The Selvagensare a small, isolated, almost uninhabited (except for the wardens on SelvagemGrande) and seldom visited archipelago lying between Madeira and the CanaryIslands. As with Madeira, they are Portuguese territory (their Portuguese name,Ilhas Selvagens, actually means 'wild islands') and, as with all of theMacaronesian Islands, they are volcanic in origin.
Thearchipelago consists of two groups and has a total area of 283 hectares (2.83km²). The northeast group comprises Selvagem Grande and two smaller islets,Palheiro de Terra and Palheiro do Mar. The southwest group comprises SelvagemPequena (30 ha) and Ilhéu de Fora (8 ha) as well as numerous smaller islets,including the Alto, Comprido and Redondo Islets, and also the tiny group of theNorte Islets. These islets as well as several small rocky reefs surrounds thesouthwest group, which makes it difficult to land to any of these islands. TheSelvagem Grande and Selvagem Pequena islands lie 10 nautical miles (15 km)apart.
On SelvagemGrande there is a permanent field station manned by two wardens year-round,while Selvagem Pequena is manned by two wardens between May and October. Theseare the only human inhabitants on the islands during the whole year. Thewardens are replaced every third week by the Portuguese Navy.
The islandsare too small and too low to create a proper balanced climate of their own.Therefore they are very dry (recalling much of the Desertas Islands south-eastof Madeira) and the temperature are higher than on Madeira. There is a cisternwith capacity of 113 metric tons of water, which fills from the rain and wasrecuperated in 1967. There is a second cistern, built more recently by thewarden's house, with a capacity of some 80 metric tons. Occasionally winds fromSW bring exceptionally heavy rainfall, on the other hand dry winds from theeast carry dust and many migrant birds from Africa, especially during themigratory season. To fill the cisterns it is necessary to have heavy rain andit has been known not to rain for three consecutive years!
This is thelargest island in the archipelago and has an area of 2,45 km². It is pentagonshape and has steep cliffs, 70-90 metres high above sea-level. The interior isflat, on average about 100 metres. Only three summits, remnants of formervolcanic cones, overlook the plateau with a maximum height of 163 metres (Picoda Atalaia).
Since the15th century goats live on the island, brought there as living supplies forsailors. Later rabbits and mice (probably accidentally) were introduced.Fortunately the goats disappeared at the end of the 19th century due tohunting, but rabbits and mice only disappeared in 2003 by an eradicationprogramme developed by the Natural Park.
Severalhundred years ago the Shrub Tobacco from South America was imported/introducedfor firewood and spread rapidly. This plant is also included in a separateeradication programme, organized by the Natural Park.
Much smallerthan Selvagem Grande (0.3 km²) and has a much more rugged and rockier coast.Pico Veado is the highest point at 49 metres, the rest of the island is ratherflat island (only 5-10 metres above sea level). Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu deFora were spared the introduction of rabbits and goats, which means they stillhave the most original and untouched vegetation of all Macaronesian islands.Therefore the vegetation here is more varied than on Selvagem Grande.
Ilhéu de Fora
The smallest(0,081 km²) of the three larger islands in the archipelago and very similar toPequena in habitat. It too, is covered with limy sands on its flat plateau,which rises only up to 18 metres above sea-level.
Discovery and its protection today
The firstrecorded official discovery of the Selvagens dates from 1438, when Diogo Gomesde Sintra sighted them when returning to Portugal from Guinea, nineteen yearsafter the discovery of Madeira. At that time, the Portuguese discoverersconsistently expanded the horizons of European knowledge.
The Selvagenswere awarded the Diploma of the Council of Europe, a diploma which it stillholds. In 2003 these islands were selected to be the national candidates forthe UNESCO World Heritage List. They withdrew their application so that aformal application could be made at a later date in more detail.
As a matterof curiosity the famous Jacques-Yves Cousteau once said he found the cleanestwaters in the world around Selvagens Islands.