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Notes from Robinson Crusoe Island
414 miles off the coast of Chile is a place untouched by man for four million years. Now it is in peril. A special report by Steve Connor
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Bursting with endemic flora and fauna, the Juan Fernández Archipelago is a hothouse of evolution. But alien species introduced by humans are now threatening this remote ‘Galápagos of plants’. Science editor Steve Connor reports

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t takes about two hours by light aircraft to fly to the remote Pacific islands of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, 414 miles off the coast of Chile. That’s all it takes to destroy the 4 million-year isolation that has protected this oceanic jewel from biological destruction. Most people who have heard of Juan Fernández know of its links with Daniel Defoe’s classic desertisland tale of Robinson Crusoe (pictured, far right). Indeed, the biggest island in the archipelago was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 in honour of a Scottish mariner called Alexander Selkirk who was self-marooned there in 1704 for four years and four months – an endurance test that is said to have inspired Defoe’s imaginary character. But the Juan Fernández Archipelago has a more important story to tell. It centres on a long history of geographical isolation that has made it one of the world’s most exquisite hothouses of evolution. Its separation from the mainland has meant it has developed an endemic evolutionary signature of its own. The islands are one of few places on earth that have never been colonised by humans until recently. Selkirk was not the first person to set eyes on the islands – that was the Spanish navigator Juan Fernández in 1574 – but his stay there marked the beginnings of a biological catastrophe that resonates on islands throughout the world. The Juan








Santiago Juan CHILE Fernández Archipelago Buenos Aires

of the features of endemic species is that they are incredibly sensitive to change and the arrival of people usually springs dramatic change to islands, particularly when they bring new species with them,” says Alan Saunders, a New Zealander with a vast experience of eradicating invasive species from islands. “At the end of the day we have two choices. Either we get rid of the invasives or we stand by and see extinctions taking place.” 111 The Juan Fernández Archipelago, which is administered as a “special territory” by Chile, consists of three principal islands. The second oldest, formed by an undersea volcanic eruption about 4 million years ago, is Robinson Crusoe Island. It was previously known as Isla Más a Tierra, meaning the “island closest to land”, the name Selkirk knew it by. Another island 121 miles due west of Robinson, and slightly larger with taller mountains and deeper ravines, is Alexandro Selkirk Island, although confusingly Selkirk himself never set foot on this island and couldn’t even see it from his mountaintop lookout on Robinson Island. Alexandro Selkirk Island, in Selkirk’s day, was called Isla Más Afuera, meaning the island further out to sea. The third island is Santa Clara which Selkirk could have seen but probably never visited. It is the smallest of the


Falkland Islands (UK)

Fernández Archipelago epitomise what can happen to unique, endemic species when their remote territory is suddenly invaded by alien species introduced by man. An endemic species is one that exists where it has evolved. On islands, they are often found nowhere else and are exquisitely vulnerable to invasive alien species. Juan Fernández is a microcosm of what’s taking place in just about every remote, pristine island on earth where human encroachment has resulted in the introduction of foreign species. “One


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The real Crusoe Alexander Selkirk

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 whose experiences were said to have also inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The seventh son of a cobbler, William Selkirk was born in 1676 in Lower Largo, Fife. He ran away to sea to avoid an appointment with the local courts over a fracas with his brother and ended up on the 16-gun privateer the Cinque Ports with a royal licence to plunder Spanish ships. He fell out with the ship’s captain, convinced the vessel was unseaworthy, and asked to put ashore on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra. But almost as soon as the ship weighed anchor in September 1704, Selkirk had second thoughts and pleaded to be let back aboard – a request the captain refused. Selkirk took with him a few tools, a cooking pot, a musket and powder, tobacco and a Bible. He ended up staying on the island for four years and four months. He lived on cabbages and turnips and hunted the island’s feral goats, which he caught by running them down on foot. When his clothes wore out, he sewed goat-skin trousers, jacket and hat. He spent much of his time reading his Bible or waiting at his lookout post on a mountain pass, where he would scan both east and west horizons for passing ships. Once, a Spanish ship docked in the bay and he had to run away and hide in a tree, fearing the Spanish would make him their slave. Eventually, in 1709, he was rescued by a British ship. The captain, Woodes Rogers, remarked that Selkirk could barely speak and looked wilder than the island’s goats.

