disappointment of their crews, the turtles had vanished on their migration to warmer waters. Birds, however, were still plentiful and easily caught, as Captain Thomas Gilbert of the Charlotte observed: Great numbers of gannets, very large and fat, were walking with less fear and concern than geese in a farmyard; and they were taken by hand, with much more ease. We found their nests in the long grass at the head of the
Sooty terns breed in large numbers on Lord Howe and its offshore islands. Photo Hallmark Editions.
beach, in each of which there were a great number of eggs, very large and well tasted when dressed. On entering the woods I was surprised to see large fat pigeons, of the same plumage and make as those in Europe, sitting on low bushes, and so insensible to fear, as to be knocked down with little trouble. Over the next two decades Lord Howe Island was visited by ships of the Royal Navy to collect turtles for the Port Jackson and Norfolk Island colonies, most likely to grace the tables of the officers and for use in the hospital. In 1798, the American whaling ship Ann and Hope arrived, the first of many American, Australian and European whalers to visit Lord Howe Island over the next 70 years. They came not only for food and water, but for ‘whaler’s wood’, “a stunted tree found growing near the water, which burns with a fierce heat” that was used for rendering blubber into whale oil. In 1834, three Englishmen from New Zealand were employed by the Sydney-based company, Robert Campbell & Co, to establish a permanent supply station for the whaling industry. Bringing their Maori wives and children, they built huts, caught fish, kept poultry, planted vegetable gardens and captured and farmed the pigs and goats that had been left to run wild by whalers. They traded their produce with visiting whalers for clothing, tools, soap, sugar salt, tea, tobacco and rum. Seven years later, Captain Owen Poole, a retired British officer and a partner with Sydney ironmongers, Richard Dawson & Henry Augustus Castle, bought the trading station from Robert Campbell & Co, and Lord Howe Island’s boom period as a provisioning station
began. The discovery of gold in Australia in 1851 increased whaling traffic at Lord Howe Island still further, as nervous ships’ masters called there rather than at the mainland where crew were likely to desert for the goldfields. However, by the early 1860s the whaling trade declined as a result of overhunting of whales and the destruction of most of the Union Pacific whaling fleet by Confederate raiders during the American civil war. By this time, Lord Howe Island’s fragile ecology had been seriously affected by the predations of humans and their feral pigs and goats. Goats ate the forest understorey and the coming generations of canopy
Emerald ground dove, widespread in Australia and possibly introduced to Lord Howe Island. Photo Hallmark Editions.
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Settlers in 1882. Photo courtesy Lord Howe Island Museum.
PICTURED FROM TOP: Masked booby. Photo Ian Hutton. Lord Howe Island Gecko. Photo Ian Hutton. Dendrobium moorei. Photo Ian Hutton. Corals in the lagoon. Photo Hallmark Editions.
plants, while pigs rooted around in the undergrowth, feeding on plants, invertebrates and ground-living birds and their eggs. Cats had also arrived with whalers in the 1840s, and they were joined by mice in the 1860s. Land birds were most vulnerable. By 1844, the white gallinule was
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extinct, the white-throated pigeon disappeared after 1853, and many other bird species were driven from accessible areas to survive only on the mountains or on lonely offshore islands. For a time after the whaling trade petered out, the island’s economy was sustained by red onions, which had been cultivated on the island since 1848. Their unusually long shelflife made them sought after throughout the southern hemisphere, and by the late 1860s they were being shipped to Sydney. This new industry was in trouble from the start. With their predators effectively eliminated, insects attacked the onions in plague proportions and the islanders could only watch helplessly as their crops were destroyed. However, it was one of Lord Howe Island’s unique birds that would suffer for this. Gardeners could do little against swarms of insects, but they could easily kill the red-fronted parakeets that were attacking their gardens. The bird was extinct after 1869. The onion industry finally collapsed in 1876 when smut ruined the crop. The island’s 40 people faced great hardship as the supply of goods from outside was choked. However, they maintained a simple livelihood, farming their livestock, harvesting
fish, beche-de-mer and sea lettuce from the sea and in November each year collecting the eggs and young birds of the mutton bird colony. In 1876, a report on conditions on Lord Howe Island prompted the NSW government to consider moving the population from the island, but an inquiry by Surveyor Fitzgerald found the colony viable, though in need of a new industry to generate income. He requested that the Sydney Botanic Gardens send specimens of crop plants such as coffee that might be cultivated on the island. As it turned out, it was the island’s own kentia palm that would provide economic salvation. Fitzgerald had noted that the palm had been useful since the earliest days of settlement.
White gallinule, engraving, Peter Mazell, 1789. State Library of Victoria, pb000262.
The houses are well built of split palm battens, thatched on the roof and sides with palm leaves. The leaf hangs down and the stem is bent over one horizontal batten and outside the next lower, an arrangement that gives a very clean, white appearance on the inside, somewhat resembling basket work, and very distinct from any other style of building.
