1983, Carlos Sombrero, Student Exchange To Canary Isles

Report on the visit to the Canary Islands

by Carlos Sombrero, Kew Guild Award Scheme recipient

The visit took place from the 24th of April to the 25th of May.

The main purpose of the visit was to investigate the conservation programme in these islands. Another objective was to collect plant material for several departments at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and for Dr. F. A. Bisby of Southampton University.

Only Gran Canaria and Tenerife were visited. It was thought unwise to visit Lanzarote and Fuerteventura on the time available, as they come under the jurisdiction of the Gran Canaria Province.

It can be said that most of the objectives were achieved, if not fully, at least partially.

The Conservation Programme in the Island of Gran Canaria
In Gran Canaria, not including other islands under its jurisdiction, 27 reserves were going to be proposed at the time of my visit; one reserve has already been approved. One is for an area to be a National Park (Pilancones-Ayagaure), six to be Natural Reserves (Parques Naturales), and 20 Sites of Scientific and Special Interest.

in accordance with the recommendations set by the World Conservation Strategy (WC.S.), priority for conservation will be given to endangered species that are sole representatives throughout the world, endemic taxa, and wild representatives of crop plants and other taxa of potential use to man.

One of the difficulties to establish conservation sites in the Canarian archipelago is the very complex administration system. Several Bodies are involved in the governing of the Province. These are Central Government, the City Council (Ayuntamiento), and the Insular Council (Cabildo Insular).

All conservation in Spain comes under the auspice of I.C.O. N.A. (Instituto para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza) which depends on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and therefore of Central Government. Matters concerning urbanisation in the island are controlled by the City Council, or Ayuntamiento. All other affairs are dealt with by the Insular Council (Cabildo Insular). As if this was not difficult enough, the Autonomous Government which has just been elected will also have legal powers, but what these powers will entail nobody knew at the time of its election.

A Contract of Agreement between the Insular Council and I.C.O.N.A. was signed on the 10th of March 1982, in order to unify their efforts in scientific and educational work. The validity of the Agreement is for four years, except when one of the signatories decides to terminate it earlier.

The aims of the Agreement are:
1. “The conservation of genetic resources of Canarian flora by the installation of germoplasm banks, cell/tissue culture, and other methods aimed at conservation.”
2. “Ecological surveying of Gran Canaria with a view to determining the status of habitats.”
3. “The planning of conservation areas in publicly owned land and the reconstruction of habitats of autochthonous flora in adequate areas.”
4. “Education of the public byway of seminars, lectures, publications, etc., and the signalising of Nature Trails in areas of utmost floristicinterest.”

In order to implement the above aims, a Commission has been set up. The members of the Commission are:
(i) The Director of I.C.O.N.A.
(ii) The President of the Insular Council.
(iii) The Regional Inspector of I.C.O.N.A.
(iv) The Director of the Botanic Garden “Viera y Clavijo”

I.C.O.N.A. will supply the economic backing plus planners, agronomists, foresters, geologists, and other scientists, while the Insular Council, by means of its Botanic Garden “Viera y Clavijo”, will provide research facilities and botanical expertise.

By law, all proposed sites have to be given a Public Hearing before they can be declared conservation areas.

Tourism, Agriculture and Forestry in Relation to Conservation
It would be reasonable to suppose that tourism, agriculture and forestry have had a damaging effect on local flora.

Due to mismanagement of the forest in the past, it is plausible that many taxa have been threatened, and perhaps some lost altogether. The most damage has been caused by the indiscriminate cutting of pine and laurel woods, which has led to erosion in most of the island.

A secondary harmful effect on the flora has been achieved indirectly by the destruction of the trees. This is because of what is termed “horizontal rain” (Iluvia horizontal), that is to say the water deposited on the vegetation by condensation of clouds. This is thought to be a serious problem as much of the island water reserves are very low due to very little vertical rain in recent years. If the contribution made by horizontal rain is too small because of deforestation, then the island may be facing very severe consequences indeed.

Agricultural damage to lowland vegetation is difficult to assess as there is a lack of information as to which taxa were present in these areas In the first place. Even so, some losses must have occurred. Fortunately, the highest concentration of taxa is in the mountainous regions where agriculture is not as intensive as in the more profitable lowland.

