The Savage Islands are a small Archipelago belonging to the Madeira autonomous region. They mark the southernmost point of Portugal and lay 280 kilometres south-southeast of Madeira and 165 kilometres north of the Canaries. The archipelago consists of two areas, the Northeast and the Southwest group. The Northeast group is composed of Selvagem Grande (the largest of the islands) and three surrounding islets (Sinho Islet, Palheiro do Mar and Palheiro da Terra). The island of Selvagem Pequena, Ilhéu de Fora and a number of small to tiny islets surrounding them form the Southwest Group. Typical for Macaronesian islands, the Savage Islands were formed by volcanic activity and shaped by erosion and sedimentation.
Thanks to their reputation of being pirate treasure islands, several treasure hunters have tried their luck to recover gold and other valuables, but without success…
Through history, several attempts of colonising the islands were made. After being owned privately for a long time, the Portuguese government acquired the islands in 1971 and turned them into a Nature Reserve making it the oldest Portuguese nature reserve. Today a Portuguese family inhabits the islands (known as “the guardians of the Savages”), as well as a permanent team of wardens from Instituto das Florestas e Conservação da Natureza and a maritime police force.
The marine protected area (MPA) includes all the landmasses of the islands and the surrounding waters up to a depth of 200 meters. In this MPA commercial and recreational fishing are prohibited.
Why is it important?
With a total surface of 2.73 square kilometres located in the North Atlantic Ocean the Savage Islands are a paradise for seabirds. But up until the 1960’s this was a dangerous place for them as they were hunted for feathers, oil and meat, which reduced their population numbers drastically.
Especially, the Cory’s shearwater (Calonectris borealis) was a valuable target and it has been estimated that per hunting season up to 22 000 birds were killed. Nowadays about 30 000 breeding pairs of this species find a safe refuge on the Savage Islands to breed and feed on the rich waters. Other breeding marine birds include the Audubon’s shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri baroli), the White-faced storm petrel (Pelagodroma marina), the Madeira storm petrel (Hydrobates castro), the Bulwer’s petrel (Bulweria bulwerii).
Throughout history, the Savage Islands have been subject to very few introductions of non-native species, contributing to a very intact flora. The density of endemic terrestrial plants is remarkable in a global context (there are 7 endemic species in the Savage Islands). The flora is mainly shrubs and bushes adapted to the arid climate of the islands. Endemic species include the shrubby chrysanthemum (Argyranthemum thalassophilum) listed as endangered by the IUCN, the Savage Islands snapdragon (Misopates salvagense), the Lowe’s stonecrop (Monanthes lowei) and the shrubby spurge (Euphorbia obtusifolia). Other important plants are the ice plant (Mesembryanthemum crystallinum) and the Egyptian fig marigold (Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum), as they fix the sandy soil, which is especially important for ground nesting birds.
Recently, a gecko has been accepted as a separate species, making the Island of Selvagem Grande the only place in the world where the Savage Gecko (Tarentola bischoffi) occurs.
But not just the land, also the waters surrounding the Savage Islands are teeming of life. The clear and pristine waters left French explorer and conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau to believe he found the cleanest waters in the world. In 2015 an expedition to survey the region and document the state of the marine ecosystems (by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas and with the support of the Waitt Foundation), found the ecosystems of the Savage islands and surrounding waters to be one of the most pristine in the north Atlantic.
There are some companies offering trips to the Savage Islands, yet these islands are hard to reach and require prior permission. If you do not have the option to travel there, check out the movie about the National Geographic expedition and explore how the islands feel like.