When the Sydney Botanic Gardens examined the palm, they realised it had potential as a decorative plant and was tolerant of low light and low humidity that would kill many other palm species. By 1880, several islanders were laboriously harvesting kentia palm seeds and sending them to America, Australia, Belgium, England and India. Fitzgerald’s inquiry ended the islanders’ simple approach to self-government. The growing awareness of Lord Howe Island’s unique flora and fauna had led to it being declared a Forest Reserve by the New South Wales government in 1878, with Captain Richard Armstrong appointed as Forest Ranger. Over time, he assumed many other governmental roles, including resident magistrate. Though Armstrong made many improvements to the island’s administration and infrastructure, including developing the market for kentia palms, he was resented by some islanders, and a petition led to him being dismissed on claims of embezzlement and illegally supplying alcohol. He was later exonerated and paid compensation of £1500. For the next 58 years, the island was supervised by a series of visiting magistrates, who came as required, often only once a year. The valuable kentia palm trade brought ships once again to Lord Howe Island. In 1893, Burns Philp started a regular steamship service and, as kentia palms left the island, the first inquisitive tourists arrived. Ironically, this increased traffic very nearly destroyed Lord Howe Island’s ecology and economy in one blow. On 18 June 1918, the captain of the supply ship SS Makambo blacked out at the bridge and the
Rising 330 metres above the sea, Balls Pyramid, 23 kilometres to the south-east of Lord Howe Island, rises 330 metres above the sea. It is a remnant of a second shield volcano that is thought to have been active at about the same time as the Lord Howe volcano.
Photo: Colin Totterdell, courtesy Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.
uncontrolled vessel ran onto rocks. It was not immediately apparent that the crew were not the only ones fleeing the ship. Black rats had arrived. Five more of the island’s unique birds were soon exterminated and many species of invertebrates, including the Lord Howe phasmid (see page 64) were either wiped out or greatly reduced in numbers. Rats also ate kentia seeds, and became the islanders’ greatest enemy. Bounties paid on rat tails became another source of income for islanders. In another attempt to control them, masked owls were introduced during the 1920s but, inevitably, they also preyed on other species and may have caused the extinction of the Lord Howe longeared bat. It seems likely that they also crowded out the Lord Howe boobook owl, which went extinct in the 1950s.
LEFT: Mount Lidgbird (on the left) and Mount Gower rise steeply from the sea at the south of the island. Photo Hallmark Editions.
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As the extraordinary beauty of Lord Howe Island became better known, so too did the significance of its unique and diverse flora and fauna and, in 1981, more than two-thirds of the island was proclaimed a Permanent Park Preserve. A year later, the entire island together with offshore islets, Ball’s Pyramid and 145,000 hectares of marine environment were inscribed on the World Heritage List. Determined efforts have since been made to restore Lord Howe Island’s original flora and fauna. Several unique animals, notably the woodhen and the Lord Howe stick insect, have been rescued from the brink of extinction. Feral pigs and cats have been eliminated, goats
have been significantly reduced and plans are being made to exterminate the rats.
Visitors to Lord Howe Island can learn much about the island’s history and natural heritage at the Visitor Information Centre and Museum, Phone: (02) 6563 2111. Resident naturalist, photographer and curator at the Museum, Ian Hutton, provides tours and slide shows that introduce the natural treasures of this World Heritage island. Phone (02) 6563 2447.
Some scientists have suggested that restoration of Lord Howe Island can go even further. Many extinct endemic animals have close relatives living nearby. For example, the Lord Howe boobook was closely related to the carefully conserved Norfolk Island/New Zealand boobook hybrid. It has been suggested that some of these extinct species could be replaced by their living relatives, an intriguing but controversial possibility.
Lord Howe Island Rising by Daphne Nichols, 2006. A Guide to World Heritage: Lord Howe Island, by Ian Hutton, available at the Australian Museum bookshop in Sydney, and at the Lord Howe Island Museum via the museum website www.lhimuseum.com ◆
LORD HOWE SURVIVORS
Woodhen - an unlikely survivor
that grows up to 12 centimetres long and belongs to the group that includes land lobsters, leaf insects and stick insects. Somehow this insect reached the island when the group was just beginning, and it has retained some very primitive characteristics. It comes out only at night, and was once so abundant that in 1916 the entomologist, Arthur Lea, could collect them “in practically unlimited numbers”. This came to an abrupt end two years later with the wreck of the Makembo and the arrival of rats, and the insect disappeared from Lord Howe Island within a few years. However, in 1964 a rock climber photographed a dead Lord Howe phasmid on Balls Pyramid, proving they still lived there. In 2001, an intrepid team of scientists made the journey to the island at night and found 20 phasmids crawling around a stunted melaleuca bush. A successful captive breeding program at Melbourne Zoo has seen phasmid numbers increase into the hundreds, and these will be used to recolonise Lord Howe Island once the rats have been eliminated.
Woodhen and chick. Photo Ian Hutton.
One of Lord Howe Island’s most unlikely surviving birds is the woodhen, a flightless, bantam-sized relative of New Zealand’s weka. The woodhen is very inquisitive and approaches any strange noise, a trait that made it easy to catch and kill. Humans, pigs, cats and rats all attacked the woodhen until in the 1970s there were only about 30 left living in the remoter parts of the island’s two mountains. The Australian Museum took an interest in the birds’ plight and conducted a recovery program during the 1980s. While a captive breeding program was used to build up their numbers, the birds’ main predators, feral pigs and cats, were eliminated. Today there are around 250 woodhens living in many parts of the island, and they are a common sight.
Lord Howe phasmid - a relic from the past Perhaps the most bizarre inhabitant of Lord Howe Island is the Lord Howe phasmid, an enormous insect
Lord Howe phasmid. Photo Ian Hutton.
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