The introduction by agriculture of certain alien plants such as Agave americana, Opuntia spp., Rubus ulmifolius and others, may prove very harmful for many local taxa as they are colonising large regions of the island and their control will have to be undertaken soon in certain floristically rich endemic sites before these invaders take over.

Agriculture uses large quantities of water which is extracted from wells and galeries all over the island. Some of these wells and galeries are located in taxa-rich areas in the mountains where the flora depends for its survival on the moisture of the rocks, as is the case with some ferns. It appears that the only way to solve this necessary evil is a more efficient use of the available water by agriculture o rthe alternative may be to forbid the removal of water from these areas entirely.

A serious problem that may occur due to agriculture Is the contamination of water with chemicals used by this industry. Most of all the water used in the island comes from a natural subterranean reservoir. The contamination of this reservoir will not only affect plants but, more important still, people. There is already some concern in certain quarters due to the intensive and systematic use of chemicals, from fertilisers to herbicides, and the possibility of infiltration of these substances into the water cycle.

As far as tourism is concerned, most naturalists in the island regard it as harmless to conservation. This is only true in the direct sense, as indirectly tourism has done a lot of damage to at least one ecosystem: Maspalomas dunes system. The Maspalomas hotel explosion in recent years has been built inside the dunes natural system while the fresh water pond, also nearby, has been opened to the sea. All this has been done in order to procure a sun-worshipping, mainly Northern European tourist, by an “ignorant” local land owner.

The collection of wild plants by tourists does not seem to have caused any damage to threatened taxa, as far as we are aware. That wild plants have been gathered cannot be doubted. There should be strict control on unauthorised collecting, regardless of the rarity of the plants.

Local naturalists appear rather reserved when placing any sort of blame on the tourists, as they are obviously afraid that this may harm their public image, and they usually blame any damage on the authorities for lack of public vision. Whether this is entirely true or not Is difficult to estimate, but tourists can be critised for the lack of conservation awareness that some of them show.

Conservation Awareness in Gran Canaria
There are several conservation groups in the island that operate a policing role on the environment. Among the more prominent groups is A.S.C.A.N. (Asociacion Canaria para Defensa de la Naturaleza) which, in conjunction with the Insular Council of Gran Can aria, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.), and the World Wildlife Fund (WW.F.), produced the Red Data Book of Renewable Natural Resources. A.S.C.A.N. can also claim the success of having a weekly column in a local newspaper as well as two hours of radio a week. This is perhaps more than similar conservation groups have achieved in this country. Despite their success with the media, some people in the local administration think that they are far too idealistic and lack problem solving ideas.

Conservation Sites Visited
Some of the more important floristic areas were toured. These included visits to:

Los Tiles de Moya
This is thought to be a Tertiary laurel forest relic that once abounded in Southern Europe and Northern Africa. The laurel species include Acotea foetens (Aiton) Benth and Hook, F., lIex canariensis Poir, Laurus azorica (Seub.) Franco, Apollonias barbujana (Cav.) Bornm, Persea indica (L) Spreng.

The ecosystem has been given legal protection after its impoverished state was indicated by the German botanist G. Kunkel in the 70’s.

The reserve covers an extension of 44 hectares and is closed to the public for picnicking, but not for walking.

At present, it has been planted with autochthonous laurel species till the natural cycle can be restored.

Many endemic plants grow in this area, among the more striking plants being Canarina canariensis (L) Vatke.

It is proposed to be a 20 km’ reserve including 4 km’ of sand dunes; the only such ecosystem in the whole archipelago. It is not a taxa-rich area, its main asset being the dune system, endemic lizards, and being a migration zone for birds.

La Caldera de Baldama
Of ecological and floristic importance. The more important plant in this depression is Sideroxylon marmulano Banks, that it was thought to be extinct in the island till its recent rediscovery. The opposite has happened with Isoplexis isabellina (Webb. & Berth.) Masf., a Gran Canaria endemic that has been lost from this area.

It is proposed to be a 40 hectares reserve. The main issue for its conservation being a local endemic, Solanum lidii Sunding.

Playa de Jinamar
This reserve site is suggested to be a few hectares in extension. In this area under the advertising placards and facing the sea, a local endemic plant grows, Lotus kunkelii (Steve) Bramwell & Davis. Because of its unique clamitic-edaphologistic requirements, it has proven impossible to grow in cultivation as yet, and for this reason alone it is of great ecological value.

