Uncovering Príncipe Island’s staggering wealth of hidden biodiversity

Conservation Problem

Príncipe contains many unique tree species, but incomplete knowledge of the species present and the threats facing them is limiting effective protection.

Project Goal

Create an accurate catalogue of Príncipe Island’s tree species and train local NGO and forest guide staff to survey, identify, and assess the conservation status of tree species.

Why this project?

Sculpted from 31 million year-old volcanic rock, Príncipe Island’s tiny landmass of 142 km2 is a cradle of incomparable biodiversity and is home to scores of endemic species, many of which are still unknown to us.

This island nation sits in the Gulf of Guinea and forms part of the São Tomé and Príncipe archipelago. Its southern lowland tropical rainforest, nestled in the centre of Príncipe Natural Park, is dominated by trees believed to be more than 200 years old. As such, these forests comprise the second most important area for conservation in Africa and sit amongst the top 200 important biodiversity areas in the world.

These remote rainforests have seen a surge of human threats, in particular wood harvesting for charcoal and kindling and excessive seed collection. The general lack of scientific knowledge about the diversity of forest plants, do nothing to help the situation.

Without understanding Príncipe’s tree diversity it is impossible to identify which areas of forest and which species are in most need of interventions such as conservation rapid assessments, to ensure that we do not lose species before we are even aware of them.

An abundance of tropical tree species thrive in the heat and humidity of Príncipe Island. Credit: Felipe Spina/FFI-PTF

What are we doing about it?

The main constraints to conservation of Príncipe Island’s threatened trees have been identified as lack of knowledge about botanical collection, preservation, and identification. With our partners the Fundação Príncipe Trust and Missouri Botanical Garden and in collaboration with the University of Coimbra and the São Tomé Botanical Garden we are addressing the need for resources and botanical training through the following activities:

  1. Training government representatives, national NGO staff, forest guides, and local community members in plant identification and the recording, collecting, and preserving of relevant samples
  2. Conducting rapid surveys in varying forest types and elevations using skills learnt through training, in order to expand botanical understanding of trees that grow on Príncipe and identify priority areas for conservation
  3. Developing herbarium collections of Príncipe’s trees in order to build up stocks of priority species, including collection of fruits and flowers for reliable species identification
  4. Providing essential equipment, including GPS and waterproof cameras, to enable accurate mapping and cataloguing of the forests
  5. Establishing a network of botanical experts to engage in remote identification of herbarium specimens

Despite the mounting degradation of Príncipe’s forests, many southern trees guarded by a dense barrier of vegetation and rough terrain have been growing for over 200 years. Felipe Spina Avino/FFI-PTF

Key achievements

Thirteen people from local institutions (Príncipe Natural Park, Forest Regional Direction, Local Tourist guides Association, Traditional Healers Association, the Bom Sucesso Botanical Garden, and São Tomé National Herbarium) have been trained in botanical identification and field survey techniques.

Field expeditions have led to the identification of 45 new records for the island, including eight species that are new to science. These surveys are the biggest joint plant research effort to have ever been undertaken on Príncipe. Based on preliminary analyses, 29 species are rare, endemic, or new to science, and at least seven of these are proposed as threatened based on IUCN Red List Criteria.

Overall, the surveys identified the most important habitats for conservation on the island; the ancient coastal lowland ecosystem in the south, and also the sub montane forest of Pico do Príncipe, which possesses unique flora and many species which are still yet to be identified.

 

For more information on this project, please contact globaltrees@fauna-flora.org

Did you know?

During the Middle Ages, Yew wood was used to craft long bows and spears as the timber was both strong and elastic.  This led to the exhaustion of Yew forests once widespread across Britain.