The Selvagens are a small, isolated, almost uninhabited (except for the wardens on Selvagem Grande) and seldom visited archipelago lying between Madeira and the Canary Islands. As with Madeira, they are Portuguese territory (their Portuguese name, Ilhas Selvagens, actually means 'wild islands') and, as with all of the Macaronesian Islands, they are volcanic in origin.
The archipelago consists of two groups and has a total area of 283 hectares (2.83 km²). The northeast group comprises Selvagem Grande and two smaller islets, Palheiro de Terra and Palheiro do Mar. The southwest group comprises Selvagem Pequena (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 the Norte Islets. These islets as well as several small rocky reefs surrounds the southwest group, which makes it difficult to land to any of these islands. The Selvagem Grande and Selvagem Pequena islands lie 10 nautical miles (15 km) apart.
On Selvagem Grande there is a permanent field station manned by two wardens year-round, while Selvagem Pequena is manned by two wardens between May and October. These are the only human inhabitants on the islands during the whole year. The wardens are replaced every third week by the Portuguese Navy.
The islands are 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-east of Madeira) and the temperature are higher than on Madeira. There is a cistern with capacity of 113 metric tons of water, which fills from the rain and was recuperated in 1967. There is a second cistern, built more recently by the warden's house, with a capacity of some 80 metric tons. Occasionally winds from SW bring exceptionally heavy rainfall, on the other hand dry winds from the east carry dust and many migrant birds from Africa, especially during the migratory season. To fill the cisterns it is necessary to have heavy rain and it has been known not to rain for three consecutive years!
This is the largest island in the archipelago and has an area of 2,45 km². It is pentagon shape and has steep cliffs, 70-90 metres high above sea-level. The interior is flat, on average about 100 metres. Only three summits, remnants of former volcanic cones, overlook the plateau with a maximum height of 163 metres (Pico da Atalaia).
Since the 15th century goats live on the island, brought there as living supplies for sailors. Later rabbits and mice (probably accidentally) were introduced. Fortunately the goats disappeared at the end of the 19th century due to hunting, but rabbits and mice only disappeared in 2003 by an eradication programme developed by the Natural Park.
Several hundred years ago the Shrub Tobacco from South America was imported/introduced for firewood and spread rapidly. This plant is also included in a separate eradication programme, organized by the Natural Park.
Much smaller than 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 rather flat island (only 5-10 metres above sea level). Selvagem Pequena and Ilhéu de Fora were spared the introduction of rabbits and goats, which means they still have 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 to Pequena 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 first recorded official discovery of the Selvagens dates from 1438, when Diogo Gomes de Sintra sighted them when returning to Portugal from Guinea, nineteen years after the discovery of Madeira. At that time, the Portuguese discoverers consistently expanded the horizons of European knowledge.
The Selvagens were awarded the Diploma of the Council of Europe, a diploma which it still holds. In 2003 these islands were selected to be the national candidates for the UNESCO World Heritage List. They withdrew their application so that a formal application could be made at a later date in more detail.
As a matter of curiosity the famous Jacques-Yves Cousteau once said he found the cleanest waters in the world around Selvagens Islands.