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Savage Islands

Savage Islands (Ilhas Selvagens)
Island (Ilha)
A reef along the coast of Selvagem Pequena, the smaller of the main islands
Name origin: selvagem, Portuguese for savage
Country  Portugal
Autonomous Region  Madeira
Location Tore-Madeira Ridge, African Tectonic Plate, Atlantic Ocean
Municipalities Funchal
Civil Parishes
Highest point Pico da Atalaia
 - location Selvagem Grande, Funchal, Madeira
 - elevation 163 m (535 ft)
Lowest point Sea level
 - location Atlantic Ocean
 - elevation 0 m (0 ft)
Biomes Temperate, Mediterranean
Geology Alkali basalt, Tephra, Trachyte, Trachybasalt
Orogeny Volcanism
Period Holocene
Location of the Savage Islands in the archipelago of Madeira
Wikimedia Commons:
Statistics: Instituto Nacional de Estatística[1]
Geographic detail from CAOP (2010)[2] produced by Instituto Geográfico Português (IGP)

The Savage Islands (Portuguese: Ilhas Selvagens IPA: ) are a small Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic, nearly midway between Madeira and the Canary Islands.[3][4]

The archipelago comprises two major islands and several islets of varying sizes, in two areas: Selvagem Grande and Selvagem Pequena.[3] The archipelago is administered by the Portuguese municipality of Funchal, belongs to the Madeiran civil parish of , and is the southernmost point of Portugal.

It was designated a natural reserve in 1971, recognizing its role as a very important nidification point for several species of birds. Since then, the decreasing bird populations (namely Cory's shearwater) and nearby waters have been more closely protected by the Portuguese government. Given its status, remoteness and few fresh water sources, it is inhabited only by reserve staff, scientists conducting research on its wildlife, a Portuguese family and a small Portuguese Navy detachment. [5]

The self-sustaining status of the islands is disputed by Spain.[4] Their habitability determines whether they should be seen as islands or rocks, which has strong consequences for the definition of the southernmost border of the Portuguese EEZ (with Spain), currently under evaluation by the United Nations' Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.[6]


  • History 1
  • Geography 2
    • Biome 2.1
    • Climate 2.2
  • Dispute over the EEZ 3
    • Event timeline 3.1
      • 19th century 3.1.1
      • 20th century 3.1.2
      • 21st century 3.1.3
  • Accidents 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Location of the archipelago between the Canaries and archipelago of Madeira
The Portuguese Navy ship NRP Schultz Xavier anchored near the island of Selvagem Pequena

It is believed by some authors that the islands were known even before Diogo Gomes de Sintra discovered them by chance in 1438. Although the Canary Islands had been inhabited by the Guanches, humans are not known to ever have set foot on the Madeira archipelago or the Savage Islands before the Portuguese discoveries and expansion.[4] Consequently, this island group presented itself to Portuguese navigators uninhabited.

The first attempted settlement of the islands occurred around 1438 by the Portuguese, although little details remain of this endeavour. The eldest retained description of the colonization was written around 1463 by the Portuguese mariner Diogo Gomes de Sintra. Gomes wrote that the islands were used to collect "ursellam", as a base for red paint/dyes; "ursellam" referred to the lichens of the scientific families Roccellaceae and Parmeliaceae.[4][7] In those days, the islands of the Atlantic (the Azores and Madeira) belonged to Henry the Navigator, the Grandmaster of the Order of Christ (the Portuguese successor to the Knights Templar in Portugal). However, the islands were generally omitted from the lists of their possessions.

By the 16th century the Savage Islands were held by a family from Madeira, known as Teixeiras Caiados.[4] How they found themselves under Caiados control is unknown. In 1560 they were given to João Cabral de Noronha.[4] After 1717 they are recorded in wills, inheritances, inventories and other documents. Between 1774 and 1831 taxes were paid to the king. The islands were also recorded in the books of the Conservatória do Registo Predial of Funchal.

From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the islands were used for different economic activities, such as collecting Cory's shearwaters for their oil and meat.[8]

The islands have a reputation as "pirate's treasure islands", and there are many stories of treasure hunting. According to reliable primary documents, at least four times (in 1813, 1851, 1856 and 1948), serious dig attempts were made to recover the supposed treasures but nothing was found.[9]

In 1904 the islands were sold to Luís Rocha Machado.