Paradise lost: El Padre bay on Robinson Crusoe island (far left); a male firecrown hummingbird (left)

islands are especially rich – and vulthree and lies off the western tip of nerable – which is why botanists Robinson Island. refer to the archipelago as “the Daniel Defoe may have made Galápagos for plants”. To this part of the world famous date, scientists have identi(although he never acknowlfied 131 endemic plants on edged in print that his fictionthe islands, which means al epic was inspired by that nearly two thirds of the Selkirk’s adventures), but the total number of native plant real story of these dramaticalspecies found on the islands ly beautiful islands is one of arose there – a floral endeminvasive alien species. These ism of 62 per cent. The islands animals and plants have been have the highest density of endemintroduced by humans, either ic plants anywhere in the world. deliberately or accidentally. They But it is not just plants. The quickly establish themselves in a way islands are home to three endemic that wipes out the endemics that arose avian species and four endemic subthere. They are different from the native, species – which means 45 per cent non-alien species that evolved some- Scores of of Chile’s entire quota of endemic where else but have come to the islands birds can be found on these small naturally, living alongside the en- alien species Pacific outcrops of volcanic rock. demics. Scores of alien species have have established The level of species endemism in established themselves on the islands themselves on birds and other vertebrates alone, since Selkirk’s day. The goats have combined with the dire threats been joined by rabbits and rats, feral the islands” posed by the invasion of alien cats and domestic cattle. Alien plants include blackberry brambles and Chilean myrtle species, led to the Juan Fernández Archipelago berry shrubs – two of the most invasive and dan- being rated by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey as the most important eco-region gerous of the invading flora. The endemic flora on Robinson and Selkirk in the world out of list of 100 threatened sites in

dire need of preservation. “Juan Fernández has generated a large number of endemic species and the proportion of endemic species to total species richness is extremely high,” says Stephan Funk, senior conservation biologist at the trust. “And endemic species on very small islands have nowhere else to go, which is why conservation efforts there are so important.” Of the 123 endemic plants that have been classified in a risk category, five have been declared “extinct”, 72 are “endangered and rare”, 21 are “endangered” and a further 21 have been classed as “vulnerable”. Some 14 plant species have fewer than 10 individuals living in the wild, and a handful of plant species are represented by just one known individual growing in its natural habitat – the most precarious position for an endemic island plant. The archipelago represents less than 1 per cent of Chilean national territory but accounts for 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 “endangered and rare”. It is easily the most critical region in Chile for plant conservation, and this is a country that is recognised as a global “hotspot” for plant biodiversity. The deforestation of previous centuries has been largely stopped and the islands are now a

protected national park as well as a biodiversity zone, but the problem of invasives is, if anything, getting worse. “The forests are fully protected, so there is no longer direct anthropogenic impact, but there are indirect effects of invasive species,” says Peter Hodum of theUniversity of Puget Sound near Seattle, who has studied the islands extensively. “We are no longer cutting forest but the fact that we’ve brought in species that have established themselves in remnant patches of intact forest is now the greatest threat to that habitat,” he adds. 111 Almost all the threats posed to the survival of the endemic animals and plants living in the Juan Fernández Archipelago stem from contact with Europeans. When Alexander Selkirk fell out with his captain and chose to abandon ship for the island of Mas á Tierra (Robinson Crusoe Island), he took a Bible, a pouch of tobacco, some clothing and bedding, a musket and powder, navigation instruments and a few tools, including a hatchet for chopping wood. He thought he would only be there for just a few weeks before being rescued by a passing ship but the weeks turned to months and years. He survived by hunting the feral goats that had been introduced to the islands by previous mariners


