The Ecological Island

Dry, rocky El Hierro might not immediately strike you as the most beautiful of the Canary Islands, but clamber up onto the central plateau, relax at a natural pool or head down to El Golfo and first impressions are quickly overturned. Not only is the island enveloped in a gentle pastoral beauty, it’s also home to some of the most unusual plant and animal life in the eastern Atlantic – a distinction that earned it the label of a Unesco Geopark in 2014 (the first in the Canary Islands, followed in 2015 by the Lanzarote and Chinijo Archipelago Geopark).

Environmentalists’ attention is mainly focused on protecting the marine reserve in the Mar de las Calmas (slated to become a parque nacional – national park – at the time of research), the otherworldly juniper trees of El Sabinar and the quiet El Pinar pine forest, but the whole island benefits from its Unesco listing, with funds going towards using unique natural local resources in sustainable ways. Find out more by visiting La Restinga's Centro de Interpretación del Geoparque or at www.elhierrogeoparque.es.

In 2014 the island took its conservationist leanings to a whole new level by becoming the world’s first island to initiate projects that will allow it to eventually rely entirely on renewable sources for its energy needs. This ecological mindset is seen in other ways as well, such as the island-wide plan to promote and support organic farming and a scheme to use only electric cars by 2020. In 2018, El Hierro succeeded in running entirely on renewable energy for 18 days in a row. Learn all about these and other eco-initiatives at the Centro de Interpretación de la Reserva de la Biosfera in Isora.

The El Hierro Giant Lizard & its Canarian Cousins

Imagine the Spaniards’ surprise when they began to explore El Hierro and, among the native birds, juniper trees and unusual volcanic rock, they discovered enormous greyish-brown lizards – weighing around 700g, growing up to 60cm in length and living up to 20 years in the wild. By the 1940s, however, these giant lizards (neither venomous nor harmful) were almost extinct, their populations decimated by human encroachment on their habitat, introduced predators (particularly cats) and climatological factors. A few survived on the Roques de Salmor rock outcrop off El Golfo's coast (giving the species its name, ‘Lizard of Salmor’), but before long, those too had disappeared.

Then, in the 1970s, herdsmen began reporting sightings of large, unidentified animal droppings and carcasses of extra-long lizards that had been killed by dogs. To the delight of conservationists, a small colony of giant lizards had survived on a practically inaccessible mountain crag above El Golfo, the Fuga de Gorreta. One herdsman was able to capture a pair of the reptiles, beginning the species’ journey back to life.

In 1985 the Giant Lizard of El Hierro Recovery Plan was put into place. These days you can see it in action at the Ecomuseo de Guinea & Lagartario, where lizards are bred in captivity then released into supervised wild areas. Here you'll spy a few specimens in glassed-in cages as they soak up the sun or snack on vegetation, while guides explain ongoing recovery efforts and the species' history. There are now thought to be around 400 giant lizards in the wild across El Hierro.

Giant lizards were once found on all the islands in the Canaries (each island had its own individual species), but almost all went to the dustbin of extinction once human, cat and dog got their hands (or claws) on them. Or did they? Just as the El Hierro Giant Lizard was rediscovered in the 1970s, the Tenerife Giant Lizard reappeared in 1996; scientists discovered a population of 10 La Gomera Giant Lizards in 1999; and then, in 2007, along came the La Palma Giant Lizard. These three populations are only just on the brink of survival and are classed as critically endangered (as are the El Hierro lizards), though things are looking slightly brighter for La Gomera's lizards, which now number an estimated 580 (250 of them in the wild). The Gran Canaria Giant Lizard, which can reach up to 80cm in length, is the only reptile of its kind not currently in danger of extinction.

The El Hierro Giant Lizard is the only one you're likely to see, at the Ecomuseo de Guinea & Lagartario, though you can learn more about the Canaries' giant lizards at Tenerife's Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre.