tRISTAN DA CUNHA
Tristan da Cunha is an isolated archipelago in the South Atlantic, and the most southerly component of the territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. It stretches across an exclusive economic zone of over 750,000 km2; however, in terms of land, the largest island is Tristan Island at just under 100 km2. Within 40 km to the southwest are Inaccessible Island, and the Nightingale Island group of Nightingale, Middle, and Stolenhoff. And, 350 km to the southeast lies Gough Island. These various islands are volcanic, with Tristan Island, for instance, hosting the active volcano that rises to more than 2,000 m at Queen Mary’s Peak, and that erupted in 1961 and in so doing forced the population to be evacuated to the UK until 1963. In fact, Tristan is the only island to be inhabited, bar the handful of South African personnel based at the weather station on Gough Island, which, remarkably, makes Tristan the most isolated inhabited island in the whole world. The nearest neighbours to the group are St Helena, 2,100 km to the north, and Cape Town, 2,400 km to the east.
Tristan da Cunha was discovered in 1506 by the Portuguese navigator Tristao da Cunha, who did not land but still named the island after himself as Ilha de Tristão da Cunha. Over the subsequent centuries, personnel from various countries landed on the archipelago and carried out increasingly detailed surveys. Then, in 1816, it was garrisoned and possessed by the British, with the main purpose being to stop them being used as a base to liberate Napoleon Bonaparte from St Helena. The garrison soon left in 1817, but some stayed and formed the basis of the permanent population.
The islands host no airstrips, and, as a result, transport to and from the archipelago is via a rather limited number of return sailings each year between Cape Town and Tristan Island. Thus, the upkeep and improvement of Tristan’s harbour are vital to it future. Plus, on a rather interesting and related note, this harbour is called Calshot Harbour, in reference to the place in Hampshire, England, where the islanders were housed temporarily following the volcanic eruption in 1961.
Tristan da Cunha forms part of the territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, and, as per the St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009, each constitutes an equal part of the territory and has their own government. Prior to this order, all three were still in the same territory, but Ascension and Tristan da Cunha were dependencies of St Helena. This order also led to the establishment of the position of the Governor of Tristan da Cunha, and the arrangement that the Governor of St Helena would be the ex officio Governor of Tristan da Cunha. Nevertheless, given the distance between St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, many functions are carried out by the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, and the wider Tristan da Cunha Island Council. The council has the Administrator as the presiding officer, and three appointed and eight elected members. At least one member of the council must be a woman. Plus, there is the Chief Islander, who is elected via a separate ballot, and serves as the political leader of the community. In terms of legislation, Tristan da Cunha has some legislation of its own, but it is the laws of St Helena that tend to apply as long as they are not inconsistent with local ones. Also, such legislation can of course be modified to suit local circumstances.
Tristan da Cunha is largely self-sufficient. All families farm and all land is communally owned. The income from the sustainable lobster fishery is highly valued; however, fluctuating market demand and prices for Tristan lobster have a direct effect on revenue and government reserves have been depleted substantially in recent years. Other sources of income include a small scale tourist industry based on the limited number of tourist ships, and the sale of stamps and coins. In addition, Tristan da Cunha has received some support from the UK Government; for instance, for the Carnogli Healthcare Centre and for the several repairs to Calshot Harbour.
Tristan da Cunha is renowned for its biodiversity, and this is reflected in the existing protections and designations. Over 40% of its land is part of a nature reserve; plus, Gough Island and Inaccessible Island hold Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance, as well as constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. BirdLife International has deemed there to be two Endemic Bird Areas, the Tristan Islands and Gough Island Endemic Bird Areas, and recognised each of the four islands as Important Bird Areas. Furthermore, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), these islands and their surrounding waters represent one of the most pristine temperate ecosystems in the world.
The islands of Tristan da Cunha host a rich array of both flora and fauna. Perhaps most famously, they are globally important for birds: they host more than 85 native species, of which 11 are endemic. The endemics include the Tristan thrush or starchy, the Critically Endangered Wilkin’s finch, and the Critically Endangered Gough bunting; as well as the Vulnerable Inaccessible Island rail, the smallest flightless bird in the world. Amongst the most impressive seabirds are the Vulnerable spectacled petrel, the Endangered Atlantic petrel, the Endangered yellow-nosed albatross, and the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross. Plus, more than 99% of the world’s Endangered northern rockhopper penguins, or pinnamins, breed in Tristan da Cunha. What’s more, subantarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals, too, clamber abord the islands to breed; in fact, Gough Island supports the largest breeding population of subantarctic fur seals in the world.
Turning more directly to its waters: one particularly notable species is the Tristan rock lobster, which supports the valued local fishing industry. And then there are the various cetaceans, including several species of dolphin, sperm whales, humpback whales, and southern right whales. However, it is said that whale numbers in these waters, especially southern right whale numbers, still show signs of the impacts of the illegal whaling by the Soviet Union from when the islanders were briefly evacuated in the mid-20th century due to the volcanic eruption.
But of course, this remarkable biodiversity faces several threats. Perhaps the most acute threat is from invasive species. Particularly concerning examples include the rats on Tristan that have decimated the numbers of various birds, especially of the burrowing petrels, and the abnormally large house mice on Gough Island that have severely impacted the native birds. The situation on Gough Island is very concerning given Gough’s importance for seabirds; notably, it has been described as a strong contender for the title of the most important seabird colony in the world. Concerted efforts, therefore, have been put towards countering this invasives issue. For example, the Gough Island Restoration Programme, which was developed by the RSPB and the Tristan da Cunha Government, aims to rid Gough Island of mice.
Furthermore, one incredibly noteworthy conservation initiative from these islands is the vast protected area: the Tristan da Cunha Marine Protection Zone. It covers almost 690,000 km2, making it the largest no-take zone in the Atlantic, and the fourth largest no-take zone in the world. This marine protection zone was supported by, and contributes to, the Blue Belt programme of the UK Government.
Authors: Ben Parker & Robert Midgley
> Permanent Human Population: c.250.
> Currency: Pound Sterling.
> Capital: Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, which was named in honour of the visit by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1867. Locally, it is also known as The Settlement.
> Dialect: Tristan da Cunha English, which is the smallest and most isolated native-speaker community of English in the world.
> Administration: Tristan da Cunha Government, with key roles being the Governor of St Helena who acts as the Governor of Tristan da Cunha, the Administrator of Tristan da Cunha, and the elected Chief Islander. A key body is the Island Council (https://www.tristandc.com/government.php).
> Overarching Website: https://www.tristandc.com/index.php.