The archipelago comprises two major islands and several islets of varying sizes, in two areas: Selvagem Grande and Selvagem Pequena. The archipelago is administered by the Portuguese municipality of Funchal, belongs to the Madeiran civil parish of Sé, and is the southernmost point of Portugal.
It was designated a natural reserve in 1971, recognizing its role as a very important nesting point for several species of birds. Since then, the decreasing bird populations and nearby waters have been more closely protected by the Portuguese government. Given its status, remoteness and few fresh water sources, it is inhabited only by reserve staff, scientists conducting research on its wildlife, a Portuguese family and a small Portuguese Navy detachment. In May 2016, a National Geographic Society scientific expedition prompted the extension of the marine reserve.
Diogo Gomes de Sintra discovered the islands by chance in 1438. Although the Canary Islands had been inhabited by the Guanches, humans are not known to ever have set foot on the Madeira archipelago or the Savage Islands before the Portuguese discoveries and expansion. Consequently, this island group presented itself to Portuguese navigators uninhabited.
The first attempted settlement of the islands occurred around 1438 by the Portuguese, although little details remain of this endeavour. The oldest extant description of the colonization was written around 1463 by the Portuguese mariner Diogo Gomes de Sintra. Gomes wrote that the islands were used to collect "ursellam", as a base for red paint/dyes; "ursellam" referred to the lichens of the scientific families Roccellaceae and Parmeliaceae. In those days, the islands of the Atlantic (the Azores and Madeira) belonged to Henry the Navigator, the Grandmaster of the Order of Christ (the Portuguese successor to the Knights Templar in Portugal). However, the islands were generally omitted from the lists of their possessions.
By the 16th century the Savage Islands were held by a family from Madeira, known as Teixeiras Caiados. How they found themselves under Caiados control is unknown. In 1560 they were given to João Cabral de Noronha. After 1717 they are recorded in wills, inheritances, inventories and other documents. Between 1774 and 1831 taxes were paid to the king. The islands were also recorded in the books of the Conservatória do Registo Predial of Funchal.
From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the islands were used for different economic activities, such as collecting barilla weed and shells and mollusks. The islands, although uninhabited, were also used as a waypoint for fishing, while goats and rabbits were hunted on Selvagem Grande. Until about 1967, in September or October, there were organized hunts for the chicks of the Cory's shearwaters for their oil and meat.
The islands have a reputation as pirate treasure islands, and there are many stories of treasure hunting. According to reliable primary documents, at least four times (in 1813, 1851, 1856 and 1948), serious dig attempts were made to recover the supposed treasures but nothing was found.
In 1904 the islands were sold to Luís Rocha Machado.
The Permanent Commission of International Maritime Law gave sovereignty of the Savage Islands to Portugal on 15 February 1938.
In 1959, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), now known as the World Wide Fund for Nature, became interested in the islands and signed a contract/promise with the owner, Luís Rocha Machado. In 1971 the Portuguese government intervened and acquired the islands, converting them into a nature reserve. The Savage Islands Reserve was created as part of the Madeira Nature Park; it is one of the oldest nature reserves of Portugal and it also includes the surrounding shelf to a depth of 200 metres (220 yd; 660 ft). In 1976, permanent surveillance began, and in 1978 the reserve was elevated to the status of Nature Reserve. In 2002, part of the nature reserve was nominated for UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites: they are currently included in the tentative World Heritage Site list.
Today the Savage Islands have a permanent team of wardens from Madeira Nature Park (on Selvagem Grande there is a permanent research station with two wardens year-round, while Selvagem Pequena is manned usually by two wardens between May and October). These and the Zino family (a family of British origin, known as "the guardians of the Savages") are the only permanent human inhabitants on the islands. Selvagem Grande gained a weather station controlled by IPMA (the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and the Atmosphere) and is permanently patrolled by the Portuguese Maritime Police to improve safety in navigation, search and rescue, preventing pollution and stop illegal fisheries in the reserve. The self-sustaining status of the islands is disputed by Spain. Their habitability determines whether they should be seen as islands or rocks, which has strong consequences for the definition of the southernmost border of the Portuguese EEZ (with Spain), currently under evaluation by the United Nations' Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
The Savage Islands are part of the Macaronesia, the name used to designate the island groups of the North Atlantic Ocean, near Europe and off the coast of Morocco in North Africa. The archipelago lies about 280 km (174 mi) from Madeira, and 165 km (103 mi) from the Canary Islands. The islands are considered to be a column branch that extends from Canary Islands at a 3,000 m (9,843 ft) depth. The total land area of the Savage Islands is 2.73 km2 (1.05 sq mi). With little fresh water and surrounded by dangerous reefs (which makes limited access difficult), the archipelago consists of two major islands and several islets, in two groups about 15 km (9 mi) apart, designated:
The islands' physical characteristics are the consequences of mountain-forming and volcanic forces that occurred between 60 and 70 million years ago, typical of many of the islands of Macaronesia. The islands were created during the late Miocene period, from a large submarine volcano and shaped by erosion and marine sedimentation. The larger islands and islet (Grande, Pequena and Fora, respectively) are the remnants of the peaks of these submarine mounts, and although located north of the Canaries, they were never connected to the African continent.