Other visits were also made to the Riscos de Guadayeque, where Kunkeliella canariensis Stearn is said to grow, the Pinarde Tamadaba and the proposed National Park of Pilancones-Ayagaure.

Visit to Tenerife
Five days were spent in the most botanically rich island of the whole Canarian archipelago.

A visit to La Ladera de Guimar, on the east of the island, was made in order to collect some living material. Plants collected were: Cheilanthes pulchella, Monanthes brachycaulon (Webb. & Berth.) Lowe, Davallia canariensis Sm. All collecting was done under the supervision’of Dr. Santos Guerra of I.N.I.A. (Instituto National de Investigaciones Agrarias).

A trip was also arranged by Dr. Santos Guerra to Las Canadas del Teide (Teide National Park) where many endemic taxa are legally protected. Some of the more outstanding plants seen in flower at the time were Echium wilpretii Pearson ex Hook. fil., Viola cheiranthifolia H.B. & K., Spartocytissus supranubius (L) Webb. & Berth., and Descurainia bourgeana Webb. ex O.E. Schulz.

Near Las Canadas, in an army exercise field, Erigeron cabrera was located and a dry specimen was collected for the Kew Herbarium. This is a new species shortly to be published by a local botanist and only grown in this “inhospitable” habitat.

The establishing of conservation reserves in Tenerife is in a less advanced state than in Gran Canaria. The only site under legal protection being the Teide National Park. This is unfortunate since Tenerife has the highest number of species in the whole archipelago.

In the Jardin de Aclimatacion de la Orotava it was very enlightening to see many tropical plants growing quite satisfactorily outdoors. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that botanic gardens with such favourable environmental conditions should be developed into international centres for the conservation of threatened tropical taxa without the high cost of the present conservation programme in the Northern Temperate Zone botanic gardens. The only drawback to this strategy is the lack of trained gardening personnel in regions such as the Canary Islands.

The Botanic Garden. “Viera y Clavijo”
Most of the stay in the Canary Islands was spent in this centre as a result of the Kew Student’s Exchange Scheme.

The botanic garden was established in the island of Gran Canaria by the Swedish botanist E. Sventenius with the economic backing of the Insular Council (Cabildo Insular) 30 years ago.

D. Enrique, as he was known by the locals, was one of those people who merited the respect of not only his fellow scientists throughout the world but also the local people; everybody has a story to tell about this remarkable man. His name will pass to posterity if only because of Sventenia bupleuroides Font Quer. He discovered in the region of70 new species in the Canarian flora, eight subspecies and about 35 varieties.

The garden has the best collection of Macaronesian flora anywhere in the world. The collection includes endemic Macaronesian taxa, Canarian endemics and a fairly large collection of cacti. It has an extension of about 20 acres and is beautifully landscaped, making maximum use of the terrain. It comprises a hillside and a valley bed. The hillside can be climbed by a series of winding paths with an ingenious layout that does not spoil the overall natural look of the slope. Another very attractive feature of the garden are the small waterfalls. The story is told that when D. Enrique was building these little cascades he would move the small pieces of rock in numerous directions until the water running past sounded harmonious – he was a great lover of classical music.

The scientific section of the garden is carrying out work on gathering data on endemic populations in order to advise the Insular Council on their present status. Other fields of work include taxonomy, pollenology, cytology, seed bank and micro-propagation. There are only five fulltime biologists and 12 other scientists working on project grants, some of these projects include fauna.

As far as the botanic garden is concerned, the main problem is the total lack of trained gardening staff. For this reason the Director is considering setting upa training programme in conjunction with a local technical college to improve general gardening practice.

A great deal was learnt about conservation in the Canary Islands by listening to local people as well as scientists. Discussion on the establishment of conservation sites with planners, botanists, conservation groups, and Governmental Bodies plus visiting proposed areas was most revealing. Four hundred transparencies were taken during the visit.

As a result of my stay in “Viera y Clavijo” a small propagation mist unit was installed, although I never saw it fully operational as one of the components wasn’t in working order and it proved very difficult to acquire another in the island.

My thanks go to everybody that made this trip possible, in particular to the sponsors: Kew Student’s Exchange Scheme, Kew Guild, the Biological Council and Dr. F. A. Bisby.

I would also like to thank those people that helped me while in the Canary Islands, specially the Director of “Viera y Clavijo”, Dr. D. Bramwell, and Dr. Santos Guerra of I.N.I.A. who drove me personally around Tenerife.


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