Steve Connor: Eco-paradise is 'Galapagos for plants'

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The Independent Online

Standing on "Selkirk's rock" high on a volcanic peak you can see Robinson Crusoe Island in its wondrous entirety, just as the Scottish mariner had done more than 300 years ago when he was truly monarch of all he could survey – and yet desperate to escape.

Looking east from this vantage point you face the coast of Chile some 414 miles away. It was from here that the deadly tsunami had come to batter and deluge the inhabitants of Juan Bautista village nestling in the bay below.

I have hiked from one end of this Pacific jewel of an island to the other, a gruelling five-hour trek that the locals tell me they routinely make in less than two. The island has a higher density of endemic botanical species than anywhere in the world, which is why it is known as the "Galapagos for plants", and why I had been invited there.

Scientists and the Chilean authorities were drawing up a plan to rescue the island's unique flora and fauna – including the iconic firecrown hummingbird – from the invasive species introduced over the past four centuries. The villagers were enthusiastic supporters, realising that they were effectively custodians to a globally important eco-paradise.

It is unlikely that the tsunami would have had much long-term impact on the wildlife – it would have only affected the lower slopes of the mountainside where the villagers had built their wooden houses. But unless the islanders are helped to restore their lives, it is possible that the wildlife conservation effort will founder too. Scientists have set up a fund to help the people of Robinson Crusoe and all donations will go directly to help them: www.oikonos.org

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