The Acteon and Gambier Archipelagos are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, more than 1,500 km (~932 miles) from Tahiti. French Polynesia comprises 125 islands and atolls spread over 5,030,000 square kilometers of Pacific Ocean. These vast archipelagos have among the highest numbers of endemic birds for tropical Pacific islands, exceeded only by the proportion that are globally threatened (37 percent).
he Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove, 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.
BirdLife International, with Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie (SOP Manu—a BirdLife Partner in French Polynesia) and Island Conservation, completed an ambitious conservation operation on six remote islands in the Tuamotu (Acteon group) and Gambier archipelagos in July 2015. 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 organizations—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 colonization. Local livelihoods are also expected to benefit as a result of the project’s success. 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 more than 1,500 km from Tahiti, their isolation has not protected them from a negative human impact. The birds on these islands evolved in the absence of predatory mammals, but the arrival of humans brought a suite of invasive species. Flightless and defenseless, 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-doves 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 perfect 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 more than 400 islands around the world, the team created much-needed safe habitat for the resident and Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove, Endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper (locally know as Titi) and Endangered Polynesian Storm-petrel, as well as a number of Critically Endangered plant species.
“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 thirty-one personnel hailing from three continents and six countries. The successful shipment of hundreds of tons of equipment (including a helicopter), as well as donated supplies from key partners Bell Laboratories and Tomcat, to these remote islands, and the ability to overcome adverse weather, intestinal maladies, and sleep deprivation, was great testimony to the three years of planning and preparation!
“Amazingly, given everything that could have gone wrong, we kept on track,” said 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”, explains 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 Cranwell.
A central part of the operation’s success has been the contributions from local people and organizations. Businesses provided essential services, and the French Polynesian government assisted with costs. Local people helped plan the operation and supported its implementation, from surveying for Tutururu 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 who 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 the needs of the Pa’umotuan people, the native wildlife, and theecosystems are met will be one essential element in the ongoing protection of these islands,” says Tom Ghestemme.
“The continued support and enthusiasm of the local people and the government of French Polynesia are absolutely crucial to the eventual success of this project,” says 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’umotuan 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 the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Papeete, owner of Acteon islands. Through biosecurity we will continue to support this investment ensuring a legacy that Pa’umotuan 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 Cranwell.
To restore vital breeding habitat for many of French Polynesia’s native species.
Thousands of seabirds are safely nesting, and native plants are thriving again.
Damaging, invasive rats were introduced to many islands in French Polynesia decades ago and have since ravaged the native populations of the Critically Endangered Polynesian Ground-dove and the Endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper.
In July 2015, Birdlife International, with Island Conservation and SOP Manu, completed an ambitious conservation operation on six remote islands in the Tuamotu (Acteon group) and Gambier archipelagos, French Polynesia. This project makes an unprecedented contribution to saving one of our world’s rarest birds and a number of other endangered species from extinction.
Richard received a BSc in physics from Victoria University, a postgraduate diploma in environmental science from Canterbury University, and an MSc in ecology from Lincoln University, New Zealand. Between 1997 and 2011 he worked for the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC), leading species recovery, island restoration, island biosecurity and pest control, and eradication programs. He was a member of DOC’s Island Eradication Advisory Group and was the leader of the Stitchbird Recovery Group between 2000 and 2007—leading the species successful reintroduction to the New Zealand mainland after a 120-year absence. He was also extensively involved in the re-establishment of seabird populations on islands and was part of the team that confirmed the reappearance of the New Zealand Storm Petrel previously considered extinct. Richard has led notable island restoration projects including the removal of rats from Little Barrier Island and the removal of eight invasive species from Rangitoto and Motutapu islands in New Zealand. As a result of the Rangitoto and Motutapu project, Richard and DOC won the Parks Forum Environmental Award in 2010. The project’s innovative approach also earned Richard a position as a finalist for the 2010 Kenton Miller Award. Richard works for Island Conservation based in New Zealand. He leads a team of project managers and island restoration specialists whose focus is preventing extinctions. In the four years he has been with Island Conservation, he and his team have successfully removed invasive species from more than twelve islands, resulting in significant benefits to plants and wildlife.