Conservationists fight for 'Galapagos of plants'

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The Independent Online

Leading conservationists have drawn up a blueprint to save one of the world's most important sites for conservation known as the "Galapagos for plants" because of its exceptionally rare native plants.

The three Pacific islands that make up the Juan Fernandez archipelago, 414 miles off the coast of Chile, are considered so valuable as an evolutionary "hothouse" that scientists have called for the plan to be implemented urgently.

More than 50 international experts in island conservation met in Chile earlier this month to devise the programme which could save the Juan Fernandez islands from the many invasive alien species that have been introduced there since the archipelago was first discovered by European mariners in 1574.

The scientists have called upon the Chilean government to plan for an eradication programme that would rid the three islands that make up the archipelago of the goats, rats, mice, feral cats, blackberry brambles and other highly invasive animals and plants that threatened to destroy the endemic wildlife.

Miguel Schottlander, of the Chilean government's National Commission for the Environment, told The Independent that Chile was ready to protect one of the acknowledged jewels of the botanical world after years of neglect and indifference to the problems the islands have faced from habitat destruction and invasive species.

"We have to deal with the threat of extinction of species and I think the Chilean society is much more aware of the importance of nature conservation. We are part of the world and this is our heritage, and this has helped us to change our minds over the past few years," Mr Schottlander said.

"The aim is to stop invasive species coming in with good biosecurity measures. It is something new for the island and we are really hoping that we'll have this project up by next year," said Mr Schottlander.

"We have a programme to try to eradicate what we can eradicate and to control what we can control. The Chilean government and other partners are coming together to face this huge challenge of how to protect this biodiversity hotspot," he added.

One of the archipelago's three islands, Robinson Crusoe Island, is famous as the desert island where a Scottish mariner called Alexander Selkirk was marooned in 1704. His adventures as a castaway were said to have inspired Daniel Defoe's classic tale, published 10 years after Selkirk was rescued.

However, it is the density of the endemic plant species that has particularly fascinated botanists. To date, they have identified 131 indigenous plants that arose on the islands and exist nowhere else, the highest density of plant endemicity anywhere in the world.

In addition to the plants, the islands are home to three endemic bird species and four endemic subspecies. One endemic bird is the firecrown hummingbird which lives on Robinson Crusoe Island and is the only endemic oceanic hummingbird in the world.

Feral cats and rats pose a direct predatory threat to the archipelago's avian wildlife while the goats, rabbits and domestic cattle have overgrazed the sub-tropical landscape. Meanwhile introduced plants, such as the elmleaf blackberry, the Chilean myrtle-berry shrub and the South American macqui strangle the endemic flora.

The rarest endemic plant species, such as the flowering shrub Dendroseris gigantea, are represented by just one individual living in the wild. Another plant in a similar situation, however, became extinct a few years ago when that last member of the species was chewed to death by rats.