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wanting to ensure a supply of fresh meat on the high seas. More than a century before Selkirk’s adventure, the navigator Juan Fernández is said to have left just four goats on the smaller island of Más Afuera (Alexandro Selkirk Island). Now there are about 3,500 goats there. Goats, which eat just about anything they can chew, were to be the start of a 300-year alien invasion. Domestic rabbits and cats soon escaped into the wild, the latter to deal with the rats and mice that jumped ship. And about 50 years ago, someone introduced a small South American predator called a coati – for no other reason than it would be of interest to people visiting Robinson Island. Like the cat and rat, the coati has made light work of ground-nesting birds. The native and endemic birds, which include a seabird called the pink-footed shearwater (Puffinus creatopus) that digs underground burrows to lay its eggs, are no match for these introduced predators. The islands have no natural mammals apart from an endemic species of fur seal, and the native birds are quite unused to these intelligent, agile predators. Like many endemic animals on remote islands they are incredibly naïve when it comes to invasive predators and do not display the usual flight behaviour seen in birds on the mainland. Ground-nesting birds in particular are also highly vulnerable to having their eggs stolen by fourlegged predators, even those as small as rats and mice. Hodum says that even rabbits have been shown to disturb the breeding patterns of the pink-footed shearwater by invading its burrows. As for the plant-eating invaders, their impact is just as devastating. Invasive herbivores can turn a rich landscape of temperate forests and fertile valleys into an overgrazed wasteland. Goats in particular are renown for nibbling the most-out-of-the-way shoots, preventing a mature forest from renewing itself with young saplings. In many ways, invading plants can be even more pernicious than the invasive animals. The top three floral invaders are the elm-leaf blackberry (Rubus ulmifolius), the Chilean myrtleberry bush or murtilla (Ugni molinae) and a South American shrub called the maqui (Aristotelia chilensis), which forms dense thickets where nothing but itself can grow. A common feature they possess is the ability to grow rapidly throughout the year. They quickly out-compete the native plants for light, nutrients and space and strangle endemics in their path. But it’s not just the endemic plants that are wiped out by these invading triffids. Take the case of the blackberry bramble, which was introduced on to Robinson Island as recently as the 1930s to serve as a boundary-forming hedging plant that would also provide fruit for jam. In the sub-tropical moist climate it grows vigorously throughout the frost-free seasons. In the space of three or four years it can overgrow a full-sized Luma tree (Myrceugenia fernándeziana), an endemic species on Robinson Island that is also the preferred nesting site for the island’s iconic firecrown hummingbird (Sephanoides fernandensis), the only species of hummingbird in the world that is endemic to an oceanic island. So an innocuous-looking plant brought to the island less than a century ago is helping push the world’s only endemic oceanic hummingbird to the brink of extinction. Just 1,000 firecrown hummingbirds are believed to live on Robinson Island, compared with perhaps as many as 10,000 when Selkirk was stewing goat meat over a fire and dreaming of being rescued by a passing ship. No-one knows how long the firecrown

