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Below: World’s oldest living land animal meets Commons SpeakerWhat could a visit to an isolated island reveal of yourself?How to spend seven days exploring the nature-filled island of St HelenaMeet the Millennium Forest: A unique tropical island reforestation projectReburies liberated slaves with full honoursTortoises hold key to keeping cells youngWhy the island of St Helena is a photographer’s dreamRemote British island hoping to see more visitorsIsland where isolation is part of everyday lifeWhale Sharks may live up to a century, Cold War bomb dating reveals

World’s oldest living land animal meets Commons Speaker

BBC News, Lancashire, 16th February 2024{1}

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has made friends with the world’s oldest living land animal - a giant tortoise named Jonathan.

Sir Lindsay presented a Guinness World Record certificate to the 192-year-old reptile during a visit to the island of St Helena. The Chorley MP was on a five-day trip to the south Atlantic island and UK overseas territory. The Speaker also met local dignitaries including Governor Nigel Phillips.

Thought to have hatched in 1832, Jonathan is believed to be the oldest tortoise ever recorded. He resides in the grounds of Plantation House, the island governor’s official residence.

Sharing a birthday with Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Jonathan has lived through the reigns of eight British monarchs. He met both George VI and the future Elizabeth II during their visit to the island in 1947, as well as the Duke of Edinburgh earlier this year. He has lived through a number of major historical events, including the first photograph of a person (1838), the building of the Eiffel Tower (1887) and the first people to walk on the moon (1969).

Sir Lindsay, 66, has several colourful pets of his own including a much smaller tortoise called Maggie. He has previously joked that she has a hard shell and isn’t for turning. He said: As a massive animal lover, and owner of a three-stone tortoise, I have been really looking forward to meeting Jonathan and giving him the Guinness World Record for being the oldest recorded tortoise.

See also: Government on St Helena ⋅ Jonathan the tortoise

What could a visit to an isolated island reveal of yourself?

By Lauren Ho, www.harpersbazaar.in, 16th December 2023{1}

For Lauren Ho, a deeply personal odyssey to the remote island of St Helena introduced her to an extraordinary landscape and a unique cultural heritage - even if the journey did not end as she expected.

One of the first things I noticed about St Helena was the light. I arrived on the island during the afternoon and the blinding sun had mellowed to a ripe glow, reflected by the muscular rust-tinged cliffs that shape the intricate wind-carved coastline. As I stood at the tip of Blue Point, a rocky outcrop hidden away in the far southern corner, the air felt uncharacteristically still, stirred occasionally by a cooling light breeze. The shimmering ocean below, turquoise flecked with white, seemed to stretch into a deep sapphire as far as the eye could see: a quiet reminder of just how isolated this island really is.

Ever since my family told me as a child that my great-great-great-grandmother, Juanita Christina van Rensburg, might have come from here, I’ve been fascinated by St Helena. I remember spinning the beautiful antique floor-standing globe in my grandmother’s living-room, looking for this tiny speck of land in the South Atlantic Ocean. Part of a British Overseas Territory, which also includes Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, St Helena is remote. It sits about 2,000 kilometres from south-western Africa and 4,000 kilometres east of Rio de Janeiro, measures 16 by eight kilometres, and has a population of about 4,400 people. Before the much-discussed airport finally opened in 2017, the only lifeline to this lonely island was RMS St Helena, a cargo and passenger liner that sailed to and from Cape Town on a five-day voyage each way.

Weekly flights from Johannesburg have opened up this lost paradise to the world, but arriving here is still like stepping back in time. Families eagerly gather at the airport to welcome back loved ones, and passers-by stop to chat to you in the street. Television was introduced in 1995 and mobile phones a decade later, but coverage is limited and Wi-Fi is practically nonexistent. The island imports nearly all of its supplies by ship, an inconsistent process that results in sparse supermarket shelves, bar - strangely - a lot of Marmite. Tracy, a shop owner, joked to me that St Helena is like this distinct, savoury spread - you either love it or you hate it.

Those aware of the destination usually know it as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile, worth a pilgrimage to visit his tomb, and Longwood House, the home where he spent his final days. Others might recognise it from the aerial pictures of Jamestown, the picturesque capital, which slots between the precipitous sides of a deep valley and runs, like a river, into the never-ending ocean. While St Helena has some must-visit spots, such as Plantation House, the official residence of the governor (also home to Jonathan the 190-year-old tortoise, the world’s oldest known living animal), the real draw of this volcanic island is its ever-changing landscape, diverse wildlife and nature-based activities, from trekking to diving. To visit is to explore a three-dimensional tapestry of lush fields, jungle, naked, rugged ravines, ridges, and soaring cliffs that drop dramatically into the sparkling sea.

I landed late in the day and checked into Mantis, the island’s first and only luxury hotel, which opened in 2017 and was formerly the East India Company’s barracks, built in 1774. Located in Jamestown, a short stroll from the seafront and on the same road as all the small-town essentials, including the post office, the church and the Castle - a Grade I-listed government building that also houses the archives - it was the perfect base from which to research my family history and explore the island.

I started my journey of discovery the next morning in the company of Aaron Legg, a local tour guide, with whom I embarked on an exploratory drive in his 4WD. As we threaded our way along winding roads and around hairpin bends, the scenery changed continuously, the morning light pouring gold onto arid, cactus-flecked landscapes, green meadows and thickets of forest. We saw the St Helena plover, the island’s only endemic avian species, known locally as the wirebird because of its thin legs, and passed intermittent clusters of corrugated bungalows in pastel shades with jalopies parked to one side and their owners sitting idly on porches, watching life go by. After bouncing and rattling through rocky off-road terrain, we stopped briefly to take a short stroll along a portion of one of the so-called ‘post-box walks’ at the end of each summit, where hikers find a post box containing a unique ink stamp and a visitors’ booklet in which they can leave thoughts and messages for others treading the same path.