The Permanent Commission of International Maritime Law gave sovereignty of the Savage Islands to Portugal on 15 February 1938. Given that the Spanish Civil War was raging at the time the Commission made its ruling, the Spanish government was unable to participate in the inquiry and subsequent ruling, nor appeal the decision.

In 1959, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) became interested in the islands and signed a contract/promise with the owner, Luís Rocha Machado. In 1971 the Portuguese government intervened and acquired the islands, converting them into a nature reserve. The Savage Islands Reserve was created as part of the Madeira Nature Park; it is one of the oldest nature reserves of Portugal and it also includes the surrounding shelf to a depth of 200 metres (220 yd). In 1976, permanent surveillance began, and in 1978 the reserve was elevated to the status of Nature Reserve. In 2002, part of the nature reserve was nominated for UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites: they are currently included in the tentative World Heritage Site list.

Today the Savage Islands have a permanent team of wardens from Madeira Nature Park (on Selvagem Grande there is a permanent research station with two wardens year-round, while Selvagem Pequena is manned usually by two wardens between May and October). These and the Zino family, (a family of British origin, known as "the guardians of the Savages") are the only human inhabitants on the islands. [10]


Aerial photograph of the Northeastern Group, that includes Selvagem Grande
Aerial photograph of the Southwestern Group, includes several islets and Selvagem Pequena

The Savage Islands are part of the Macaronesia, the name used to designate the island groups of the North Atlantic Ocean, near Europe and off the coast of Morocco in North Africa. The archipelago lies about 280 km (174 mi) from Madeira, and 165 km (103 mi) from the Canary Islands. The islands are considered to be a column branch that extends from Canary Islands at a 3,000 m (9,843 ft) depth. The total land area of the Savage Islands is 2.73 km2 (1.05 sq mi). With little fresh water and surrounded by dangerous reefs (which makes limited access difficult), the archipelago consists of two major islands and several islets, in two groups about 15 km (9 mi) apart, designated:

  • Northeast Group - includes the main island of Selvagem Grande (2000 x 1700 m) and three small islets: Sinho Islet (Portuguese:Ilhéu Sinho), Palheiro do Mar, and Palheiro da Terra.
  • Southwest Group - including the main island of Selvagem Pequena (800 x 500 m) and Fora Islet (Portuguese: Ilhéu de Fora, 500 x 300 m), also called Great Piton and Little Piton respectively, it is surrounded by a group of very small islets (Alto, Comprido and Redondo) and a group collectively known as the Northern Islets (Portuguese: Ilhéus do Norte).

The islands' physical characteristics are the consequences of mountain-forming and volcanic forces that occurred between 60 and 70 million years ago, typical of many of the islands of Macaronesia. The islands were created during the late Miocene period, from a large submarine volcano and shaped by erosion and marine sedimentation. The larger islands and islet (Grande, Pequena and Fora, respectively) are the remnants of the peaks of these submarine mounts, and although located north of the Canaries, they were never connected to the African continent. The islands themselves are crossed by many calcareous faults, some marbleized, and made of basaltic rock, ash, and other volcanic materials. On many of the islands there are remnants of extinct cones, such as Atalaia (Selvagem Grande), Tornozelos and Veado. Other areas are sand covered from extensive aeolian, fluvial and marine erosion; headlands include Atalaia and Leste on Selvagem Grande, and Norte, Oeste, Leste and Garajaus on Selvagem Pequena.


