Saving Ascension’s wildlife

02 May 2010 | News story

Although he now heads up efforts to protect the wildlife of the British Overseas Territory of Ascension Island, Stedson Stroud has had an unusual journey into formal conservation.

Born on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, Stedson developed an interest in the natural world at an early age. “My mum and dad, with a family of 10 children, brought us up on St. Helena living off the land with an organic and sustainable attitude towards biodiversity, so they were a real inspiration to me,” he explains. The interest that Stedson developed in horticulture, beekeeping and the natural world would stay with him throughout his life, and would play an important role in shaping his priorities.

During several nomadic years working throughout the world, Stedson took the time to speak to old farmers and beekeepers, learning and recording their skills. When he returned to St. Helena as a trained beekeeper and tracker in 1991, Stedson made a remarkable discovery. One day, whilst following some bees up a gorge, Stedson came across a plant he had never seen before. Taking samples, he began to investigate and, working with St Helenian Botanist George Benjamin and the Royal Botanic gardens at Kew, discovered that it was a bastard gumwood tree (Commidendrum rotundifolium), a plant long thought to be extinct.

“Discovering a lone plant which was thought to have been extinct for over a hundred years spurred me into helping to propagate it, and get more of its kind back into the wild. Conservation became special to me.”

Some years after this first discovery, Stedson made another astonishing find, yet another endemic plant long thought to have gone extinct, the St. Helena boxwood (Mellissia begonifolia). “Then I truly knew I had a career in conservation!” says Stedson.

Finally in 2003, Stedson made his way back to Ascension, initially as the Assistant Director of Conservation. As a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s South Atlantic Island Plant Specialist Group, Stedson faced many challenges. “Ascension’s endemic plants were uncared for. All of them were on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and some were on the brink of extinction, mostly due to the threats imposed by alien invasive plant species. We’ve set about clearing and restoring sites where invasive species have taken over, which is no easy task!” Through careful propagation of the threatened endemic species, stable captive populations of many of these plants have now been established and efforts are underway to reintroduce more of them to suitable parts of the island.

The island’s endemic plants were not the only species suffering from the impacts of invasive species. When it was first discovered, Ascension was thought to house around 20 million seabirds, with species including fairy terns, masked boobies, and the endemic Ascension frigatebird. But over the years this number dwindled to just a few thousand nesting on shore ledges and offshore stacks, mainly because the birds were being eaten by feral cats. To tackle this problem, Stedson helped implement a feral cat eradication programme, which has led to several hundred pairs of seabirds returning to the mainland to nest for the first time in over 100 years. These pairs continue to breed successfully, and are reestablishing viable populations once more.

Despite these successes, Stedson remains concerned for the future of Ascension’s fragile wildlife. Invasive species are still a major problem, and left unchecked threaten the survival of native plants and animals. Human development is also a problem, with large parts of the island unprotected and vulnerable to damage. He and his team face a constant struggle to preserve what is left of Ascension’s unique environment, and to try and restore what has been lost.

Stedson has never lost sight of the beauty of the nature he works so hard to protect. “Seeing female green turtles slowly making their way up the beaches to lay their eggs after their long journey from Brazil, or watching the land crabs making their lengthy and dangerous trek from the top of Green Mountain down to the shore to deposit their eggs is hugely inspiring. Ascension boasts a wonderful array of biodiversity, from the turtles to sooty terns to our very own endemic shrimp found in larva pools. Now, in the International Year of Biodiversity, more than ever, we need to ensure the survival of these species.”

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