Evolution, Endemism and Engagement

By |2018-08-31T16:45:38+00:00February 21st, 2017|Community, Conservation, Species|0 Comments

Biodiversity and Conservation in São Tomé and Príncipe

In this next series of blogs we move on from our regional focus to highlight the projects we support to protect some of the world’s most endangered species. This blog describes the extraordinary and endangered avifauna on the African archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe, and the work carried out by BirdLife International and its partners to engage local people and raise awareness of the value of the islands’ biodiversity, with the long-term objective of empowering local people to become conservation leaders. Synchronicity Earth recognises that as well as being an ethical imperative, the engagement and empowerment of local communities is fundamental to successful species conservation.

São Tomé grosbeak by Clare Shenstone

On first inspection, the São Tomé Grosbeak (Neospiza concolor) might appear drab, maybe even unremarkable. But first impressions can be deceiving. It is in fact one of the most endangered bird species on the planet, and was not sighted for over 100 years between 1890 and 1991, when it was rediscovered in the forests bordering Rio Xufexufe in the south-west of São Tomé (1). Sightings of this finch since its rediscovery have been intermittent – the species was only photographed for the first time in 2006 and to date has still only been seen by a handful of non-Santomeans. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species® estimates a tiny extant population of less than 50 individuals (2).

As well as its rarity, the taxonomy of this species is also fascinating and distinct. The São Tomé Grosbeak may be almost unique amongst bird species in that genetic studies suggests it evolved in sympatry with the Príncipe Seedeater, another endemic species (3). Sympatric speciation occurs where two separate species evolve from a common ancestor in the absence of geographic isolation. This could happen if, for example, environmental conditions heavily favoured large individuals and small individuals, but not medium-sized ones, thus driving the evolution of two differently-sized species. The São Tomé Grosbeak is in fact the world’s largest canary with a ‘bullish’ head and powerful bill which rivals that of a Hawfinch – it dwarfs the Príncipe Seedeater and is almost twice its size (4), however questions still remain over what exactly drove the separation of these two species (3).

In fact if there is something unremarkable about the São Tomé Grosbeak it is that it inhabits an archipelago awash with other astonishing flora and fauna. São Tomé and Príncipe are located approximately 250km off the coast of Gabon, and as such have experienced somewhat of a ‘goldilocks effect’, in that they are close enough to the rich tropical forests of West Africa to allow some populations to reach the islands, but distant enough so that once they do these populations become isolated and follow a distinct evolutionary trajectory (5).

Including the São Tomé Grosbeak there are a total of 28 endemic bird species on the islands, meaning a greater number of endemic species than the Galapagos Islands in an area approximately an eighth of the size (6). Amongst these species are the world’s largest Sunbird (Dreptes thomensis), Weaver (Ploecus grandis) and Oriole (Oriolus crassirostris), and its smallest Ibis (Bostrychia bocagei), a species which is also critically endangered and restricted to the primary forests of Obo Natural Park (5). This tendency towards extremes is symptomatic of island biogeography – which encourages small species to become larger to occupy new ecological niches in the absence of competitors and large species to become smaller to survive in a more restricted area (5).

As well as endemic avifauna, the islands also harbour 1,230 described plant species, approximately 15% of which are endemic, as well as 19 endemic butterflies (7). The islands even hold 7 endemic amphibians (7), something which remains somewhat of a mystery considering amphibians known intolerance of salt water and the fact that as volcanic islands São Tomé and Príncipe were never connected to mainland Africa. There are also undoubtedly more discoveries to be made, with the invertebrate and marine biodiversity of the archipelago particularly understudied, with each new expedition to the islands uncovering species new to science (see 8).

The value of the biodiversity present on these islands has been recognised through a number of designations: Príncipe is recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve; both islands host KBAs  and IBAs where primary habitats remain; the Tinhosas Islands to the southwest of Príncipe, which are host to more than 280,000 breeding seabirds, are recognised as a Ramsar site, and the presence and critically endangered nature of the São Tomé Grosbeak, the São Tomé Fiscal, and the Dwarf Olive Ibis triggered the recognition of Obo Natural Park as an Alliance for Zero Extinction site (9). These designations all point to the importance of conserving this archipelago’s remarkable biodiversity, however, historical habitat loss, in parallel with other threats, has driven many of the islands’ species towards extinction. Habitat destruction was rife during the Portuguese colonial era, with the island first a centre for sugarcane production, and latterly coffee and cacao (10). Whilst this led to widespread forest clearance, the primary, secondary and even shade forests on the island continue to provide key habitats, but face new threats in the form of illegal logging, agro-industrial concessions and residential and commercial developments (9).

