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In the Canary Islands -Tenerife and La Gomera forest fires threaten endangered species

Updated on February 20, 2016

Canary Island fires are a serious threat

For the last few days here in Tenerife helicopters have been going across the sky carrying water. They have been fighting very serious forest fires on Tenerife and La Gomera in the Canary Islands.

You may have seen the news because it has been reported not just locally but in international news. This is because thousands of people have had to be evacuated and ancient laurel forests have been destroyed, some of which are thought to date back millions of years and are some of the only remaining stretches of this woodland on the planet.

Erjos after fires in 2007

Erjos after forest fires in 2007. Photo by Steve Andrews
Erjos after forest fires in 2007. Photo by Steve Andrews

Tenerife forest fires in Erjos

News reports have said that the main fires in Tenerife began either in the village of Erjos or in El Tanque which is in the same locality. Either way the forests and farmland in the area of Erjos were caught in the blaze that spread a lot further. Very sadly Erjos, which has a number of freshwater ponds that create a real haven for wildlife in ‘normal’ years, was already burned badly back in 2007. Shrubs and trees were still recovering and it appears that many have been burned again.

Winter Drought

Tenerife and the Canary Islands are suffering the worst drought in 70 years and it began last autumn and carried on through the winter months. Usually this is the rainy season and when the ponds in Erjos fill with water to last them throughout the year. This time around it didn’t happen due to the winter drought and the ponds were already drying up or dried up back in March.

Much wildlife depends on these ponds because there is a severe lack of natural freshwater habitats on the island. Waterfowl such as Coots and Herons can be seen there and the two species of frog found on Tenerife breed in the ponds.

Bolle's Laurel Pigeon

Bolle's Pigeon Source: Wikipedia
Bolle's Pigeon Source: Wikipedia

Monte del Agua and the Laurel Forests

Right by the ponds of Erjos is a trail that leads up on to the surrounding mountains and into the forests. These forests are mostly “Laurisilva”, which is basically evergreen Laurel forest. The forested area is known as Monte del Agua (“Mountain of Water”), and usually this is an apt description. The woodlands are normally soaked by thunderstorms in autumn and winter and then kept cool and damp by frequent cloud cover, but not this year.

The Laurel forests are home to some very rare birds and protected plant species. The endangered laurel pigeons known as Bolle’s Pigeon (Columba bollii) and the White-tailed Laurel Pigeon (C. junoniae) both live and breed in this mountainous forest region. They feed on fruits of the evergreen trees that grow there.

Canary Island's Foxglove

Canary Islands Foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis) Photo by Steve Andrews
Canary Islands Foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis) Photo by Steve Andrews

Canary Island Bellflower

Canary Island Bellflower. Photo by Steve Andrews
Canary Island Bellflower. Photo by Steve Andrews

Protected species of wild flower

Many very beautiful endemic wild flowers grow in these forests too. In spring a walk in the woodlands there is a sheer delight because many are in bloom then. Several of them are protected species.

The Canary Islands Foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis) which has pretty spikes of orange-red flowers is one of these. It is protected under Annexe II of the regional order regulating conservation of plantlife in the Canary Islands.

So too is the Canary Island Geranium (Geranium canariense), a medicinal herb very similar but larger than the common British and European Herb Robert (G. robertianum).

The evergreen Canary Islands Buckthorn (Rhamnus glandulosa) is a shrub protected under the same regulations and happens to be the food-plant for the very pretty yellow Cleopatra Butterfly (Gonepteryx cleobule). It is not just the birds and plants affected but also insects such as this butterfly that depend on this sort of habitat for their livelihood.

The equally beautiful Cardinal Butterfly (Argynnis pandora), which is a species of fritillary also breeds in these forests. Its caterpillars feed on the Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) that flower in spring in these woodlands.

The Canary Island Bellflower (Canarina canariensis) is yet another protected endemic wildflower found growing in these unique laurel forests.

Stripeless Tree Frog

Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla meriodonalis)  Photo by Robbi of Finca Alternativa
Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla meriodonalis) Photo by Robbi of Finca Alternativa

Other wildlife

Birds and butterflies can fly away but many small animals cannot do so. Tenerife Lizards (Gallotia galloti) and the Algerian Hedgehog (Erinaceus algirus) both come into this category and would perish horribly in the blaze.

Where can frogs go in a forest fire? The two species found on Tenerife, the Stripeless or Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla meriodonalis) and the Iberian Water Frog (Rana perezii) both breed in the ponds of Erjos. For these amphibians it will have been bad enough that the pools they use have been dried up by the drought without the additional threat to their survival caused by wildfires.

Most of the media reports have been concentrating on the serious problems people have been suffering due to these disasters but wildlife are in many cases in a worst state and dead. Some very rare species of flora and fauna may be pushed over the brink into extinction by these wildfires.

The Island Connections newspaper's Facebook site has reported that Juanjo Ramos Melo, who is a local expert in ornithology, has more or less confirmed this and has claimed that many insects, animals and bird species have been affected by the fires, and that some of these are only found in the area. He is reported to have stated that the disaster has caused "Incalculable damage".

Arson?

Could this terrible ecological disaster be the work of an arsonist? That is the question being asked now. Police in La Gomera have arrested a suspect over there, and in Tenerife, local mayor Santiago Martín has told reporters that there were "indications" the fire in Erjos was started deliberately.

Back in 2007, the fires that swept across the island were known to be the work of an arsonist who was sadly never caught, and in Gran Canaria, a former forestry worker was arrested for setting fire to the forests there.

It is difficult to understand what goes on in the minds of the men who commit arson. Surely they must know how much suffering and damage they can cause by their acts? They act like psychopaths.

La Gomera

La Gomera

In La Gomera, which at time of writing (13 August) was still on fire it is said that as much as one tenth of the National Park forest has been destroyed. The central region of the island has some of the finest surviving laurel forest in the world, or had. Parque Nacional de Garajonay is a World Heritage site.

The Barranco del Vallehermoso has some endangered endemic species of plants including the spurge Euphorbia bravoana, which according to David and Zöe Bramwell’s Wild Flowers of the Canary Islands is a very rare species found on some of the cliffs in the region.

The El Cedro forest at the head of the Hermigua valley is noted for its incredible list of endemic flora and for being one of the truly ancient stretches of this laurel forest said to date back millions of years. There are some very old specimens of Laurel (Laurus azorica) with massive trunks growing in this forest. The fires were heading for the El Cedro area in earlier reports today.

Thousands of people have had to be evacuated in La Gomera and special ferries have been laid on to take people to safety. Reports have said that the La Gomera government is asking to be declared a National Emergency, and Valle Gran Rey to be on alert for evacuation.

As I type this a fire-fighting helicopter has just gone over and so that means the fires are still blazing. While the UK has had one of the wettest summers ever here in the Canary Islands we can only hope and pray for rain!

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