The next day, we motored by dinghy from Jamestown along the island’s craggy northern coastline, weaving between a scattering of volcanic rocks inhabited by bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs and patrolled by brown noddies, terns and petrels. From here, the textured cliffs loomed large, punctuated by the island’s walls and batteries of cannons and forts. Anthony Thomas, our guide for the day, explained that St Helena was once the most fortified place in the southern hemisphere and that these walls were built in the late 1800s by Chinese indentured labourers - workers contracted by the British government who were on a low salary for a short period, after the abolition of slavery resulted in a shortage. They came mostly from Canton or Macau, and once their agreement ended, a few were permitted to stay on, while some went home and others migrated to South Africa.

The fortifications stand as a testament to the island’s dark ties with slavery and complex history: it has changed hands on multiple occasions over the centuries. The Portuguese landed here in 1502; the Dutch formally claimed ownership in 1633, but without occupying the area; and the British began their colonisation in 1659. It was only recently, during the construction of the airport, that the graves of thousands of African slaves were discovered: the British had set up a naval base as part of their campaign against the slave trade after abolition in 1834 and, over the ensuing few decades, intercepted scores of ships en route from Africa to America, carrying some 27,000 slaves who were brought to St Helena. Those who survived were eventually freed and relocated to areas such as the Caribbean.

Given this back story, it’s unsurprising that the ‘Saints’ (locals in St Helena vernacular) are a mixed bag. Our slave history, Chinese heritage and other descendants were previously taboo topics of conversation and were whitewashed out of our curriculum Matthew Joshua, the island’s head of tourism, told me. Now that we talk openly about it, in ‘Saint talk’, we ask, ‘Who you belong to?’ when we enquire about family and heritage. This blend of cultures has created a distinct way of life rich in tradition and customs, from the music, which is as varied as people’s ancestry, to the food: plo, for instance, is a delicious and versatile one-pot spiced curried rice with meat such as pork sausage and bacon or fish.

I am South African of Chinese descent, and the heritage of my mixed-race great, great, great grandmother has been a mystery in my family. After searching the St Helena government archives, where I spent a day wandering through the aisles and delving into the shelves of big, dusty books with the aid of Tracey Williams, a local genealogist, it transpires my ancestor was sadly not a Saint. Thanks to Williams, who helped me dig deeper online, I found out she was, in fact, born in Oudtshoorn, a town in South Africa’s Western Cape. It wasn’t quite the outcome I’d hoped for, but I was grateful to have had a chance to visit and discover a destination I’d been interested in for so long. And as my dad said, at least our family has closure about our roots, which, as it turns out, can be traced as far back as the 1600s, when the Dutch - and then the French Huguenots - first settled in South Africa.

So, on my last morning on the island, I took a stroll to the waterfront, where the pastel wash of the sunrise had just begun to fade from the sky. As the waves crashed on the shore, I reflected on what my father told me: that people of mixed heritage in South Africa often used to tell others they were from somewhere exciting. Could it be that Juanita came up with the story because her Chinese husband had once worked on the island and landed in Cape Town after he was freed? I may never know if I have a true familial connection with St Helena, but I like to think my pilgrimage has helped connect me to my past.

This piece originally appeared in the Dec 2023/Jan 2024 print issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK

See also: Visitor Information ⋅ Getting Here

How to spend seven days exploring the nature-filled island of St Helena

By Emma Thompson, published on www.nationalgeographic.co.uk, 8th November 2022{1}

Moments of seclusion, vast stretches of lush landscapes and wildlife found nowhere else on the planet all go hand in hand in St Helena. Here’s how to spend a week making the most of this South Atlantic island.

An emerald fleck floating in the blue orbit of the South Atlantic Ocean, St Helena is one of the most isolated islands on Earth and serves up an unmatchable mix of raw nature and a laidback dose of old-style Britannia. Finally unlocked after the pandemic, the British Territory offers that rare thing: a chance to remember the sweet silence of life without the tring of mobile phones and glare of white screens. A place where keys are left in car ignitions, the dramas of rolling 24/7 news seem a world away and people still greet each other in the street. A place where days can be spent tracing rugged walking trails, meeting the world’s oldest living land creature and snorkelling with leviathans. A stress-free escape where even the locals - the descendants of settlers, soldiers and slaves - are nicknamed ‘Saints.’ Come to unplug and reconnect with wildlife found nowhere else on the planet.

Day one-two: hiking and walking

Criss-crossing the island’s mist-laced peaks and fields of swaying flax are 11 footpaths and 21 Post Box Walks, each of which concludes with a box containing a collectable ink stamp that visitors like to mark in small notebooks. Distances range from a gentle one-mile stroll to a 3.5-hour, seven-mile hike. Favourites include ascending though the cloud forest to Diana’s Peak, St Helena’s highest point, or the challenging trek out to The Barn, a volcanic bluff. Other unmissables are the Heart Shaped Waterfall, Longwood’s rainbow-hued hills and the phallic wind-hewn pinnacle known saucily as Lot’s Wife. Alternatively, pit your calves and lungs against Jacob’s Ladder, a flight of 699 steps - nicknamed after the biblical stairway to heaven - scaling the western slope of Jamestown’s deep valley and all that remains of a cable railway built in the 1800s.

Day three: endemic wildlife

Ever since St Helena erupted from the sea some 13 million years ago, it’s been totally isolated and as such is home to more than 500 species found nowhere else on Earth. Peel back ferns and study black cabbage trees on Diana’s Peak to spot blushing snails and golden sails - one of 22 endemic types of spider. Spy the long-limbed endangered St Helena plover, or wirebird - the island’s only surviving endemic land bird - emerging from burrows amid the dry pastures of Deadwood Plain, and meet the world’s oldest living land animal, Jonathan, a 190-year-old Seychelles giant tortoise who’s grazed the grounds surrounding Plantation House, the governor’s residence, since 1882.

Day four: culture and cuisine

Here, friendliness is a vital part of island life. Drivers wave to every car that passes and islanders send messages to each other via SaintFM. Their seclusion brings quirks, too. Stroll down Jamestown’s high street and you’ll hear musical ‘Saint speak,’ a South Atlantic English patois where locals don’t ask ‘How are you?’ but rather ‘Wa now you awrigh?’ Isolation has inspired invention. When food imports are delayed, Saints have learned to rustle up unique local delicacies. Try the beloved bread and dance, tomato-paste sandwich, and comforting plo, a one-pot curried meat, vegetable and rice dish. Locals also grow and brew the world’s most remote coffee - keep an eye out for the Midnight Mist Coffee Liqueur, made with beans grown on the island.