which was formed about a million years ago during an undersea volcanic eruption, making it about 3 million years younger than Robinson Island. Ingo Hahm, a young ornithologist from Muenster University in Germany, probably knows more than anyone about the mysterious rayadito, which lives within the steep and highly-inaccessible ravines on Selkirk, an island with an exceptionally difficult terrain. Hahm spends up One of Charles Darwin’s great achievements to 10 weeks at a time studying the bird on his own was to provide an explanation for how new in the hope of working out how it lives so that scispecies arise through natural selection. He entists can come up with some kind of meaningrealised islands play a key role because they ful strategy for saving it from extinction. allow a few stranded members of a species to By mapping the territorial boundaries betbecome geographically and reproductively ween competing rayaditos, Hahm has come up isolated from their tribe. The isolation, over with an estimate of the bird’s breeding populamany generations, eventually leads to a physition. He reckons there are just 140 individual rayacal and genetic divergence, and hence the evoditos still living on the island – the only place they lution of a new species that becomes endemic are found. “It is the rarest endemic animal species to that island. The islands of Juan Fernández of Chile,” Hahm says. are far enough away from the mainland for And it’s getting rarer. The island’s goats are island endemism to have occurred many eating through the rayadito’s habitat of endemic times, but not too far as to never receive plants, and rats take any eggs they can find. This occasional visitors from the mainland. is why the rayadito is one of the most endangered birds in the world. But as rare as the rayadito is, its predicament hummingbird has existed on Robinson Island – estimates range from 100,000 years to more than is not as precarious as some of the archipelago’s a million. It almost certainly evolved from a endemic plants. One species, called Chenopodispecies found on the mainland of South America um sanctae-clarae, is represented in the wild by called the greenback hummingbird. A storm just one community of individuals living on a sinprobably blew a few greenbacks onto Robinson gle rock on Santa Clara island, which thankfully Island many tens of thousand of years ago where has had its goats eradicated. Several other plants exist only as a single individual in the wild. One they formed a breeding colony. Once these marooned greenbacks had estab- such species is Dendroseris gigantea, with a final lished themselves, a long period of isolation led to representative in nature that is a lone plant on the evolution of a new species, with distinctively Selkirk Island, although it is now being propagatdifferent coloration and behaviour to the green- ed artificially on Robinson Island. Should these single individuals die out in the back. (It is this process of speciation – the formation of new species – that Charles Darwin discov- wild without any propagation in captivity, then so ered after he had visited the Galápagos islands to does the species – and another extinction occurs. This happened a few years ago to the the north of Juan Fernández.) last living male plant of a species The firecrown’s unique traits called Robinsonia berteroi, type of include the widest differences in groundsel, which was chewed to physical appearance between the For cats, death by rats. No one had thought of two sexes of any hummingbird – so the island is a protecting it. different are the males and females One of the most unusual gems on compared to other hummingbirds supermarket Robinson is a flowering plant belongthey were originally thought to be that you don’t ing to a plant family called the lactwo species. Firecrowns also exhibit toridaceae. DNA studies and discovthe charming habit of saving valu- have to pay for” eries of fossilised pollen in other able energy by sometimes grasping on to the underside of a nectar-filled flower with parts of the world indicate that this family may be something like 100 million years old, yet the their feet to take a rest from hovering. Like many species that have evolved on only living specimens exist on Juan Fernández, islands, the firecrown exhibits a remarkable which is no older than 4 million years old. It has tameness. Within hours of landing on Robinson, been studied by Tod Stuessy, a botanist and Juan I encountered a family of firecrowns feeding on Fernández specialist at the University of Vienna. “The lactoridaceae in the archipelago are the the dangling orange flowers of an abutilon bush, a non-native but non-invasive species. To my sur- only family of flowing plants restricted to an prise I could almost reach out to grasp these lit- oceanic island. They represent a remnant populatle birds without them showing any signs of fear. tion of something that probably went extinct As one might expect, such naïvety is lethal in the everywhere else millions of years ago,” Dr Stuessy presence of the many feral cats living on Robin- says. “It’s a mystery how they got there.” It’s rather like finding a family of dinosaurs livson. As Peter Hodum says: “For cats, it’s like a ing on the Isle of Wight. walk-in supermarket you don’t have to pay for.” The importance of the archipelago in terms of But even if a young firecrown survives the attentions of the local cats long enough to breed, its endemic flora cannot be underestimated. It is its eggs can still be eaten by the island’s band of not so much the total number of endemic flora climbing black rats (Rattus rattus). That is if they that can be found in the “Galápagos for plants”, can still find a nesting site in any of the tall Luma it is their sheer density – something I experitrees that have not yet been strangled by black- enced for myself. berry brambles. 111 As iconic as the firecrown is, however, it is not the most endangered bird in the Juan Fernández Archipelago. That is a small songbird called the Walking half the length of Robinson Island, a disRayadito de Masafuera (Aphrastura masafuer- tance of some 10 miles, with botanist Philippe Danae) that lives on the more distant Selkirk Island, ton of the National Museum of Natural History