Cory's shearwater roosting in her nest within the crags on the island of Selvagem Pequena
The Lobularia canariensis an endemic species, native to the Macaronesia, an annual plant which grows 10–40 cm (4–16 in) tall, with oblong-oval leaves and white flowers

The scientific and natural interest of this tiny group of islands lies in its marine biodiversity, its unique flora and many avian species that breed annually on its rock cliffs or use them on their stopover on normal migratory patterns. About 3% of the 9000 species of birds are marine species, the remaining are migratory species. The abundance of birds on the islands, at one time, made the islands an attractive hunting area for peoples of the region. At the end of the 19th century the German naturalist Ernst Schmitz noted that 20–22,000 Cory's shearwaters were hunted in September or October in the islands;[11] the hunts continued until 1967. Madeiran expeditions to the islands were responsible for the killing of juvenile birds, for food, while their down was used to stuff pillows and comforters. Presently the islands are home or stopover for: Cory's shearwaters (approximately 14,000), white-faced storm-petrel (12,000), Bulwer's petrel (500), North Atlantic little shearwater (500), Madeiran storm-petrel (1000), yellow-legged gull, the roseate tern and Berthelot's pipit; which are subjects of annual scientific expeditions. Many of theses species are vulnerable to local predators, primarily from populations of brown rat and predatory bird species, like the yellow-legged gull, which will consume both eggs and chicks (the white-faced storm-petrel and Bulwer's petrel are primarily susceptible). These islands also have many endemic fauna species, including local snails and the unique gecko Tarentola boettgeri bischoffi.

As a consequence of limited introduction, more than 100 species of indigenous plants have been cataloged (most creeping plants and bushes). These plants are similar in many respects to indigenous species on the islands of Madeira and the Canaries, who are better suited to dry arid environments. Germination of these species occurs immediately and briefly after annual showers, and include: Erva-gelada, Lotus salvagensis and Lotus paicae (species of the Fabaceae family), Chrysanthemum sarmentoi, Scilla maderensis, Argyranthemum thalassophilum and the Lobulariacanariensis. Selvagem Pequena and the Fora Islet are the richest floral repositories, since they were never populated by non-indigenous animals or plants. For a period, some indigenous plants (primarily Roccella tinctoria and other lichens of the family Nemari) were harvested from the islands to support the dye industry of Europe, primarily to England and Flanders in the 15th and 16th centuries, but these adventures were discontinued later.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau once found what he believed was "the cleanest waters in the world" around this minor archipelago; there is an abundance of marine activity, many endemic to the environment, including the barred hogfish, puffer fish (Tetraodontidae), sea spider and many species of sea urchin. At depth of about 30 m the waters around the islands/islets are teeming with algae and many species of migratory species of common fish, from the islands of Cape Verde, Madeira and the Canaries routinely

Although there are commercial tours of the islands and their biomes are available, all visitors have to require authorization from the Madeira Natural Park, the regional environmental authority.[3]


Annual temperatures hover around 17–19 °C, generally exceeding those in Madeira (defined as a subtropical maritime climate), while sea temperatures remain comfortable all year round. Due to its warm arid climate and geomorphological characteristics, the Savage Islands are exposed to strong coastal winds that reduce precipitation to less than 500 mm annually. These indicators, define the outcroppings as deserts, climatically.[4] The islands' low altitudes do not allow significant precipitation, and what little freshwater flows over the islands/islets are filtered away through the porous sediments.

Dispute over the EEZ

Portugal places its southernmost Exclusive Economic Zone claim south of the Savage Islands. Spain objects on the basis that the Savage Islands do not have a separate continental shelf,[12] maintaining that the border should consist on an equidistant line drawn halfway between Madeira and the Canaries. According to article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." [13] The status of the Savage Islands as islands or rocks is thus at the core of the dispute. Despite the islands having numerous visitors, mostly for scientific purposes, and the fact that several settlements were tried throughout the centuries, today the Savage Islands are a special natural reserve whose only year-round inhabitants are the wardens of Madeira's Natural Park. Over the years, apart from the EEZ debate, a number of issues pertaining to the Savage Islands led to disputes between the two countries, namely the construction of a lighthouse, the administration of airspace (done from the closer Canary Islands), the right to perform military air exercises, and, most importantly, illegal fishing and poaching in the archipelago and its vicinity.[14]

Event timeline

19th century

  • 1880s – In an 1881 Maritime Signalization Commission meeting, Spain requested the building of a lighthouse on the islands. The Portuguese recognized the importance of the lighthouse to the Canary Islands sea route, but deemed it not a priority at the time. In response, the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that "...the sovereignty of the islands is unclear".

