ORNITHOLOGIST EXPRESSES CONCERNS ABOUT ASCENSION CONSERVATION PROGRAMME AND THE FUTURE OF TOURISM.
MARCH 2002 - The ornithologist Bernard Stonehouse led the British Ornithologists Union Centenary Expedition to Ascension from 1957-1959. He is the author of "Wideawake Island - The Story of the British Ornithologists Expedition to Ascension." Last week he arrived on the Endeavour, having just visited the Falklands and South Georgia. He took time out to answer a few questions for Stephen Fowler. (This article also appears in The Islander. )

SF. Bernard, you've visited the island many times, and lived here during the 50's; do you believe that tourism has a future on Ascension?

BS. I believe that tourism has a tremendous future on Ascension if things are done properly, but it seems to me that no one is really sitting down and thinking about it. I have not seen a long-term statement or plan for Ascension tourism.

SF. Do you think that there is a danger that the island could be spoiled?

BS. Not really - it has been spoiled about as much as it can be! The mountain has been neglected and cut off. The buildings up there are unoccupied, and that will ensure their eventual dereliction. Also, who is supposed to look after the paths and walks up there? There is a danger that a few people will make a bit of money, and then push off! Tourism needs a sustained long-term plan, involving the examination of options and the application of tourism models. You need to draw on examples from other locations; in fact there are probably University Departments in the UK who can help. But on the positive side, there is still a magic about the island, and there is a potential for snorkelling, fishing and diving. Also, there is a wonderful history.

SF. What do you think of the current eradication programme?

BS. I am doubtful about it; if loads of seabirds come back to the island, we could have problems, especially with all the antennae. I will be watching with interest! In any case, who has said that it is a good idea to restore the seabird population?

SF. But you're an ornithologist aren't you?

BS. Well I wouldn't be much of an ornithologist if I just thought about seabirds and not the other implications. Do you really want Ascension to look like Boatswain Bird Island? Does that really square with the present uses of Ascension? At the moment we have a relatively stable situation with the Wideawake Terns and the rats and cats; it is not a violent fluctuation that we are undergoing, but someone has said "The situation is wrong". It is not clear to me what they want to achieve. If it is the return of seabirds en masse to the island that they want, that's going to mean more serious problems. If the job is done incompletely, it will raise serious problems. Another thing that worries me is that they were looking for £1.5 million, and ended up with only ½ a million, so that suggests that the plan will not be completed! If the original assessment was right, then clearly they have a problem.

SF. Will you be keeping in touch with developments on Ascension?

BS. Yes - I have a very serious and very strong, lasting interest in this business arising from my work on the island years ago.

PHILIP AND MYRTLE ASHMOLE REPLY TO THE ABOVE:

In a recent issue of The Islander you carried an interview with our friend Bernard Stonehouse, who led the ornithological expedition to Ascension in1957-59 of which one of us was also a member.

We are saddened by Bernard's lack of enthusiasm for the current attempt to start the restoration of Ascension's seabird community by eradication of the feral cats. He seems untouched by the inspiring worldwide initiatives aimed at undoing some of the damage done to natural environments by past human activities.

Bernard comments that:- someone has said "The situation is wrong", rather as if it was a casual remark by a bureaucrat. We are among the many people who have said something like this, reflecting the preponderant view among ornithologists and ecologists who have focused on the issues concerned. On pages 255-256 of our book (St Helena and Ascension Island: a natural history, published by Anthony Nelson in 2000) we tried to explain the case for restoring the seabird community and reviewed the history of the idea.

Eric Duffey, who undertook the first ecological survey of Ascension as part of the work of the expedition led by Bernard, emphasized in 1964 that "Eradication of these animals [cats] is the most important wildlife conservation problem on the island". It was a quarter of a century before a full survey of the conservation situation on the island was carried out, by us together with the late Ken Simmons, schoolmaster on Ascension in the 1960s and a noted ornithologist. This work paved the way for the feasibility study of 1995 (funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, RSPB and WWF) and for the current cat eradication campaign.