Day five: Napoleon

Trace the final years of St Helena’s most infamous resident: French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Exiled here in 1815 by the British government following his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon spent his days under house arrest inside elegant Longwood House, in the eastern inlands, until he drew his last breath in 1821. Rumour has it his demise was hastened by the house’s arsenic-laced green wallpaper. Afterwards, a farmer used the emperor’s bedroom to house sheep, but the property was sold back to the French government in 1858 and subsequently restored. Visit the gardens he designed, the billiards table he spread maps on and his canopy-cloaked bedroom. Nearby, stands his modest iron railing-guarded tomb.

Day six: underwater adventures

Book with either Dive Saint Helena or Sub-Tropic Adventures and submerge yourself in the fecund waters surrounding the island. St Helena’s volcanic base pushes up a lifeline of nutrients from the deep, attracting a riot of marine life. Between June and December, migratory humpback whales pass through, pausing to calve in July. Visitors also include bottlenose, pantropical spotted and rough-toothed dolphins as well as green and hawksbill turtles, while the rocky, wreck-strewn reefs shelter 10 species of endemic fish, including the bastard fivefinger and St Helena dragonet.

Day seven: Dark Skies

Come nightfall, lay beneath St Helena’s incredibly sparkly skies. More than 1,000 miles from the nearest major landmass and with a total of just 4,400 inhabitants, there’s virtually zero light pollution and the island’s location near the Equator means constellations belonging to both the northern and southern hemispheres, such as the Plough and the Southern Cross, can be seen. St Helena is in the process of applying for International Dark-Sky Association status and early measurements suggest the island’s night skies are significantly darker than Sark, the first island in the world to be accredited.

More information

For more information, visit sthelenatourism.com

This content is brought to you by St Helena Tourism. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller (UK) or its editorial staff.

Our Comment: See our own page What To Do for our Top 20 Things To Do.

See also: Visitor Information ⋅ Walking St Helena ⋅ Endemic Species ⋅ Fishcakes, and other food ⋅ Napoleon ⋅ Diving ⋅ Astronomy ⋅ Blue Hill ⋅ Sandy Bay

Meet the Millennium Forest: A unique tropical island reforestation project

By Jeremy Hance, published on news.mongabay.com, 2nd November 2022{1}

Birds were probably the first colonizers to arrive. Some likely carried seeds, perhaps stuck to their feathers. Most of those seeds didn’t survive. Some did. Insects followed. And for 14 million years or so, the tiny island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, located midway between Africa and South America, was left to the whims of nature. Hundreds of species evolved here, suited solely to the little island’s surprising number of habitats.

There was vegetation to the waters’ edge, teeming with invertebrate, bird and marine life. Taller and bushier vegetation in central peaks, and then shrubbier, low-growing vegetation in drier areas, says Martina Peters, the head of terrestrial conservation at the Saint Helena National Trust, describing the island as it looked when humans first arrived.

Covering just 122 square kilometres, an area smaller than the New York borough of Brooklyn, the island once supported at least five distinct ecosystems and more than 79 plant species found nowhere else, along with 420 invertebrates. Its remoteness - 1,950 kilometres west of Africa’s southwestern coast, and 4,000 kilometres east of Rio de Janeiro - protected its native flora and fauna.

In 1502, everything changed. Humans discovered the little island and introduced goats, rats, cats, rabbits and other invasive species; prior to this, the island had no mammals, reptiles or amphibians. Some 150 years later, the

British set up the first permanent colony, and cut down every tree they could reach. Denuded, the island began suffering from erosion, while the plants that did thrive were often non-native. Less than 1% of St Helena’s original ecosystems survived the centuries-long onslaught.

Enter Rebecca Cairns-Wicks in 1999: The island [population] was invited to submit ideas for how to celebrate the millennium on the island, so that was the impetus for its first major restoration.

Cairns-Wicks, who was then the environmental coordinator for the St Helena government, proposed an idea both ambitious and community-oriented: What if the Saints (as the island’s 4,500 inhabitants call themselves) came together to reforest a portion of the island once known as the Great Wood with native species? That project was one of just two selected for the island’s millennium celebration.

Today, the Great Wood is slowly returning, notes Cairns-Wicks, now coordinator at the St Helena Research Institute, as formerly bare and eroding soils are cloaked by a thriving forest that boasts numerous native species. Although small in size (about 16 hectares), and with the slow-growing trees reaching only 1-2 meters after 20 years, today’s Millennium Forest punches above its weight as one of the world’s most unique reforestation projects due to its rare native species found nowhere else on Earth.

The forest’s uniqueness arises partly from its island locale. Forest restorations on remote islands often pose problems not encountered in mainland projects, with the ocean isolation of plants over many centuries often resulting in the evolution of species found nowhere else. So, when endemic island plants are cleared by human colonizers and invasive species brought in, native species can vanish fast, with remnant specimens and replacement seeds hard to find. In St Helena’s case, one formerly dominant tree was thought to be extinct until 1980, when two shrubby individuals were found clinging to a remote cliff. A volunteer lowered by rope collected their seeds, saving the species from oblivion. This tree, the St Helena dwarf ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus), grows in the Millennium Forest today.

A forest by and for the community

The tropical island of St Helena marks the craggy summit of an inactive shield volcano sitting atop the mostly submerged Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Colonized by Britain in the mid-17th century, this remote igneous rock claimed its 15 minutes of world fame when deposed French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled here until his death under the watchful eye of the British after his 1815 defeat at Waterloo.

John Turner, the editor of an island information site, says living on St Helena today is very much like living in a U.K. village, except that the next village is 700 miles [1,130 km] away, and the nearest big town is 1,500 miles [2,400 km] away.

The Millennium Forest as originally envisioned was first and foremost a natural oasis intended to benefit this little community, according to Cairns-Wicks, becoming a place where locals could hike, walk their dogs, or simply enjoy the views. Although biodiversity and carbon sequestration were always goals, the people of St Helena came first.

St Helena, once colonized, never had any forests that were just public spaces for pleasure, for conservation, beyond the traditional conservation areas, Cairns-Wicks explains, noting that conservation areas existing in 1999 were not accessible to the populace, given the island’s extreme topography. St Helena is characterized by deeply etched valleys, where most people live, and highlands, rising steeply to 820m above sea level.

The Millennium Project would be different - with road access and easy mobility.

It’s about doing something that the public could participate in, and take ownership of, and create a space … to enjoy and basically be part of creating, Cairns-Wicks says, adding, A legacy.

The site was chosen for a number of good reasons: First, it was part of what had been historically known as the Great Woods until settlers cut it down for timber and firewood. It was also close to a couple of populated areas, had freshwater access, and was relatively flat on an island of extreme slopes.

It’s one of the few fairly level expanses, so it means that it’s accessible for all, Cairns-Wicks says.

At the start, the project focused solely on planting St Helena gumwood (Commidendrum robustum), a tree once common to the island, including at the Millennium Forest site. Found nowhere else on Earth, this gumwood, categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, is descended from the sunflower family and became rare after colonization. The choice of gumwood was also practical, as it was one of the species that we could [successfully] grow [at the time], Cairns-Wicks says.

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Locals initiated the planting of 3,000 trees, with nearly everyone on the island at the time participating. But planting wasn’t easy.

Cairns-Wicks notes that the site was incredibly eroded.

In fact, there wasn’t soil. [In] most places it was really quite rocky, and we actually used [mechanical diggers] to dig some of the holes. It was a very, very neglected area next to the island’s waste-disposal site.

Once launched, the project made the St Helena gumwood locally and globally famous (at least among botanists). Today, the species thrives not only on the island, but is prized in botanical gardens in France, the U.K. and the U.S.

It brought the gumwood into people’s hearts and minds, because actually, it was a species that most people didn’t know and didn’t recognize, Cairns-Wicks says, noting that surviving St Helena gumwoods at the time only stood on remote cliffs or peaks.

In 2002, the management of the Millennium Forest project was given over to the St Helena National Trust, the island’s biggest conservation group.

Funding and expansion

After an exciting start, the initiative has since matured in fits and starts.

It’s not like other projects where you can grow [plants] really, really quickly, Cairns-Wicks says, noting that the gumwood is an extremely slow-growing tree. And you can’t cover large swaths and talk about millions of trees planted, because it’s a much more organic process of growth without big funding.

Still, over the past 22 years, the project has added more native species, including a number of endemic shrubs: the already mentioned St Helena dwarf ebony (Trochetiopsis ebenus), as well as St Helena rosemary (Phylica polifolia), St Helena tea plant (Frankenia portulacifolia) and the boxwood (Mellissia begoniifolia), which was thought extinct until a surviving plant was discovered in 1999. The first three species are all listed as critically endangered. There are also several endemic and threatened tussocks, succulents and flowers found in the resurrected forest.

All this was made possible due to the island’s creation of seed banks and gene banks for threatened flora over the past couple of decades through the government’s Terrestrial Conservation Section and supporting groups.

We have the ability now to propagate a much greater range of species, Cairns-Wicks says.

The forest itself is attracting and adding more than plants. The habitat has become important for the St Helena plover or wirebird (Charadrius sanctaehelenae), a small wading bird only found on the island and IUCN listed as vulnerable. The growing forest has also become home to the gumwood leafhopper (Sanctahelenia decellei), an endemic insect now living there in large numbers.

The biggest, most pressing issue facing the forest’s future is a lack of consistent funding, says Martina Peters, with the St Helena National Trust.

There has been a number of projects delivered [here]. However, once they end, then so does the funding, which means a loss of staff (capacity and skills) and a lack of maintenance. She adds that most funders don’t want to support long-term funding, which is what successful forest restoration projects require.

Peters says funding currently comes partly from the St Helena National Trust’s core budget, the John Hellerman Foundation, and the local government. The latter has provided funds as mitigation for the recently built airport, the first on the island.

Plantings have continued sporadically over the years: visiting tourists can pay to plant a tree, while Cairns-Wicks says most St Helena children also visit at some point during their schooling and plant a tree. There have been a few large plantings since 2000, including some that may have added up to 600 trees in one day. The forest is growing - just not as quickly as many hoped.

It’s been a very slow progression, Cairns-Wicks says.

Maintaining the forest requires support and vigilance. Given the dry conditions at the site, each plant is drip-irrigated for its first three years. This water supply is gradually reduced so that eventually the plants will fend for themselves, Peters says.

As with island restoration projects the world over, invasive species are probably the most difficult, continuous and costly problem. Rabbit-proof fencing and traps installed are expensive, time-consuming and require ongoing maintenance, but these help to reduce losses, Peters explains, adding that workers also regularly need to clear invasive plants.

Cairns-Wicks describes the Millennium Forest as a generational project. The gumtrees could eventually rise as high as 8m, but the canopy isn’t near that goal yet.

It does look more like a shrubbery than a forest, but it’s getting there. So, you can stand in places in the forest now and you can only see [just] trees … It’s starting to take on a forest persona of its own, she says, adding, My hope was at the beginning, that one day, it’s big enough that people could get lost in it just like they used to get lost in the Great Wood.

‘An island in recovery’

The whole island of St Helena is undergoing a process of vast change. For centuries, free-ranging goats ruled the island - first left there by sailors to provide meat on sailing vessel stopovers - destroying vegetation everywhere they could reach. The last free-range goats were removed from most of the island by the 1980s, leading to explosive vegetative growth.

Basically, it’s an island in recovery, says Cairns-Wicks.

But it’s not turning back into what it was pre-discovery; instead, it’s becoming something new.

[We’re] seeing massive recovery - rewooding and rewilding - but not with native species, [but] with a lot of the introduced species. So that we’ve got an incredibly dynamic ecology going, says Cairns-Wicks, adding that with the goats gone, introduced rabbits are now the main deterrent to plant survival.

What’s very, very obvious is how quickly the island is greening, and so I think it’s very easy to imagine a rich and lush landscape with rich and fertile soils and forests, given that it had millennia to develop and we are just witnessing what’s happening in a few decades.

