Santo Mountain Chain Key Biodiversity Area

Espiritu Santo is the largest Island in Vanuatu with a total land mass of 423,897 hectares. Santo currently holds a population of ~40,000 people. According to Land and Survey Office on Santo, the island has 284,300 ha of forest, or 40% of the land is forest cover. The Rainforests on Santo contain 15 bird species and several mammal species found nowhere else in the world. On Santo, unique communities of montane Agathis and Podocarpus, with low altitude montane forest on exposed peaks or islands, and composed of Metrosideros, Syzygium, Weinmannia, etc. Some forest areas are dominated by tree ferns or bamboos, some by palms and pandans. The remote West Coast of Santo is home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Altitudinal gradients provide opportunities for montane endemics, such as the Santo mountain starling (Aplonis santovestris) of Santo, add diversity to high island faunas that is not possible on low islands in Vanuatu. For this reason, the Government of Vanuatu has designated the West Coast of Santo as a Key Biodiversity Hotspot.
The biodiversity of the Santo Mountain Chain is seriously threatened largely due to ecosystem degradation, which results in the endangerment or depletion of these species and ecosystems. An analysis of the IUCN Red List reveals the major threats to Santo’s plant and animal species to be habitat loss and introduction of invasive species. In addition, frequent extreme weather events and natural disasters, coupled with the projected future impacts of climate change and sea-level rise are also significant threats to biodiversity on West Coast Santo. Since independence, a number of factors have led to an escalation in the scale and intensity of threats to biodiversity in the West Santo Key Biodiversity Area. The dominant development paradigm has been one of growth and increased production, with little concern for the environment. There exist a number of constraints to effective protection of the environment on West Coast Santo, including lack of information on biodiversity, lack of taxonomic expertise, poor understanding of environmental issues among the general population, and poor integration of environmental issues into national, provincial or community development planning. Addressing these constraints would go a long way towards providing solutions to the root causes of biodiversity loss within the Santo Mountain Chain hotspot. Category 5 destructive cyclone Harold caused extensive damage to the environment of West Coast Santo in April 2020, particularly to vulnerable forest systems. Merremia peltata (Big Lif) is also visible on almost every part of the island, found along the coast to the interior. The vine is especially aggressive in areas disturbed by logging. A Santo Island’s terrestrial animal communities are highly vulnerable to climate change, especially those that have limited distributions, are adapted to narrow altitudinal ranges, or have evolved symbiotic relationships with other species. Such species are more vulnerable than widespread species because they generally have smaller overall population sizes, and because their distribution gets smaller as their preferred climate niche increases in elevation, until the species eventually gets “pushed off” the mountain top. This last factor suggests that montane species are more vulnerable than lowland species inhabiting high islands, because they are less well able to “track” shifts in climatic conditions.
There are less than 15 registered Community Conservation Areas in Vanuatu at present, three of which are located in the West Coast Santo region (Tabwemasana CCA in Kerepua, EdenHope Nature Preserve in Tasmate and Penoru CCA). However, there are more than 18 villages that have made requests to government for support to register their CCAs. Due to lack of government resources, and no on-ground support, these communities have not yet been able to receive the support they require.
The Santo Sunset Environment Network is working to support all communities on the West Coast and North West Santo to protect and preserve its cultural and environmental heritage.

Scientific Study on West Coast Santo