The islands themselves are crossed by many calcareous faults, some marbleized, and made of basaltic rock, ash, and other volcanic materials. On many of the islands there are remnants of extinct cones, such as Atalaia (Selvagem Grande), Tornozelos and Veado. Other areas are sand covered from extensive aeolian, fluvial and marine erosion; headlands include Atalaia and Leste on Selvagem Grande, and Norte, Oeste, Leste and Garajaus on Selvagem Pequena.
The scientific and natural interest of this tiny group of islands lies in its marine biodiversity, its unique flora and many avian species that breed annually on its rock cliffs or use them on their stopover on normal migratory patterns. About 3% of the 9000 species of birds are marine species, the remaining are migratory species. The abundance of birds on the islands, at one time, made the islands an attractive hunting area for peoples of the region. At the end of the 19th century the German naturalist Ernst Schmitz noted that 20–22,000 Cory's shearwaters were hunted in September or October in the islands; the hunts continued until 1967. Madeiran expeditions to the islands were responsible for the killing of juvenile birds for food, while their down was used to stuff pillows and comforters.
Presently the islands are home or stopover for: Cory's shearwaters (approximately 14,000), white-faced storm-petrel (12,000), Bulwer's petrel (500), North Atlantic little shearwater (500), Madeiran storm-petrel (1000), yellow-legged gull, the roseate tern and Berthelot's pipit; which are subjects of annual scientific expeditions. Many of theses species are vulnerable to local predators, primarily from populations of brown rat and predatory bird species, like the yellow-legged gull, which will consume both eggs and chicks (the white-faced storm-petrel and Bulwer's petrel are primarily susceptible). These islands also have many endemic fauna species, including local snails and the unique gecko Tarentola boettgeri bischoffi.
As a consequence of limited introduction, more than 100 species of indigenous plants have been cataloged (most creeping plants and bushes). These plants are similar in many respects to indigenous species on the islands of Madeira and the Canaries, which are better suited to dry arid environments. Germination of these species occurs immediately and briefly after annual showers, and include: Erva-gelada, Lotus salvagensis and Lotus paicae (species of the Fabaceae family), Chrysanthemum sarmentoi, Scilla maderensis, Argyranthemum thalassophilum and the Lobularia canariensis.
Selvagem Pequena and the Fora Islet are the richest floral repositories, since they were never populated by non-indigenous animals or plants. For a period, some indigenous plants (primarily Roccella tinctoria and other lichens of the family Nemari) were harvested from the islands to support the dye industry of Europe, primarily to England and Flanders in the 15th and 16th centuries, but these adventures were discontinued later.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau once found what he believed was "the cleanest waters in the world" around this minor archipelago; there is an abundance of marine activity, many endemic to the environment, including the barred hogfish, puffer fish (Tetraodontidae), sea spider and many species of sea urchin. At depth of about 30 m (100 ft) the waters around the islands/islets are teeming with algae and many species of migratory species of common fish, from the islands of Cape Verde, Madeira and the Canaries routinely.
Although there are commercial tours of the islands and their biomes are available, all visitors require authorization from the Madeira Natural Park, the regional environmental authority.
Portugal places its southernmost Exclusive Economic Zone claim south of the Savage Islands. Spain objects on the basis that the Savage Islands do not have a separate continental shelf, maintaining that the border should consist on an equidistant line drawn halfway between Madeira and the Canaries. According to article 121 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf." The status of the Savage Islands as islands or rocks is thus at the core of the dispute.
Despite the islands having numerous visitors, mostly for scientific purposes, and the fact that several settlements were tried throughout the centuries, today the Savage Islands are a special natural reserve whose only year-round inhabitants are the wardens of Madeira's Natural Park. Over the years, apart from the EEZ debate, a number of issues pertaining to the Savage Islands led to disputes between the two countries, namely the construction of a lighthouse, the administration of airspace (done from the closer Canary Islands), the right to perform military air exercises, and, most importantly, illegal fishing and poaching in the archipelago and its vicinity.