Of course, most of this greening will look very unlike pre-discovery St Helena. But the Millennium Forest isn’t the only project that’s working to preserve a portion of the island’s original native flora. There’s also the recently started multimillion-dollar St Helena Cloud Forest Project, seeking to preserve and expand the island’s cloud forest, an ecosystem that contains 250 species found nowhere else on Earth. This cloud forest, located on the island’s peaks, is also essential to the island’s freshwater sources.

Escalating climate change poses a major threat to the world’s island ecosystems, and St Helena isn’t immune. As temperatures rise and precipitation patterns change, forest species isolated by oceans - on flat Pacific atolls, for example - may not be able to move to safer climes. But with its near-adjacent lowlands and highlands, drylands and cloud forest extremes, St Helena could be blessed, allowing climate-stressed plant species to reseed and move about the island in tune with a fast-changing and warming world.

I’d like to think that one day the island can change the scale at which it works to restore lost dryland habitats, like the Millennium Forest … rewilding the island with more of its native and endemic species, Cairns-Wicks says. There’s growing interest and capability. The seeds of a vision and interest are there and when the time is right it will happen.

The Millennium Forest is a model that larger restorations on islands could emulate. The most exciting thing here, says Cairns-Wicks, is the people’s sense of ownership of the forest - a community-based pride that could be transplanted to other places and projects.

They’ve been able to see what their contributions have done, she says, noting their wide breadth of ownership over the Millennium Forest.

Parents and grandparents can take their children there and say, ‘I planted this tree.’ … It’s a legacy of who was here, and the commitment that they’ve made. They’ve had the vision to contribute their effort to … a forest [that] they’ll never see the full advantage of, Cairns-Wicks says.

But future generations really will. And for me, that’s the exciting thing … Future generations will realize the benefits that this generation has created.

See also: The Millennium Forest ⋅ Endemic Species

St Helena reburies liberated slaves with full honours

By Michael Binyon, The Times (UK), 7th September 2022{1}

Almost 200 years after they were released, the remains of 325 liberated African slaves have been reinterred with full honours on St Helena, the British territory in the South Atlantic that has the biggest slave graveyard in the world.

The reburials of men, women and children who were traded mostly to Brazil in the 19th century, were interred in a new burial ground in Rupert’s Valley, near Jamestown, the island capital. They join more than 8,000 other slaves who were rescued by Royal Navy ships patrolling the ocean in the long campaign to stamp out the slave trade.

The bones were exhumed in 2008 during excavations to build an access road to the new airport on St Helena. They were examined by archaeologists who were able to say where the slaves were captured from their teeth and bones and what diet they had. Most were young men but women were also captured to sell as breeding stock. Children’s remains were also found, together with amulets and sacred objects.

The bones were kept in a box in a storehouse next to the island’s prison while debate raged on how they should be honoured. Many on the island wanted a Christian ceremony but it was argued that this was inappropriate because none of the captives were Christians.

The remains were buried, each in an individual casket fashioned by secondary school pupils. Each set of bones was positioned next to the other found when exhumed. Solemn ceremonies were held on August 20 and 21. The British government paid for a memorial and interpretation centre and signage to commemorate St Helena’s role in stopping the slave trade.

From 1840 to 1872, 450 slave ships, mostly owned by Portuguese traders, were intercepted and taken to St Helena, a vital refuelling station for the Royal Navy and commercial sailing vessels returning from India. More than 25,000 liberated Africans were offloaded, with most sent to a quarantine centre.

Many were in extremely poor health, diseased and emaciated after being shackled for weeks in the holds and many died soon after liberation. The Royal Navy also removed the bodies of those already dead in the ships and they were buried in a mass grave.

Most slaves who recovered were sent on to the Caribbean or America as free labourers. Some remained on the island. Only a few were returned to Africa. Nobody spoke their languages so no one knew where they had been captured. Most of the Portuguese slavers were put on trial in St Helena.

The reinterments were held before the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, August 23. The issue is deeply emotional for the islanders because many can trace their ancestry back to slaves rescued from the ships or brought to St Helena before slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.

The burial site will be marked by donated red steeple stone. The ceremonies commemorated the slaves’ suffering in poetry, history and song.

See also: The Slave Graves ⋅ Attacking the Slave Trade

Tortoises hold key to keeping cells young

By Tom Whipple, Science Editor, The Times, 24th June 2022{1}

Jonathan

When Jonathan was five, Queen Victoria was crowned. When he was a sprightly sexagenarian he was photographed with Boer War prisoners{3}. As the tortoise from St Helena approaches his third century he’s a bit creaky but, his vet recently said, he has a tremendous libido and still enjoys the ladies when the sun is out.

A new study of tortoises has found that in many cases they hardly seem to age at all. The findings challenge human understanding of ageing and point to tantalising ways that we too might defy it.

We will never be immortal, said Fernando Colchero of the University of Southern Denmark. What we might be able to do, though, is find ways to reduce considerably the increased risk of death with age.

His research strongly implies that there are biological mechanisms that can keep cells youthful. We just have to find them. In humans, a 65-year-old is about 100 times more likely to die in the next year than one aged 30. By the time we reach 100 our chance of seeing our next birthday is worse still - roughly a coin toss. For a paper in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, Colchero and his colleagues looked at a database containing 25,000 members of 52 species of tortoises and turtles and found that, for them, this pattern did not hold. In many, ageing was very slow. In some, it appeared to be non-existent.

It wasn’t that their health was perfect. Jonathan may still be vigorous in some respects, but he is also blind. But the chance of dying in any one year did not increase with age.

Colchero says this fits with some ideas in evolutionary theory. Humans have gone for a strategy in which we reproduce soon after we reach maturity. In our past, chances were we would die early of injury or disease.

But tortoises and turtles keep growing once they reach maturity and can be better at reproducing as they age. Safe from injury behind a shell it makes sense for them to play the long game.

There are trade-offs in how much energy you can allocate to survival and how much to reproduction, Colchero said. We choose reproduction, a tortoise chooses survival.

