The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are well known amongst birders but are little visited. Being oceanic islands of volcanic origin, they have never been connected to the African mainland and consequently host an avifauna that is unique in Africa, boasting over 25 endemic species of bird. Similar rates of endemism exist within other groups of animals and plants, and the islands can truly be said to be the African Galápagos.
Prior to the publication of this book there was no widely available guide in English dealing solely with the birds of the two islands. This photographic guide fills the gap and, for the first time, brings together photographs of all the endemics, including extreme rarities such as São Tomé Fiscal Shrike Lanius newtoni and São Tomé Grosbeak Neospiza concolor. Few people have seen the grosbeak let alone taken such an excellent series of photos. The guide also draws on the latest genetic research and, for example, splits Gulf of Guinea Thrush Turdus olivaceofuscus into two species (São Tomé T. olivaceofuscus and Príncipe Thrushes T. (o.) xanthorhynchus). The photographs are generally very good to excellent, although a Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta is incorrectly labelled as a Garden Warbler Sylvia borin. However, the value of the publication really lies in documenting the endemics, several of which are considered Critically Endangered. In this, the authors have done an excellent job.
Each species is treated separately and includes a few paragraphs of English and Portuguese text detailing the species' life history and habits. Identification is generally quite easy given the very restricted number of breeding landbirds (33 on Príncipe and 51 on São Tomé) and the good quality photos further facilitate the task. The Portuguese text makes the book accessible to the growing conservation community on the islands. Most islanders do not realise the uniqueness of their flora and fauna, and books such as this encourage both external and internal interest.
The 12-page introduction really sets the scene - the islands are not only fascinating from a natural historian's point of view, but also possess a rich history born out of the slave trade, growing into the world's largest cocoa producer before then gradually going into decline. The introduction covers these issues and describes the different habitats, the endemic fauna and current conservation problems.
If you are planning a visit then this book will be essential - the photos, details of habitats, maps showing important birding locations, etc., will all be extremely useful. Even if not considering a visit, this book is also definitely worth buying for the photos of some species not available elsewhere. Planning an independent visit to São Tomé and Príncipe is certainly feasible and it would be nice to see a sister publication detailing important birding spots, information about guides and good logistic information.