Photos: Bob Drewes (Dendroaspis jamesoni)

ESTELA - Angus, what is a Basque biologist doing in São Tomé?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - First then some family history - the name Gascoigne is derived from the French region of Gascogne or the old kingdom of Vascon. In 1066 the Duke of Gascogne and supposedly many Basque soldiers accompanied the Norman William in his conquest of England and accordingly was rewarded with English estates - so I am probably one of his bastard descendants. On my mother's side I am more recently Scottish (Patersons and Ramseys) ... so one of those hybrids you like so much!

I came to São Tomé in 1989 to work as an advisor in the Ministry of Education and since 1992 have worked in a radio transmitting facility belonging to the international broadcasting department of the US government. I assure you absolutely nothing to do with the CIA - nothing so exciting and noone to listen to here!

ESTELA - The fauna and flora of the Gulf of Guinea islands are in the most part derived from the continent, whether Africa, Europe, America etc. What is the scientific explanation for this?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - The islands of Principe, São Tomé and Annobon are volcanic in origin and given the ocean depths between each other and the continent as well as their subaerial geological age cannot ever have been connected each other or to continental Africa. However, Bioko (formerly Fernando Po) is only 42 km from the continent in relatively shallow waters. During glacial periods when sea levels were significantly lower, this island would have been connected to the mainland.

Although the majority of species found on the islands are common to the African continent, the islands have a high level of species that are unique to each i.e. endemic, that is to say they only exist on the island in question and nowhere else in the world. Very few of these endemic species are shared between the islands. How do endemic species arrive? Two main theories - one that a species arrives on an island and evolves into a new form in response to the conditions it meets, secondly a species arrives on an island and then becomes extinct in its source region, a relict species. The mechanisms of dispersal from the continent are various: wind-born pollen, stranded birds, bats and insects blown off-course by a storm, floating on logs...

Bioko accordingly has many less endemic species having been connected to the continent approximately 10,000 years ago.

In the 15th century humans arrived - from Europe, from Africa - the islands were famous as a centre of the slave trade. With the arrival of humans new plants and animals were deliberately and accidentally introduced. So now the country hosts European slugs and a bastard Basque/Scot biologist!

ESTELA - One of your achievements on São Tomé was the rediscovery of a terrestrial species first recorded on the island even before the time of Francisco Newton ... Tell us about this species where and under what circumstances you found the animal. I'm referring to the "bivalve snail" ...

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - In the early 1990s a team from the Natural History Museum, London came to investigate the freshwater snail vector of the parasite that causes Schistosomiasis as part of a WHO project. One of their colleagues had requested that they pick up any shell samples of terrestrial gastropods they came across. A weekend visit with them to Bombaim resulted in several shell samples. On arriving back in London their colleague contacted me with the exciting news that Thyrophorella thomensis was amongst them. Off on a hunt for living examples ... these were soon found around Zampalma and at higher altitudes ... later to be photographed alive and published in BBC Wildlife.

Thyrophorella thomensis is unique among gastropods in that it has a hinged part of the shell at its opening that it closes behind itself as it retracts. Hence its English name the São Tomé Door Snail. As a result it has been placed scientifically in its own family - a monospecific, mono-generic family!

ESTELA - How does science explain the appearance of terrestrial molluscs on volcanic islands?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - Terrestrial gastropods disperse rather easily - their eggs and juvenile forms are very very small and can easily be dispersed on birds' feet, floating vegetation and even by wind. What is interesting on the islands of São Tomé and Principe is the existence of unusually large endemic species such as Arcachatina bicarinata, an endemic giant African land snail and Columna columna, with correspondingly large eggs and young. The former has sister species on the continent so how did it get here? The latter may have evolved from a smaller now extinct coloniser.

What is fascinating about the biodiversity of the islands is the study of how it began and developed. We are only just beginning to gain an insight into the many questions the islands' endemic species raise.