See also: Jonathan the tortoise

Why the island of St Helena is a photographer’s dream

By Craig Williams, published in National Geographic, Travel, 17th March 2022{1}

I used to take what I had in my backyard for granted. St Helena - a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic - is where I’ve lived my whole life. Perhaps because of this, I never thought that much about all the island has to offer; I failed to see its unique beauty, with its volcanic valleys and lush, tropical centre.

Growing up in the island’s St Paul’s district, I’ve always been surrounded by trees and vegetation. When I started taking photos, I began to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings and wanted to give something back. I bought a drone; first a DJI Phantom 2, and then a Mavic 2, and was able to see the island from a totally different perspective. It was breathtaking.

What I love the most is capturing top-down images of the steep, striking coastline - constantly smashed by ocean swells - plus historic fortifications such as High Knoll Fort, which towers over homes from its perch on the crest of a hill. Then you have Diana’s Peak, where the path to its summit is often shrouded in low fog - a pathway to the sky, if you will. My favourite locations to photograph are dotted around the island, but if I had to choose one, it would have to be the seaside on the outskirts of Jamestown, the capital of the island. Sunsets there are never the same, from the warming colours of the sky to the beautiful Georgian buildings with history spilling from their walls.

No visitor to St Helena will ever be disappointed - from history enthusiasts and nature-lovers to photographers and younger people looking for a fun night out. Take it from me, this beautiful island deserves to be on your bucket list. For keen hikers, there are endless routes to places like our famous Heart Shaped Waterfall, and the challenging Sharks Valley.

Above all, no matter where you go on St Helena, there’s always a photographic opportunity. Since I started using my drone, I go out every day to fly, and to find new locations. St Helena, I’ll forever be grateful for the views, the perspectives and the beauty you offer - and the fact I have all this in my backyard. I’m very lucky indeed.

Craig’s top three St Helena experiences:

  1. Diana’s Peak Post Box Walk

    Standing 2,700ft above sea level, Diana’s Peak is the highest point on the island, with panoramic views stretching across this tropical paradise. The peak has gained the name Cloud Forest because of its thickly forested slopes, often wreathed in mist.

    [See Diana’s Peak.]

  2. Sunday ride followed by an ice cream from Uncle Bob

    Aside from the popular attractions, for me, a traditional Sunday ride around the island, finished with ice cream from Uncle Bob’s ice cream truck, is a must. Bob is a fun, friendly, down-to-earth guy who’ll share stories about local Saints, while you watch the sun slowly set at the seaside - an experience to remember.

    [See Driving in St Helena.]

  3. Jacob’s Ladder challenge

    Climb the 699 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, the same ladder that was used to transport goods hundreds of years ago. Be warned, this is a real challenge, but it’s incredibly rewarding if you’re brave enough. Plus, there’s also the opportunity to get some close-up images of birds swooping around the ladder.

    [See Jacob’s Ladder.]

See also: Photography ⋅ Saints

The remote British island hoping to see more visitors

By Anne Cassidy, Business reporter, BBC News, 21st October 2021{1}

Alasdair and Gill Maclean say they felt a bit guilty having spent much of the past year happily living on a beautiful, tropical island, untouched by Covid‑19.

The English couple had been sailing around the world prior to the start of the pandemic, when they arrived at the British Overseas Territory island of St Helena, in the middle of the south Atlantic.

We had been due to leave 10 days later, and we ended up spending just over eight months, says Mr Maclean.

He adds that he and his wife were conflicted about updating friends back in the UK about their good fortune. How do you tell them you’re having a lovely time, freely going to restaurants, and partying when they’re all in lockdown?

Located some 1,200 miles (2,000 km) west of the African nation of Angola, and 2,500 miles east of Brazil, St Helena has a population of around 4,500 people, and is 47 sq miles (121 sq km) in size. To put that into context, it has about the same landmass as Jersey in the Channel Islands.

St Helena’s claim to fame since March 2020, is that it remains one of only a handful of places on Planet Earth to have not reported a single case of coronavirus.

This meant that when the UK government introduced its Covid traffic light system back in May, for countries (and overseas territories) that people could visit, St Helena was always one of the few on the green list - meaning you wouldn’t have to quarantine upon your return.

The island hopes that this spotlight has encouraged more potential tourists to visit.

Matthew Joshua, the St Helena Government’s head of visitor information services, says this already appears to be the case. We’re getting an increase in inquiries. It has put St Helena on the map.

But how exactly do you get to St Helena? Prior to the opening of the island’s airport in 2016 the only way to reach the island was by sea.

Then for the first year of the airport’s operation it was unusable due to safety concerns about high winds over the approach to the runway. This led to the facility, which cost the UK government £285m, being dubbed the world’s most useless airport.

However, after a number of trial flights, the airport was eventually passed as safe to use, with the first commercial flights starting in October, 2017.

Mr Joshua says the issue got unfair press coverage. We don’t have tropical storms like you do in the Caribbean, but there is wind.

Before the pandemic, St Helena was served by weekly flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town, but these routes are still on hold due to coronavirus restrictions in South Africa.

Instead, St Helena is currently served by Titan Airways charter flights every three weeks to and from London Stansted Airport.

For many people, St Helena is best-known as the place where French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to, and where he died in 1821.

Visitors to the rocky, steep-sided island can see the house where he lived, which is now a museum. Other attractions include sea fishing, diving, hiking, the colonial era streets of the capital Jamestown, the warm weather, and exploring the fauna and flora - the island is home to more than 500 species of plants and animals not found anywhere else.

Back in 2019, St Helena had 5,135 overnight visitors, plus the odd day-visit by cruise ships. This number then fell to 2,071 in 2020, mostly before the end of March, and then down to 696 from January to July of this year.

Currently all visitors have to quarantine for 10 days.

The island has just two hotels, which remain closed. Sasha Ella, communications manager for the largest - Mantis St Helena Hotel - says that times have been tough, and they will only return to normal when the world puts coronavirus behind it.

It is our feeling that when access and frequency of the flights to the island, and relaxation to the quarantine restrictions, take place, only then will a positive effect be felt on the island, she says.

St Helena also has a number of private guest houses.