The American paleontologist Storrs Olson explained most eloquently the background to the restoration work. In 1977 he wrote "Ascension and St Helena constitute the only dry land in an area of 15,000,000 km2 .... so their former significance as breeding sites for seabirds can hardly be overestimated. In the five centuries since the discovery of these islands, man and his introduced predators have reduced seabird populations that must once have numbered in the tens of millions almost to non-existence (except for the Sooty Terns of Ascension). Thus the composition of seabird populations over a vast extent of ocean was probably dramatically affected by relatively minor alterations on two very small specks of land. The vulnerability and fragility of seabird populations have rarely been more forcefully demonstrated."

We think, unlike Bernard, that it would be wonderful if large parts of Ascension were recolonised by seabirds spreading from Boatswainbird Island, and we do not think that increased numbers of seabirds would cause serious problems, because there is very considerable space they can occupy without conflicting at all with other uses.

As the dominant creatures on this planet, surely we have a responsibility to mitigate damage caused by our predecessors? Furthermore, a restored tropical seabird island would be an inspiration for future generations of residents and visitors to Ascension.

Philip and Myrtle Ashmole, Peebles, Scotland

Philip Ashmole was a member of the British Ornithologists' Union Expedition in 1957-59, which was led by Bernard Stonehouse. He returned to the island with Myrtle in 1990 for five weeks with Ken Simmons and an Army ornithological team to assess the current status of the seabird populations on behalf of the International Council for Bird Preservation. At the same time Philip and Myrtle undertook work on the invertebrate animals of the island, and found several new endemic species living in caves and lava. They returned in 1995 with Brian and Paul Bell to do the feasibility study for the eradication of cats, which involved extensive consultation with people representing all elements of the community. At the same time they carried out more investigations on the invertebrate animals and in 1997 published a comprehensive account of whole fauna of the island (Journal of Biogeography 24: 549-589). Their book "The Natural History of St Helena and Ascension Island" was published in 2000 by Anthony Nelson Publishers. They are active members of the South Atlantic Working Group of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.


Grand Opening of Ascension Island Conservation Centre

FEBRUARY 2002 - Friday the 2nd of February saw the opening of the Ascension Island Conservation Centre in Georgetown in front of a larger than expected turnout. Conservation Officer Tara George (pictured right) performed the welcoming speech. She spoke of the vital need for conservation in our unique environment, and the rare floras and faunas that our found here. She went on to talk about the importance of the endemic Ascension Frigate Bird, the Green Turtle population, our endemic species of terrestrial plants and fish, and the unique geological structures.

The primary focus of the conservation work is the Seabird Restoration Project, which seeks to see Ascension Seabirds return to the mainland.Tara described how the Conservation Centre would serve as the physical focus of all the conservation activity, and said that it would function as an information centre for the public to come and find out about conservation issues here in Ascension. She paid a tribute to the Turtle Project who had been instrumental in the creation, co-ordination and development of the Centre.

The preservation of our environment has always been voluntary, and due to the constantly changing nature of the population, there has been little consistency and continuity. Now however, the appointment of two conservation officers funded by the RSPB should help to formalize conservation in Ascension Island.

Tara pointed out that, ultimately, it is the people of Ascension who will decide whether the environment is preserved. "Your presence here tonight clearly illustrates your interest, and suggests that you are aware of your responsibility to the environment…. It is us - you, me and our children who will determine whether the unique environment of Ascension is preserved." Tara then called on Mr. Jimmy Young, (pictured above left), one of Ascension Island's foremost conservationists to cut the tape and formally open the centre.

Pupils of Two Boats school have been participating in a bird watching competition organised by the Conservation Centre. The winners were presented with their certificates at the Grand Opening of the Conservation Centre on Friday evening. For one week they had to undertake tasks such as keeping a tally of the number of land birds sighted, and matching pictures of Ascension seabirds to their correct names. Our picture shows the Upper and Lower School winners (clockwise from top left) Natasha Williams, Kelly Leo, Kieran Yon and Charlotte Bones.


 

Last revised on the 1st of September 2002. For any comments or questions about the Society and its work, or this website, please e-mail us via this link in Ascension.