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Location Pitcairn Islands (to UK)
Central coordinates 128o 19.00' West  24o 20.00' South
IBA criteria A1, A2, A4i, A4ii, A4iii
Area 4,738 ha
Altitude 0 - 33m
Year of IBA assessment 2005

Site description Henderson Island is, without question, one of the world's best remaining examples of an uplifted coral atoll. Compared to other such raised atolls, it has suffered limited disturbance. Thus, the original ecosystem is largely intact, and the number of introduced species is low. Uplift occurred via lithospheric flexure when the oceanic floor became loaded under Pitcairn Island. The island now rises 33 m above sea level , and is believed to have been emergent for approximately 380,000 years. Thus, the island plateau is what was formerly the lagoon floor. It is cloaked in dense vegetation, growing on poor limestone soil and coral rubble. There is no permanent water and the rocks are often savagely fissured. The fact that the island is uplifted, and therefore, unlike a low atoll, secure from the devastating effects of periodic inundation during tropical storms, has been important in permitting the evolution of the wide range of endemic species and a generally higher terrestrial species diversity.There are fringing reefs along the east, north and north-west coasts. Behind each of these reefs is a beach, with beach-back vegetation, before steep slopes or cliffs rise to the plateau. Where there is no reef, the sea beats directly against sheer 30m cliffs. The tidal range is small, about 1 m.Weather records have only been maintained during 1991/92 when the average daily maximum varied from 29.6oC (Feb. 1991) to 24.2oC (June 1991): the comparable minima in those two months were 22.2oC and 15.7oC respectively. Total rainfall from February 1991 to January 1992 was 1623 mm.Archaeological studies have revealed that Henderson was occupied by Polynesians from early in the eight century AD for at least the next 600 years. While the human population may have reached 100, it is uncertain whether there was seasonal ebb and flow between Henderson and Pitcairn when, for example, people travelled to Henderson to exploit turtles during their nesting season. Certainly the Polynesians ate birds in large numbers. They introduced Pacific rats Rattus exulans. They also burned the northern and eastern margins of the plateau inland from their habitation sites, at least partly to make way for cultivated species. Whether these several impacts - bird harvesting, rats, horticulture - had any great lasting impact on the plant communities is uncertain. However, at least six of 22 land snail species disappeared because of the Polynesian impact. The impact on birds was also profound. Five landbird species, of which four were endemic to Henderson, disappeared. In addition, two or three seabird species were locally extirpated, while the gadfly petrels which continue to breed (see Birds) are probably present in numbers much lower than formerly. Notwithstanding this undeniable impact, the crux of the conservation perspective, that Henderson is the Pacific's most pristine raised coral island, is not undermined.Henderson was not discovered by European seafarers until Pedro Fernandez de Quiros passed without landing in 1606. The island received its present name when next visited in 1819 by the Hercules under the command of Capt. Henderson. Pitcairners started regularly to use two woods, toa Cordia subcordata and miro Thespesia populnea, collected from the island, shortly after World War I when they were taught artisanal carving techniques by an Austrian named Edward Laeffler. The exploitation of these two species, both of which were probably introduced by the Polynesians, has continued to this day, with the Pitcairners visiting the island once every 1-2 years. Provided due care is taken, exploitation can continue indefinitely on a sustainable basis. Because crossing the reef is potentially dangerous, passing yachtsmen rarely set foot on Henderson. However, cruise ships land their passengers once or twice a year, either on the North or the North-west Beaches.In the early 1980s, an American strip-mining millionaire proposed building a home and airstrip on Henderson. After intense lobbying by the conservation community, the proposal was rejected by the British Government. In 1988, the island was inscribed as a World Heritage Site because it is such a remarkable example of a raised coral atoll. At the time of the inscription, it was widely realised that scientific knowledge of the island was limited. This was partly rectified in 1991/92 when the Sir Peter Scott Commemorative Expedition to the Pitcairn Islands took place. Concentrating its multi-disciplinary scientific efforts on Henderson, the Expedition involved 34 people from seven countries in the field over a 15 month period. Since then, only brief scientific visits have taken place, the last in 2003, to finalise a Management Plan for the island (2004 - 2009). Monitoring changes in the island's fauna and flora will remain difficult because of the island's exceptional remoteness and ruggedness, the very features that have contributed to preserving it thus far.

Populations of IBA trigger species

Species Season Period Population estimate Quality of estimate IBA Criteria IUCN Category
Kermadec Petrel Pterodroma neglecta breeding  1991  10,000 breeding pairs  medium  A4ii  Least Concern 
Henderson Petrel Pterodroma atrata breeding  2005  16,000 breeding pairs  good  A1, A4ii  Endangered 
Herald Petrel Pterodroma heraldica breeding  1991  11,100 breeding pairs  good  A4ii  Least Concern 
Henderson Crake Zapornia atra resident  2005  unknown  A1, A2  Vulnerable 
Bristle-thighed Curlew Numenius tahitiensis winter  2005  50 individuals  good  A1  Vulnerable 
Common White Tern Gygis alba breeding  1991  10,000 breeding pairs  medium  A4i  Least Concern 
Henderson Fruit-dove Ptilinopus insularis resident  2005  unknown  A1, A2  Vulnerable 
Henderson Lorikeet Vini stepheni resident  2005  unknown  A1, A2  Vulnerable 
Henderson Reed-warbler Acrocephalus taiti resident  2005  unknown  A1, A2  Vulnerable 
A4iii Species group - seabirds breeding  1991  37,100 breeding pairs  medium  A4iii   

Protected areas

Protected area Designation Area (ha) Relationship with IBA Overlap with IBA (ha)  
Henderson Island World Heritage Site 3,700 is identical to site 4,738  


IUCN habitat Habitat detail Extent (% of site)
Sea Shallow marine areas, coral reefs and keys  major

Other biodiversity Thanks to the work of the Sir Peter Scott Commemorative Expedition, the land flora and fauna of Henderson Island are reasonably well-documented. Among the better-studied groups in which dispersal is limited, endemicity is high. Thus, seven of 16 species of land snail and nine of 63 native vascular plant species are endemic. As with the land birds, most of the endemic vascular plants are widespread across the island, and not in immediate danger. Endemicity is also likely to be comparably high in the insect fauna, where about 180 species are known to date. Because Henderson is so remote, this total is below what might be expected on the basis of the island's area. Endemicity is lower in some other groups, either because natural dispersal is high (e.g. lichens) or because the species on Henderson include a considerable proportion that 'hitchhiked' to the island in prehistoric times, probably during the Polynesian occupation (e.g. lizards).During a breeding season that lasts from about December - April, approximately 10 green turtles Chelonia mydas (EN) lay annually on Henderson. While this number is trivial globally, it represents about one percent of the French Polynesian total.

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Recommended citation  BirdLife International (2014) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Henderson Island. Downloaded from on 23/09/2014

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