Another very remote, and Covid‑19-free British island that was permanently on the UK government’s green list, is South Georgia. Located in the south Atlantic, some 800 miles south east of the Falkland Islands, it is 1,362 sq miles (3,528 sq km) in size.

Only accessible by sea, the island has no permanent human population. Instead there are two government officers, and two dozen or so staff from the British Antarctic Survey, the UK’s polar research institute.

Like St Helena, South Georgia is now waiting for tourists to return. Prior to the pandemic, it would be visited by cruise ships going to and from the coast of Antarctica.

In the summer of 2019/2020 (its summer is during winter in the UK) it had 12,568 visitors, but this fell to just two people in 2020/21.

In a normal year, tourism accounts for around 20% of our income, says Ross James, visitor management & bio-security officer for the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

The island has no overnight accommodation available for visitors, who instead only stay for a few hours, and have to follow strict rules during their visit designed to safeguard the natural habitat.

Prior to their arrival people are also encouraged to watch a video guide to the region, narrated by David Attenborough.

All cruise firms that travel to South Georgia are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Amanda Lynnes, the organisation’s director of environment & science coordination, has this advice for visitors: Use your experience to be an ambassador for South Georgia’s continued protection.

South Georgia has dramatic snow-topped mountains for visitors to see amid cold temperatures - even in its summer months it struggles to go above 6C.

By contrast, St Helena enjoys highs of 34C. Yet Mr Maclean says it is not just the pleasant weather that makes it special. St Helena is up there as one of the friendliest communities in the world, he says.

See also: Visitor Information ⋅ Yachting

The island where isolation is part of everyday life

By Mike MacEacheran, 7th August 2020{1}

Geography has shaped the way of life and culture of far-flung St Helena for centuries. Now, cut-off from the world again because of Covid‑19, how is the tiny British Overseas Territory surviving?

St Helena is the other side of British life, the one that very few travellers ever see.

It is a place of unimaginable extremes with sub-Saharan savannah, Jurassic rainforest and English country gardens. It exists in a bubble, a headache-inducing distance off the coast of southwest Africa in the middle of the South Atlantic. Go farther west and you are on a coconut-fringed bay in Brazil. Neighbours here aren’t easily won.

St Helena came to tourism only in 2018, when direct flights from South Africa made it easier to get to and from Europe. The resulting connections, via Johannesburg and Cape Town, saw visitor numbers sharply rise. Last year, more than 5,100 arrived for wildly-remote hiking, scuba diving and out-of-this-world stargazing.

Even so, Covid‑19 has abruptly stopped all that. The island remains cut off - lock, stock and barrel - with international flights not expected to resume for some time from the new terminal at Bradley’s Camp. But that’s just the beginning of the problems for the island’s fledgling tourism industry. St Helena is already one of the most isolated islands on earth, but it’s also one of the last places with zero Covid‑19 cases. Currently, ‘welcome’ is a dirty word.

Struggling to stay afloat

For Colin and Marlene Yon, who run The Town House guesthouse amid the historic swirl of island capital Jamestown, the local industry could take years to recover. As much as we want the virus kept away from the island, it’s a real drain for the business, says Colin. The last time we had a booking was back in March. No one is making any money here right now.

The field has never been truly level for St Helena and there is a definite sense that the future is fragile. To survive, the Yons have repositioned the hotel as a takeaway. We’re doing curries, fishcakes, tuna, wahoo - the market is flooded with fish right now because there’s more than islanders could ever eat, says Colin. But there are also real food shortages and shopkeepers are enforcing rationing. Potatoes and rice are like gold.

Considering how isolated St Helena is from the rest of the world, the global pandemic continues to have a knock-on effect on daily life. Covid‑19 remains absent, but social distancing was in full effect until recently, with islanders - or Saints as they’re also known - acting as if the island was in the throes of an epidemic. Which is just as well: because with its elderly population, any outbreak would be devastating. Health resources on the island are finite.

Plenty of other tourism businesses are feeling the impact too. South African-born brothers Keith and Craig Yon, who run diving and deep-sea fishing operation Into the Blue, have also moved into the food business. Until March, however, their Whale Shark snorkelling tours were wowing wide-eyed visitors. Now? Nothing.

The story is the same right across the island, says Shelley Magellan Wade, St Helena Tourism supervisor. We remain open and we are accepting visitors, but any travel here is classified as non-essential. So it’s come to a complete halt. As a safety precaution, local government restrictions continue to enforce two weeks of quarantine, barring time spent at sea.

Unexpected guests

Two British sailors who did arrive, however, have since decided to stay longer than first planned. They anchored for a two-day stopover, but have been here for three months now, says Shelley. They planned to sail onwards to Brazil, but instead have integrated into island life, renting a house and helping out in the grocery store.

As for the future, St Helena Tourism is working on a new post-COVID 19 recovery strategy, including creating a virtual tour so the rest of the world doesn’t forget about the far-flung outpost.

What is also new is the attitude: islanders once resistant to change are now full-heartedly embracing an outward-looking approach, After two years of regular flights, we stopped feeling so isolated, says Shelley. We’ve become used to a constant supply of visitors and goods. All those little things that we took for granted are sorely missed now.

Oh, and there is another silver lining: the island has grown far closer as a community, with the buzz words being solidarity, connectivity and communal goodwill. The distilled essence of St Helena - the warmth and hospitality Saints are famous for - is a singular reminder that this remote outpost will survive, as it has done since the 16th century. For me, our isolation has been our saving grace, concludes Shelley. Now, there’s more appreciation for what we have and it’s made us realise how fortunate we are.

St Helena’s allure is to witness a different way of life and the island’s pipsqueak size helps pare down that relentless holiday urge to see everything. Here, you really can do it all.

Plus, fair dues to the Saints. To build a tourist industry at the end of the world takes guts. And it’s going to take far more than a global pandemic to stop them from doing that.

Our Comment: More about the island’s response to the pandemic on our page Covid‑19.

