Letter: Leave Ascension to the birds

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The Independent Online
Leave Ascension to the birds

Sir: Andrew Marshall, in his article about Ascension Island (31 May), suggested that the fragile economy of the island could be propped up by developing tourism. I write to question the assumption that Ascension needs a new function defined primarily in terms of human economics.

In spite of the devastation caused by the introduction of predators, Ascension is still an island of global significance for the breeding of seabirds, since it is the only speck of land available to them in an enormous tract of tropical ocean.

Introduced feral cats, rats, mice and other invasive animals and plants have caused devastation of the original seabird community and the native vegetation, as on other islands worldwide. Vastly reduced populations of seabirds maintain colonies on the offshore islets of Ascension which remain predator-free.

Two years ago I was a consultant for a feasibility study, funded by the Government, which indicated that the major predators of seabirds could be eliminated, using techniques perfected on some of the most threatened islands in the Indian Ocean and New Zealand. This would eventually permit recovery of the seabird populations of Ascension and eventually transform it into a reserve of international standing which could only bring credit on Britain.

Apart from the seabirds, Ascension is also home to a large array of endemic invertebrates, many of which have only been discovered in the course of recent research by my wife and myself.

Ascension is important as the nearest airport to St Helena, 800 miles away, and presumably the Americans also still require the use of their base, but other users are reducing their operations. Why not simply scale the establishment of Ascension down to essentials? The state of the island in the 1950s, when I lived there for more than a year, was in many respects preferable to that seen today.

There is no indigenous human population on Ascension and the St Helenians who work there are on contract; their home is St Helena. The "Saints" need jobs, since opportunities on their home island are severely limited. However there is a solution to this problem. A Royal Charter of 1673 stated: "Natives of St Helena to be free denizens of England." These rights have gradually been abrogated, but if they were restored, as justice demands, those who needed work outside St Helena would have the option to come to Britain, as they did in the past. Possibly a couple of thousand would do so; certainly not many more, since the total population is less than 6,000.

So, why not remove the predators from Ascension, and leave the island largely to the birds and turtles?

Dr PHILIP ASHMOLE

Peebles

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