However, one particular threat which continues to hamper efforts to conserve biodiversity is a lack of local conservation capacity and community engagement. This is something which Synchronicity Earth has partnered with BirdLife International to address, recognising that conservation begins with local people.

BirdLife has had a presence on São Tomé since 2006, with the conservation of the three critically endangered endemic bird species a key focus, culminating in the production of a species action plan (11) produced in collaboration with the Santomean Government and local NGOs. One key pillar of BirdLife’s work has focused on developing the capacity of civil society and raising awareness amongst the local population of the unique and threatened status of São Tomé’s biodiversity. Studies such as that conducted by Verissimo et al., (2012) have shown the low level of environmental education in São Tomé, particularly amongst rural populations. To try to instil an awareness and sense of pride in the biodiversity which the islands’ harbour BirdLife worked with Portuguese affiliate SPEA to organise community meetings and collaborated with local artists to paint large murals (see below) of the critically endangered species in five villages. Work is also underway to engage local musicians in producing a music and dance-based environmental awareness campaign celebrating São Tomé’s biodiversity and to engage with young people through a schools education programme and the establishment of nature clubs in the buffer region of Obo Natural Park. Whilst these might not seem like conventional conservation activities, they recognise the local context and the inextricable link between local people and conservation outcomes.

Local artists help to raise awareness by painting murals of Critically Endangered species in five villages.

The aim of these programmes is to increase awareness amongst the Santomean population about the importance of its biodiversity and the need for its conservation to protect livelihoods and environmental services. BirdLife hope to inspire future generations of conservation leaders on the island who can fill gaps in knowledge, identify key actions to protect species and ensure that the islands’ natural heritage is considered in decisions about its future development, meaning conservation is locally led. This work is just one component of the activities needed to conserve São Tomé’s unique environment; and boosting local enforcement capacities, continuing to conduct scientific research to expand knowledge, and developing sustainable livelihood and development opportunities will also be integral. However, where local people become engaged and invested in conservation, the future of enigmatic endemics such as the São Tomé Grosbeak will surely be more secure.


1. Sargeant D.E, Gullick T, Turner D.A, Sinclair J.C.I, 1992, The rediscovery of the Sao Tome Grosbeak, Neospiza concolor, in south-western Sao Tome, Bird Conservation International, Vol.2, pp.157-159

2. BirdLife International, 2015, Neospiza concolor: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

3. Dallimer M, Melo M, Stervander M, Solé N, 2012, Unravelling the ecology of the best-documented case of sympatric speciation in birds: the critically endangered São Tomé Grosbeak, Neospiza concolor, Unpublished report for NGS/Waitt Grant Number W172-11

4. Melo M, Stervander M, Hansson B, 2013, Sympatric Speciation in the Gulf of Guinea Finches is supported by multiple molecular independent molecular markers, XIV Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Lisbon, Portugal, 19-24 August 2013

5. Melo M and Ryan P, 2012, Endemism Gone Wild; The forgotten bird islands of Såo Tomé and Príncipe, Africa – Birds and Birding, April/May 2012, pp.34-41  https://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/275/Publications/PDF_Archive/Africa_Birds_And_Birding/Volume_Index/Volume_17/ABB17(2)32-41.pdf

6. Faustino de Lima R and Dallimer  M, 2016, Deforestation: an alert from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, Leeds Ecosystem, Atmosphere and Forest Centre (LEAF), Accessed 13.02.17

7. Bonfim and Carvalho, 2009, Fourth National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment, Directorate General of the Environment

8. Vasco-Rodrigues N, Fontes J, Andrade Bertoncini A, 2016, Ten New Records of Marine Fishes for Sao Tome, West Africa, Acta Icthyyologica Et Piscatoria, Vol.46, No.2, pp.123-129

9. BirdLife International, IUCN and UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 2016. IBAT Country Profile for São ToméAnd Príncipe, Version 2016/1.
Available at: https://www.ibat-alliance.org/ibat- conservation

10. Atkinson P, Peet N, Alexander J, 1991, The status and conservation of the endemic bird species of Såo Tomé and Príncipe, West Africa, Bird Conservation International, Vol.1, pp.255-282

11. BirdLife International, 2014, International Species Action Plan for the Conservation of Critically Endangered birds on Sao Tome, Available online at https://www.birdlife.org/sites/default/files/SAP%20SaoTomeCRs%20Jan2014.pdf

12. Verissimo D, Dos Santos Oquiongo G, VIegas L, Faustino de Lima R, 2012, Environmental education activities in Sato Tome Island, São Tomé and Príncipe, Field Report, GRIN Publishing GmbH, Munich.

® The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is a registered trade mark of IUCN.

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