See also: Saints

Whale Sharks may live up to a century, Cold War bomb dating reveals

By Liz Langley, nationalgeographic.com, 6th April 2020{1}

National Geographic logo
Whale Shark Rhincodon typus
TYPE:Fish
DIET:Carnivore
GROUP NAME:School
AVERAGE LIFESPAN IN THE WILD:70 years
SIZE:5.5m to 10m
WEIGHT:20 Tonnes
POPULATION TREND:Decreasing
IUCN RED LIST STATUS:Endangered

Beautifully patterned with white spots and stripes, the 5.5m to 10m long Whale Shark is the largest - and one of the most striking - fish in the sea. Though it’s beloved by ecotourists and native to temperate oceans the world over, very little is known about these behemoths - including how long they live.

Recent investigations into other shark species have revealed astounding life-spans: The Greenland shark, for example, can live nearly 300 years, longer than any other vertebrate on Earth. (Many more sharks, such as the great white, near the 100-year mark.)

Those discoveries are largely because of advanced methods for determining a shark’s age, such as tracing carbon-14, a rare type of radioactive isotope that is a by-product of Cold War-era bomb detonations, in shark skeletons. Measuring amounts of this element can tell scientists a shark’s age more accurately than the previous approach, counting tree-like growth rings on Whale Shark vertebrae. That’s because how much time each ring represents has long been a subject of dispute.

Now, researchers using radiocarbon dating have identified the remains of a Whale Shark that lived 50 years, the most ever for that species, says study leader Mark Meekan, a fish biologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

He adds that it seems possible that these really big sharks could live to be about a hundred years old.

Meekan says his study, published April 6th in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, is crucial to the conservation of these endangered species.

That’s because the Whale Shark’s longevity makes the species as a whole more vulnerable to threats such as legal and illegal fishing, warming ocean temperatures, and ship strikes.

Bomb analysis

From 1955 to 1963, atomic bomb testing in the United States and other countries doubled the amount of carbon-14 naturally in Earth’s atmosphere. That excess was absorbed into the ocean and taken up by everything in the food web - including cartilaginous Whale Shark skeletons.

By comparing the amount of carbon-14 in the oceans during certain years with the amount of the isotope captured in successive vertebral growth bands, the researchers could discern a shark’s age.

Basically what we showed is we have a time stamp within the vertebrae. We count the bands from there, and they appear to be annual, Meekan says.

Meekan and colleagues took vertebral samples from two shark skeletons, one that had been caught legally in a Taiwanese fishery in 2005 that had 35 growth bands; and another from an animal that was stranded off Pakistan in 2012. That one had 50 growth bands.

Because the 50-year-old Pakistan shark was only 10m long, and the animals can grow to double that size, bigger Whale Sharks undoubtedly are older than the two tested, he says.

‘Real data from real animals’

This study is really important because it gets rid of some of those questions about the age and growth patterns of Whale Sharks, says Taylor Chapple, a research scientist specializing in sharks at Oregon State University.

Conservationists need to know the growth rate of a species, he says, because a slower-growing species is more susceptible to extinction than one that reproduces quickly. The Whale Shark’s global population has fallen by more than half over the past 75 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Having real data from real animals, he says, adds a really a critical piece of information to how we globally manage Whale Sharks, for example by trying to minimize Whale Sharks caught accidentally while fishing other animals, which is known as bycatch.

Beyond being a vital part of the ocean ecosystem, Whale Sharks also support the ecotourism industry, which in many places offers opportunities to see or snorkel at a safe distance from the animals. In some locations, however, such as in Oslob, Philippines, shark-watching is controversial because of the practice of feeding or getting close to the animals.

Ecotourism keeps a lot of people out of poverty in many developing countries around the world, in particular in Southeast Asia, Meekan says.

We have a responsibility not just to the sharks, but also to those communities to make sure they’ve got a future.

Liz Langley is the founding writer of National Geographic’s Weird Animal Question of the Week.

See also: Whale Sharks ⋅ Dolphin watching

Older items are here. You could also check out the various sources listed on our page Related Sites.

World Book Day

UN World Book Day on 23rd March is sporadically celebrated on St Helena with events organised by and at the library in Jamestown. The UK ‘World Book Day’ is on the and where different this date is also sometimes used.

For more annual events see our page This Year.

Customer to Librarian: Please can you tell me where to find books on paranoia?
Librarian (whispers): They’re right behind you…

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Article: Historical Fiction Novel Inspired by Boer POW Artefact, Based on St Helena

By Andrew Turner, SAMS, published in The Sentinel, 25th October 2018{1}

First-time author Michelle Pretorius visited St Helena last week to conduct research for her upcoming novel that is set on the island.

The book, ‘The Box from St Helena’, follows the story of a man who moves from England to teach on the island. He falls in love with a Saint and the couple have a daughter.

Boer POW Artefact
Michelle Pretorius and the box, crafted out of Gumwood by a Boer Prisoner of War on St Helena, that inspired the upcoming novel

As the daughter grows up and also becomes a teacher, she meets and falls for a Boer Prisoner of War; their romance takes place across well-known locations on the island.

A third of the book is very much about St Helena, Michelle told SAMS Radio 1 last week.

Michelle was born in South Africa but now resides in the UK. She first became fascinated by St Helena and the Boer connection when, as a child, a neighbour gave her a box that was handmade out of the local Gumwood by one of the Boer prisoners on St Helena.

Last week, after spending 116 years overseas, the box returned home to St Helena.

In the last two years I retired and I had this box sitting on my desk and I thought ‘I owe someone a story about this,’ Michelle said as she sat in the SAMS studio with the artefact.

Over the last two years Michelle has been thoroughly researching for the book, reading all about the island online before finally making it to the island herself.

It felt like I had been here all my life, she said. I knew all the street names, I knew where to go; I just needed to walk the walk and feel the atmosphere of the place.

The book is yet to be published, but Michelle is hoping to have the book published later this year, either through a publisher or through the Kindle store.

Early copies will be donated to the Public Library.

LOL

Credits:
{a} Ed Thorpe{b} National Geographic Magazine{c} Emma Weaver{d} The BBC.{e} CKW Photography{f} mongabay.com{g} Earth Observatory, taken from the ISS{h} Andrew / Peter Neaum{i} Austin Phelps{j} Government of St Helena

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Footnotes:
{1} @@RepDis@@{2} Please first read this warning.{3} Actually, no he wasn’t! See this explanation.

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