20th century

  • 1910s – In 1911, given the lack of action over the requested lighthouse, Spain said it would build it on its own (and annex the archipelago). After a Portuguese protest questioning what it termed "Spanish confusion" over the issue, Spain said its intention was to reach an agreement "in the most amicable terms". In 1913, the Portuguese Navy conducted a survey, led by Admiral Schultz Xavier, of the Selvagem Grande Island and recommended Pico da Atalaia as the best location for the lighthouse.
  • 1930s – On February 15, 1938, the Permanent Commission of International Maritime Law declared Portugal as the legitimate sovereign over the islands on February 15. The Spanish government, however, was in the midst of fighting the Spanish Civil War and did not have the opportunity to present its case to the Commission.
  • 1970s – In 1971, the Portuguese government bought the islands from their previous Madeiran owner, and decreed the creation of a natural reserve in the archipelago to protect the area from illegal fishing and poaching, which had severely reduced the bird populations in recent years. In 1972, two Spanish civilian boats, San Pedro de Abona and Áries, were arrested near the islands. In 1975, fishermen from the Canary Islands disembarked in the islands and waved a Spanish flag. In 1976 another Spanish boat, Ecce Homo Divino, was detained for illegal fishing.
  • 1996-1997 - On 8 April 1996, Spanish F-18 fighters overflew the islands, followed, the next 2 of August, by a low altitude Puma SA-330J flyby over Selvagem Grande. On the following 16 October, another F-18 flyby over the reserve was filmed by the Portuguese RTP TV channel, prompting the Portuguese Foreign Affairs Ministry to protest. In May 1997, the Ministry of Defense formally requested the Spanish government to stop training exercises near the natural reserve. Spain agreed, but on 1 August 1997 and 24 September 1997, new flybys by Spanish airplanes took place in the vicinity, prompting vehement protests from the Portuguese authorities which led to a formal apology by the Spanish ambassador to Portugal, after which the flights stopped. After this period, the islands were reinforced with a small Portuguese Navy detachment, purportedly to help patrol the islands against illegal fishing and poaching. Later in 1997, Spain formally recognized Portuguese sovereignty over the islands.[15]

21st century

  • 2005 – June 23, four Spanish fishing boats were detained 28 nautical miles (52 km; 32 mi) south of the islands. A few days later, on 8 July, a biologist and one of the nature reserve wardens in the Selvagem Grande Island were threatened with a knife and underwater fishing spear guns by a group of Spanish fishermen. A group of ten Portuguese marines were placed on the island for a month to put an end to poaching of protected species.[16]
  • 2007 - June, one Spanish search and rescue airplane flew over the islands at low altitude, prompting the Portuguese Ministry of the Environment to contact its Spanish counterpart over the issue.[17]
  • 2013 - July 5, Spain sends letter officially complaining to the UN that the Savage islands are just rocks,[18] which disputes Portuguese sovereignty of over 700 years of the islands.[19]
  • 2013 - July 18, The serving [20]
  • 2014 - The head of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy, announced that Repsol, an Oil and Gas company will conduct surveys to find oil and gas in the surrounding waters of the nearby Canary islands, would begin "very likely" between July and September.
  • 2014 - September 22, Spanish protestors on behalf of the Alternativa Nacionalista Canaria party, stage a protest on the smaller island of Selvagem Pequena, to urge the Portuguese government to intercede with the European Parliament so as not to jeopardize the fragile and unique biodiversity of the Macaronesian islands, before the Spanish government, completely surrender to the interests of Repsol. After 2 days the protestors were transported to Funchal by the Portuguese Navy.[21][22][23]
  • 2014 - December 9, Francisco Lufinha kitesurfed from the Savage islands to Funchal in 12 hours and covered 303 km(163 nautical miles).[24]
  • 2014 - December 17, Spain sends Dr Luis Somoza Losada to the UN, to give a 448-point report asking for the expansion of Spanish territory at the expense of Portugal, after returning to Spain from New York he states "It's the biggest enlargement of Spanish sovereignty since Christopher Columbus". Luis Somoza Losada was a coordinator of a team made up of civilians and military that was commissioned to underpin the ambitious maritime expansion of Spain around the Savage Islands. Conducting 6 surveys of the area on 3 ships the Hespérides, Miguel Oliver and Sarmiento de Gamboa. He discovered that there was gas in the area and possibly oil.[25][26]