ESTELA - Thyrophorella, and other species for example of birds, remained invisible to science for some one hundred years, and only at the end of the 20th century did they begin to be rediscovered ... Some had even been listed as extinct. How do you explain the fact that naturalists had not found them?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - The history of natural history research in the islands has progressed erratically since the first collectors visited the islands during the 19th century. Francisco Newton's stay in the islands from 1885-1895 was the first concentrated effort to sample the islands' fauna, and to a lesser extent flora. His collections resulted in the description of many new species. However, his opportunity is rare in the scientific community - your normal field researcher can only visit a location for a few weeks, or at best months - Newton had 10 years! Later expeditions, particularly that of Arthur Wallis Exell in 1932 to collect plants, also resulted in the description of many new species (see his Catalogue of the Vascular Plants of São Tomé (with Principe and Annobon) published in 1944). However, between Exell and the 1990s very little natural history research was conducted in the islands. A number of short duration expeditions at very wide intervals did occur but failed to provide much new information. An exception is the work of Abbé René de Naurois in the late 60s and early 70s on the birds of São Tomé and Principe which called attention to the loss of habitat and the threatened status of some of the islands' birds - especially the Dwarf Olive Ibis, the São Tomé Fiscal Shrike, the São Tome Grosbeak (previously only known from Newton's specimens), the São Tomé Short-tail and the Principe Thrush.

ESTELA - The mamba was also recorded in São Tomé in the 19th century but no naturalist has ever seen it on the island. Because you were writing about it and wanted more information, we have on TriploV a section entitled "The Mamba of São Tomé", with most of the primary sources. Is the story concluded? Have you discovered something new? The snake or some joke?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - The famous São Tomé mamba! Your pages on the TriploV site describe it all! Carl Weiss collected it "somewhere" in the 1840s but also collected on the continent on the same expedition, Moller supposedly collected it in 1885 but was famous for receiving specimens from all and sundry over many years, Newton, whose knowledge of the islands I must respect, does not believe it and thinks everyone confuses the harmless slender endemic Philothamnus thomensis with a mamba (as did Fea at first) ... and nothing since! Although as I write a European correspondent claims it lives on Principe as a Swiss collector is said to have purchased a mamba though the exotic pet trade whose origin was given as Principe! For me the story is closed ... mislabelled examples etc. It is remotely possible there is a yet-to-be-described Philothamnus on Principe (an endemic species on São Tomé, another on Annobon) but it must be very rare ...


PHOTOS: Soá-soá (Philothamnus thomensis)

ESTELA - What other species were discovered or rediscovered on this extraordinary island?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - As well as the rediscovered bird species previously mentioned, a new species of bat was discovered in the late 1980s, various new invertebrate species (insects, snails etc). A new endemic species of the fruit-fly genus Drosophilla, so important to genetic research, was also discovered in the late 90s. And we have also a pantropical species of Scorpion in São Tomé. Surely it wasn't here in the Newton time because it is relatively common in the North of the island, but not very known by the population.

ESTELA - Which animal species for you best characterise the fauna of São Tomé? Those that the population knows well or those that are rarely or never seen? For me, a writer above all, but who has never been to the islands, the most interesting species are Thyrophorella, the mamba and the terrapins (Pelusios) ...

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - You're asking two different things! Those that the population knows well and those they don't. Given that most of the population are the descendants of immigrants (mostly slaves and contract laborers), their knowledge of the endemic fauna and flora of the islands is limited. For example, only one of the local repertoire of medicinal plants is endemic. Some of the endemic bird species that adapted to the coffee and cocoa plantation habitat that evolved in the late 19th century are well-known - the Truqui-sum-Deus (São Tomé Prinia) lives in the city and wakes me up every morning with its incredible wing-clapping sky-diving courtship displays, the Selele (São Tomé Sunbird), Tomé-gagá (São Tomé Paradise Flycatcher) are all well known as they adapted to man-altered habitats, the African Grey Parrot on Principe, the introduced monkey and civet cat ...

Biologically, Thyrophorella is fascinating. Myonycteris brachycephala is an endemic bat species with the only asymmetric dental formula amongst mammals the world over! It has one central tooth at the front of the lower jaw - you and I, in common with cats, horses, dogs, elephants etc, have two! The begonias, Begonia crateris and B. baccata are over ten times as big as other begonias, Leptopelis palmatus on Principe is Africa's biggest treefrog. Giant birds - the São Tomé Grosbeak, the Maroon Pigeon and the Giant Sunbird ... How did the São Tomé Shrew (Crocidura thomensis), our only endemic terrestrial mammal, get here given it needs to eat every hour of the day? How did the endemic frogs, the endemic caecilian arrive here? Amphibians cannot resist salt water.The freshwater terrapin is common and not endemic - it could even have been introduced but, as you say, they are nice animals. The mamba as I said appears to be a fiction.