Island endemism Darwin’s discovery

in Paris, is an exhilarating if exhausting experience. The footpath from the western point of the island climbs slowly to the tall, volcanic peaks that bisect one half of Robinson from the other. Selkirk had his lookout at this summit. Standing on Selkirk’s rock, it is possible to scan both the east and west horizons at once. It became a daily ritual for Selkirk. As we moved from the lower grassy slopes to the forested peaks with their lush tree ferns and tall Lumas, the trilling sounds of the firecrown


Cover story Independent Life
Nature studded (from left): Rhaphithamnus venustus; a female Juan Fernández firecrown hummingbird; nonnative blackberry; Gunnera peltata; Juania australis feathered palm; a male firecrown



Christopher Maume
‘The British National party is right about one thing: the country is filling up’

hummingbird were punctuated by Danton’s frequent calls of “endémique!” as he spied yet another Robinsonian rarity. In the space of several hours, I lost count of how may “endémiques” he had documented. Danton has witnessed many changes to Robinson in the 12 years he has spent surveying the island’s flora. “The firecrown hummingbird is a bird from the forest and I had a chance when I started working here to see some parts of the pristine forest,” he says. “Today, there is not one

Animal planet: (above) an endemic fur seal. Its population has recovered since fur hunting has stopped

part of the forest where you cannot find an invasive species – they are everywhere, in every part of the forest. It would be difficult for Selkirk to recognise the forest now.” Of all the invasive species to have arrived on the islands of Juan Fernández , humans must rate as the most destructive, even without their role as a vector for alien species. Since Juan Fernández first charted the position of the archipelago in 1574, humans have transformed the landscape, which had until then escaped human colonisation, either by the Polynesian seafarers to the west, who stopped at Easter Island, or the South American natives to the east. When European mariners arrived, they quickly exploited the forests for wood. Robinson has also been a penal colony and the site of a Spanish castle. In 1853, a permanent colony of settlers from the Chilean mainland was established and cattle were introduced to graze the lower grassy slopes that had been cleared of trees. Today, Robinson Island has a permanent population of about 750 inhabitants living in the tiny village of San Juan Bautista overlooking the same Cumberland Bay where Alexander Selkirk’s ship landed in 1704. The population has risen by 150 in just two years, which is on top of the 2,500 tourists who visit the island each year. Ivan Leiva Silva, who has been director of the Juan Fernández National Park for 15 years, says that 75 per cent of the land on Robinson Island has suffered erosion though deforestation, fires and overgrazing by livestock. He says 40 per cent of this erosion is irreversible, and of the 1,800 hectares of forests on the island, just 250 hectares are still in the same pristine state they were in when Selkirk chopped wood for his fire. But Leiva Silva still has hope for what remains of the archipelago’s endemic wildlife. He has witnessed a change in the mood of the Robinson islanders, especially the younger generation, who have come to realise that a sustainable future for them means looking after what is left of the archipelago. There are now delicate discussions taking place between the Chilean government, the scientists and the islanders on the eradication of the invasive species. The locals support the removal of rats and feral cats, at least on Selkirk Island, but there are reservations about removing the goats, which they see as part of their culture. On Robinson, islanders still keep pet cats, but they are neutered and registered, each with their own identification collar. The Chilean government’s National Commission for the Environment (Conama) is supporting a conservation action plan for the Juan Fernández islands and, ultimately, it will be for Chile’s government to decide on what eradication measures will be introduced, which can be legally enforced in what is, after all, a national park. But time is running out. Philippe Danton wonders whether it is too late. “I am rather pessimistic because urgent action is needed to save the extraordinary biodiversity that is here. It’s a very difficult battle,” Danton says. “We are going to learn a lot from this experience. This is an island, which is a small world surrounded by water. I live in a bigger world, and the planet is also like an island. The planet is in a bad state so everything we learn from studying this smaller world would be very useful for the future,” he says. “Since a child, I have been told that mankind is the only intelligent species. Now I would like us to prove that.”


