Three islets of the Tahanea Atoll, French Polynesia (South Pacific Ocean) were declared rat-free today by conservation project partners Island Conservation, Simon Fraser University (Canada), the Polynesian Ornithological Society (BirdLife French Polynesia) SOP-“Manu”, and the Faaite Atoll community.
The success of the 2011 project to remove the invasive rats charts a path for future collaborations to restore other islands and save globally threatened species like the Tuamotu Sandpiper (Prosobonia cancellata,locally called Titi), a bird in danger of extinction due to the presence of invasive predators across almost all of its former range.
Once present throughout most (if not all) of East Polynesia before human colonization and numbering in the tens of thousands, Titi now survive on just six remote coral atolls. Its numbers have dwindled to little more than 1000 individuals and its future without help is doubtful. Last representative of an ancient group of Polynesian sandpipers with adaptations and behaviors unique amongst shorebirds, the Titi is the bearer of much evolutionary heritage.
Tahanea is home to one of the last Titi populations, but its presence there is tenuous as most of the atoll’s islets are infested by Black rats and/or Polynesian rats. Rats and Titi do not mix: rats eat the birds’ eggs and maybe chicks or even adults and, along with other mammalian predators, are the biggest threat to Titi on Tahanea and elsewhere. Titi are found at greatly reduced densities on islets occupied by Polynesian rats and are absent altogether on Black rat islets.
Life on Tahanea is beginning to look a little brighter for the birds as a result of the recent project. “While this is a small step towards saving the Titi, it is a significant one” says Thomas Ghestemme of the SOP. “It paves the way for further restoration work on Tahanea and the Tuamotu”.
One of the challenges associated with the Tahanea project was preventing Titi from eating the bait laid for rats. After months of project planning to overcome this and other challenges, the team successfully caught all 18 birds and held them in protective captivity for three weeks until they could be safely released. “This is the first time Titi have ever been held in captivity so it was a nervous time for us all” says Ms. Marie-Helene Burle from Simon Fraser University who is studying this unique species. “Our experience on Tahanea gives us confidence that we can protect Titi during future projects and opens the door to potential translocations of the species to other islands.”
Island Conservation’s Field Manager, Madeleine Pott who directed the project’s implementation said “We are thrilled with this partnership and the cooperation we received from the local population. We have restored habitat for the Titi and proven that we can safely deploy these methods to help birds and people. We have demonstrated that we can remove rats from the entire atoll. All we need is the funding and community support to take this effective partnership project to scale.”
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