ESTELA - There is a very strange passage in one of Francisco Newton's letters. He says he has never had fever, which contradicts all his other letters, where he complains of his illness, with delirium, high fevers, taking quinine etc. Do you think it is possible to live in São Tomé for ten years without ever being attacked by malaria? How is it today? Do you get ill once or more a year or not?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - Four out of ten deaths in São Tomé and Principe are related to malaria. But yes some people have resistance. I hear anecdotes from Santomense friends who passed 20 years without, went to study abroad for four years, came back and succumbed. I get it once or twice a year - usually when my immune system is weak because I have an infected cut and am on antibiotics or have flu or such like and my antibodies are low. I've also read that people with half the genetic make-up for sickle-cell anaemia (much more prevalent amongst African populations than Caucasian) are afforded more protection and that the evolution of this condition may have been in response to malaria. Prevent as much as possible, treat it quickly and effectively and it should not be a killer - I've lost count how many times I've had it and I'm not dead yet! Maybe Newton had the sickle-cell anaemia protection, maybe he drank alot of gin and tonics!

ESTELA - You are the webmaster of the Gulf of Guinea Islands' Biodiversity Network website which belongs to the Gulf of Guinea Conservation Group: http://www, How is the site integrated with the activities of biologists in São Tomé?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - The Gulf of Guinea Conservation Group arose out of a seminar at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust in 1993 which brought together Spanish, Portuguese and British scientists working on the biodiversity of the Gulf of Guinea islands. The proceedings of the seminar were published in the scientific journal Biodiversity and Conservation (1994: 3(9)). A somewhat ambitious plan to form a transnational NGO committed to the study and conservation of the islands' biodiversity was proposed at the seminar which, unfortunately, has never occurred. However, a loose but active network of scientists working on or interested in the biodiversity of the islands has evolved, the focal point of which at the current time is the website. Rate of contributions comes and goes and the website could be more sophisticated but we do publish important news on occasion such as the first ever photo of the São Tomé Grosbeak (Neospiza concolor) in August last year.

ESTELA - On your site you are now publishing old reports about the islands in the original using text scans as in the case of Archer P. Crouch's "Glimpses of Feverland" who was in the islands in Newton's time. How do you think these reports will contribute to science?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - Anecdotal, statistical, economic and other accounts of the islands all provide marvellous insights into the development of the islands through history. For example, the annual financial reports of the various companies that owned the cocoa etc plantations at the beginning of the century give information on the amount of land cleared, the number of cocoa trees, palms etc planted, the Africans contracted, the number who died - this is all useful information for the evaluation of how the habitats available on these islands change and evolve over time and how human activity may have impacted on the indigenous wildlife, and, of course, the history of the islands. They also provide often amusing accounts of people, customs and traditions both European and African.

ESTELA - You are always asking that more be written about Francisco Newton, but as I have explained, I have no further information. What I do have are Leonardo Fea's letters, but there are only about ten or so, part of which I have transcribed in the story of Newton. I could write about Leonardo Fea, but what is it that interest you more? The story of Leonardo Fea is much poorer than that of Newton from a humouristic viewpoint... The biggest joke is the fact that some of his insect collections appear in Caconda, in the Rio Cacine ...

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - Leonardo Fea died soon after returning to Europe (from fever?). Although it seems he visited few localities on São Tomé, having based himself at only two or three easily accessible low altitude plantations, he collected an immense amount of material, principally invertebrate, deposited at the museum in Geneva, which were studied by many renowned scientists for many years afterwards. His collections do provide an enormous contribution to our knowledge of the islands' fauna.

ESTELA - On the TriploV site I have put the preface of Boyd Alexander's "On the Birds of Fernando Po" and his map of the island, today called Bioko, which is one of my favourite examples of subversion in science because he invents localities such as Banterbari and locates the island in the South Atlantic. Francisco Newton explored Fernando Po in 1894-95 and with the collections he made Bocage published a catalogue in which no new species were described and all of which are also known from the continent. Boyd Alexander, accompanied by the poet José Lopes da Silva, made a new exploration in 1902 and discovered some 30 new species, almost all of which were only known from the island. I don't know if all these species remain valid and if anyone has found them since ...