am not a fan of the BNP, honest. Nick Griffin, patron saint of the benighted and cross-eyed, is as about as high on my list of People To Hug Before I Die as Melanie Phillips or the Grimes twins are. By way of consolation, they all enjoy exalted placings in the list of People To Hang Before I Die. But the British National Party are right about one thing: the country is filling up. Bill Bryson could have called his love letter to Britain Notes from a Small Island With Too Many People, Especially in London. The capital must have been hell in the 1930s, at its peak population of 8.5m. Now it’s a million down on that – but most of them seem to want to get into all the same places as me at exactly the same time (not to mention catch the same train, shop in the same supermarket and hail the same cab). The museums in South Kensington are a half-term militarised zone; taking the family to the Thames Festival in the summer was to be caught up in a human river running parallel to the watery version, with no chance to fight the tide. Alan Johnson says he doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about the prospect of a UK population of 70m; well, he should. If Johnson is perceived as the bouncer who’s rubbish on the door, I have a similar ongoing domestic scandal: Filter and Splat, goldfish acquired as replacements for a dead cat a few months ago, have been recently joined by Tiffany and Ruby, given as a birthday presents to my stepdaughter by friends who should have known better. As a vegetarian who doesn’t really believe in pets and disagrees with keeping animals cooped up, I wasn’t happy about the fish in the first place, but was persuaded that the tank we were buying was big enough for two of them. In fact, it’s big enough for three, according to the manual; but not four. At the expense of family concord, arrangements are being made to rehouse the asylum seekers. Piscine overcrowding causes stress (“Stress? In fish? For God’s sake,” my stepdaughter muttered). It makes disease more likely, depletes oxygen levels and ramps up the parasite quotient. Much like human overcrowding. Perhaps with the plight of Splat and Co in mind, there was a family visit to London Aquarium at the weekend (next to an attraction whose name I forget, but it’s

something like “The London Near-Death Experience”, its punter-pulling strategy consisting of dressing up its operatives in ghoul gear and sending them out to scare children and pensioners). Behind the glass, the aquarium was a mirror image of multicultural Britain, in which by and large we bump along together peacefully: weedy sea dragons sidled by big-bellied seahorses (those are their names – I’m not being rude), wrasses wriggled past rays, leopard sharks shot the breeze with turtles as big as my kitchen table. No stress there, then (and did you know that octopuses have blue blood and three hearts and are more intelligent than the average Premiership footballer?). On the mammalian side of the glass, however, the human factor prevailed, which wasn’t good. All those big brains, so little thought. It’s not that the Aquarium people let too many in; I’m sure current consumer-density guidelines are adhered to. But it feels like too

‘Alan Johnson says he doesn’t lie awake worrying about a UK population of 70m; well, he should’
many, which I think is a function of the general decline in urban civility and the rise in urban stupidity, all fuelled by population overload. Signs and announcements such as “Flash photography can hurt the fishes’ eyes” and “touching the rays is bad for their health” were explicit and unmistakable. But it was an epileptic’s nightmare in there and a ray-tickler’s dream. How thick are people (they were mostly natives, incidentally)? Outside, on the steps leading up to Westminster Bridge, an entire family, six or seven of them, were spread out across the full width eating lunch while bottlenecks built up above and below. Hand me my Kalashnikov, darling, and look the other way. The depressing thing about all this is that apart from breeding less and forgetting about medical advances, the human race has no solution. Short of a souped-up swine flu or something similar wiping out a chunk of the world’s population, we’re all, as they say, doomed. Goodbye self-restraint, hello mass extinction. John Walsh will return next week

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