  • 1970 – On July 21 the Italian ship Fluvia sank close to the islands.
  • 1971 – The Norwegian oil tanker Cerno deviated from course to the islands to wash the tanks and ran aground on the Selvagem Pequena Island. Three months later the oil tanker Morning Breeze sank near Selvagem Grande Island.
  • 1973 – The merchant vessel Splendid Breeze sank near the islands.
  • 1976 – A yacht named Demeter sank near the islands.

See also


  1. ^  
  2. ^ IGP, ed. (2010), Carta Administrativa Oficial de Portugal (in Portuguese), Lisbon, Portugal: Instituto Geográfico Português, retrieved 1 July 2011 
  3. ^ a b c UNESCO World Heritage Sites entry for “Ilhas Selvagens” (Selvagens Islands)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Luís Carvalho; Nuno Leitão (2005)
  5. ^ "Família Zino, a guardiã das Selvagens (in Portuguese)". DNoticias. July 16, 2013. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Alex Ritsema (2010), p.23-26
  8. ^ Alex Ritsema (2010), p.24-28
  9. ^ Alex Ritsema (2010), p.29-35
  10. ^ "Família Zino, a guardiã das Selvagens (in Portuguese)". DNoticias. July 16, 2013. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  11. ^ Ernst Schmitz (1893), "Die Puffinenjagd auf den Selvagens-Inseln im jahre 1892", Ornithologisches Jahrbuch 1893, Austria, pp.141-147
  12. ^ Real Instituto ElcanoLacleta Muñoz, José Manuel: "Las fronteras de España en el mar". Documentos de trabajo 34-2004,
  13. ^ United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Part VIII, Article 121
  14. ^ (in Portuguese)A Noção "Estratégica" das Ilhas SelvagensCarvalho, Luis and Leitão, Nuno,
  15. ^ El litigio más largo (in Spanish),  
  16. ^ "Marinha reforça presença nas Selvagens após incidentes com pescadores", O Público (in Portuguese), 12 June 2005, retrieved 4 February 2012 
  17. ^ "Espanhóis violam espaço aéreo nas ilhas Selvagens", Tasquinha (in Portuguese),  
  18. ^ Selvagens – Reacendeu-se o conflito entre Portugal e Espanha sobre a ZEE das ilhas (in Portuguese), Pedro Quartin Graça, September 2013 
  19. ^ Spain disputes Portugal islands, Brendan de Beer, September 2013 
  20. ^ Cavaco Silva passeia nas Selvagens (in Portuguese), Expresso, 11 August 2013 
  21. ^ Independentistas das Canárias detidos nas ilhas Selvagens (in Portuguese), Público, 24 September 2014 
  22. ^ Independentistas das Canárias ocupam Selvagem Pequena (in Portuguese), Diário de Notícias, 23 September 2014 
  23. ^ Spaniards ‘occupy’ Portuguese islands to protest oil drilling, Pangea Today, 5 October 2014 
  24. ^ Francisco Lufinha sails from Selvagens to Funchal in 12 hours,, 9 December 2014 
  25. ^ España amplía sus dominios marítimos (in Spanish), El Pais, 30 December 2014 
  26. ^ Spain reignites island tussle, The Portugal News, 31 December 2014 
  • Carvalho, Luís; Leitão, Nuno (2005), ]The Strategic Notion of the Savage Islands [A noção 'estratégica' das ilhas Salvegens (PDF) (in Portuguese), Lisbon, Portugal: TERCUD – Centro de Estudos do Território, Cultura e Desenvolvimento 
  • Ritsema, Alex (2010). The Selvagens, Forgotten Atlantic Islands. Raleigh, North Carolina: Lulu Press.  
  • Albuquerque, Luis; Vieira, Alberto (1988). The Archipelago of Madeira in the 15th Century. Funchal, Madeira: Centro Estudos História Atlântico. 

External links

  • Selvagens Expeditions
  • Ilhas Selvagens (Spanish)

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