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - I'll talk about this referring to the work of Jaime Perez del Val who is the current expert on the birds of Bioko (Perez del Val, J. 1996. Las Aves de Bioko, Guinea Ecuatorial - Guia de Campo. Edilesa, Leon, Spain). It seems that Newton added various species to the Bioko bird fauna "[Newton] es el primer colector de vertebrados que corona la cima del Pico Basilé y consigue realizar una importante contribución a la lista de aves de la isla añadiendo 13 especies a las ya conocidas desde los tiempos de Fraser, entre ellas el endémico Miopito de Fernando Poo (Speirops brunneus). Sin embargo, su labor no se centra exclusivamente en las aves y ello permite que sólo siete años despues el incansable teniente Boyd Alexander y su colector portugués, J. Lopes, consigan en dos meses aumentar de forma considerable el número de las aves de Bioko con 51 nuevas adiciones."

These new additions to Bioko's bird fauna, some of which were considered endemic at the time, were later to be found on the mainland thus losing their endemic status. Today only one endemic species of bird is recognised from Bioko, along with several endemic subspecies. Our knowledge of the biodiversity of the four islands is in fact much better than that of neighbouring areas on the continent. Various species, such as Begonia annobonensis and Begonia thomeana were first discovered on the islands and only later found on the continent.

Although Boyd Alexander's map places Bioko in the "South Atlantic Ocean" the indicated latitudes clearly place it in the northern hemisphere. It is interesting to note that the map originated with the Roman Catholic missionaries on the island "with corrections and additions" by Alexander. How did Banterbari Beach originate? Bantebare and Bantebare Pequeno are marked on the 1979 1:100,000 map of Bioko. Praia de Algés on the 1950s São Tomé map is commonly referred to as Pinheira or Pinheira Praia because it belonged to the inland Roca Pinheira from which a railway line ran down to Praia de Algés for transporting agricultural produce by sea to the capital. Certainly on maps of São Tomé and Príncipe over the centuries place names have changed significantly. Even some of Newton's collecting locations are now untraceable. On Bioko confusion between native Bubi, English, Spanish and Portuguese placenames is bound to have occurred - Sta Isabel the main town of the island of Fernando Poo is now known as Malabo on the island of Bioko. The island of Annobon was in the 1970s renamed Pagalu (Pai do Galo) only to revert to its original name in the 1990s.

ESTELA - In a Santomense family whose members have through generations always been born with dark eyes, skin and hairm there suddenly appears a child with white skin and blue eyes ... How does biology explain this?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE - Without going into great details on genetics, São Tomé e Príncipe is a huge melting pot of ethnic groups - every shade of colour found on the African coast from Angola to Guinea-Bissau plus every shade of European and then every shade that results from these mixtures. Show me a Forro family in São Tomé without European "genes" in the family history? Methinks not. Add to this more recent immigrants from Cape Verde (already the same mixture), plus Chinese, Indian, English. Several "black" Forro families have Chinese names - Loi Heng, Lau Chong etc. Smith is another (black) Santomense family name with white relatives in the UK! A Mozambican and an Angolan give birth to ... a Creole society.

ESTELA - São Tomé was formerly the jewel of the Portuguese crown due to cocoa. How is life on the island today, what are its problems and its natural riches?

ANGUS GASCOIGNE -Today São Tomé e Príncipe is a beautiful country. Annobon (part of Equatorial Guinea) as much so. São Tomé e Príncipe is economically unviable unless the promise of oil arrives. Malaria is rife, the major cause of mortality, and impedes the development of industries such as tourism. Reforms in agriculture are removing people from the slum quarters (sanzalas) of the plantations to houses on their own fields, the markets are full of produce and imports, the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer. Under the one-party regime there was nothing in the shops and there were no beggars, today the shops are full, and we have street children and old people sleeping rough. The currency has now stabilised. And there will be no war, no massacres - everyone is family.

The remaining primary forests are difficult to access, affording them protection. However, no protected area legislation is currently in place. This must surely be a priority for the conservation of the country's biodiversity. The coastline also needs protection - many beaches on São Tomé have already been severely damaged by sand extraction for construction. If São Tomé e Príncipe finds oil, it will be able to afford to protect these natural riches adequately. However, such wealth will also put other pressures on the environment in what is essentially a global micro-habitat.

This is a marvellous country which, even after my 12 years here, still offers much to discover and enjoy!