…for some of our world’s rarest birds!
We estimate there are less than 150 Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove remaining in the world. This project has more than doubled the safe habitat available for them.
By Shaun Hurrell, Wed, 29/07/2015
BirdLife International, with Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie (SOP Manu - BirdLife Partner in French Polynesia) and Island Conservation, has just completed an ambitious conservation operation on six remote islands in the Tuamotu (Acteon group) & Gambier archipelagos. The project makes an unprecedented contribution to saving one of our world’s rarest birds and a number of other endangered species from extinction. With the support of local people, government and NGO organisations – many helping directly in project implementation – this operation has reset the native ecological balance to a time probably not known on these islands since Polynesian colonisation. Local livelihoods are also expected to benefit as a result of the projects success.
The Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove Alopecoenas erythropterus, locally known as the Tutururu, is one of the world’s rarest birds. Found on just five small atolls in French Polynesia, there are only about 150 of these birds left in the world. Thanks to this project the safe habitat now available to the Tutururu has more than doubled.
Even though these islands are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean over 1500km from Tahiti, their isolation has not protected them from a negative human legacy. The birds on these islands evolved in the absence of predatory mammals, but the arrival of humans also brought a suite of invasive species. Flightless and defenceless, chicks and eggs are eaten by invasive predators such as rats, and native ecosystems are severely disturbed by other animal and plant invaders.
The team’s surveys in this project confirmed that almost all of the remaining Polynesian Ground-dove live on a nearby rat-free atoll.
“Invasive alien species are a key driver of global biodiversity loss,” says Don Stewart, Director of BirdLife Pacific.
“Introduced mammals alone are believed to be responsible for 90% of all bird extinctions since 1500, and are presently the main cause of decline for nine out of ten globally threatened birds within the Pacific.”
Using island restoration methods proven on over 400 islands around the world, the team created much-needed safe habitat for the resident and Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove, Endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper Prosobonia parvirostris (Titi) and Endangered Polynesian Storm-petrel Nesofregetta fuliginosa, as well as a number of Critically Endangered plant species.
Endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper (Titi). Photo: Island Conservation
“Rarely do we get the chance to have such a big impact in biodiversity conservation with just one project”, said Steve Cranwell, Operation Manager and Invasive Species expert from BirdLife Pacific.
“In the last few days of the operation more Polynesian Ground-dove and Tuamotu Sandpiper were sighted on Vahanga – the chances of finding established populations on these islands in a year’s time are high”, said Richard Griffiths, Island Conservation Project Director.
“This is a sign of hope for recovery not only for these French Polynesian species, but for the hundreds of threatened island species around the world waiting for similar interventions on their behalf”.
Incredible logistical challenge and adventure
Delivering this incredibly important result for native wildlife required a herculean logistical commitment and a team of 31 personnel hailing from three continents and six countries. The successful shipment of hundreds of tonnes of equipment, and donated supplies from key partners Bell Laboratories and Tomcat, to these remote islands (including a helicopter); and the ability to overcome adverse weather, intestinal maladies and sleep deprivation, was some testimony to the three years of planning and preparation!
“Amazingly, given everything that could have gone wrong, we kept on track”, said Steve Cranwell.
“By tackling a group of islands in one extensive operation – sharing transport, equipment and expertise – we could restore all six threatened islands for the price of restoring less than two islands individually”, explained Steve. “But totalling almost a million Euros, this is our biggest restoration project ever.”
A project of this nature is synonymous with adventure.
“Flying in a helicopter hundreds of miles over open ocean with nowhere to land other than the distant ‘pin-prick’ atoll you’re aiming for tends to heighten an interest in weather conditions…” recalls Steve.
A central part of the operation’s success has been the contribution from local people and organisations. Businesses provided essential services and the French Polynesian government assisted with costs. Local people helped plan the operation and supported its implementation, from surveying forTutururu and Titi, to helping remove the invasive species including clearing dense tangles of the plant,Lantana, which was out-competing the native forest.
“Thanks to everyone who gave invaluable help – from the Polynesian locals, to local groups, to the Nuku Hau boat crew, to the Gambier City Council, to landowners, to every boatman that transported the crew, even in bad weather!” said Tom Ghestemme, Director of SOP Manu. A project of this size could only have happened with your collaboration.”
Future – lives saved and livelihoods bettered
The operation is just the beginning of this relationship. In the coming years, SOP Manu and project partners will continue to support the local communities in preventing the return of rats and other invasive species; and in monitoring the return of Tutururu, Titi, and the many other rare seabirds and plants expected to recover with the removal of rats.
“Managing coconut production so both the needs of the Pa’umotu people, the native wildlife and ecosystems are met will be one essential element in the ongoing protection of these islands”, said Tom Ghestemme.
“The continued support and enthusiasm of the local people and government of French Polynesia are absolutely crucial to the eventual success of this project,” said Steve Cranwell.
“Not only are the lives of Tutururu and Titi dependent on a culture of biosecurity on these islands, but so is the quality of life and livelihoods of the Pa’umotu people.”
“The islands of French Polynesia face many threats from invasive species to climate change and to have this assistance in reversing some of these negative impacts is a tremendous gift to protecting our islands, traditions and way of life” said Father Joël Aumeran Vicar general of Papeete Diocese, Catholic Church, owner of Acteon islands.
"Through biosecurity we will continue to support this investment ensuring a legacy that Pa’umotu people and generations to come will benefit from.”
“It will be one year before we can declare the six islands rat-free, but initial signs are very positive”, said Steve.
30th July 2015