Witnessing Change on Tenarunga

Island Conservation GIS and Data Management Specialist David Will shares his experience visiting the restored Tenarunga Island, French Polynesia.

By: David Will

I am back home after a fruitful two-week expedition to confirm the absence of invasive rats and feral cats from Tenarunga (Tenania) in French Polynesia two years after the restoration project began. In the nearly nine years that I have been at Island Conservation, this was my first formal confirmation trip, and it was a wonderful experience not only to go back to an island, but also to see change!

Our expedition consisted of six people from our partners BirdLife and SOP Manu and locals representing the Catholic Church and the community in the Gambier islands. We had a 30-hour boat trip each way on aboard the Silverland, a wooden square rigged boat that was previously used for fishing in the North Atlantic and now owned by a Dutch couple and their 9-year-old son who have been sailing the world, kite-surfing, and conducting charters.


Approaching the confirmation sites. Credit: David Will/Island Conservation

Deacon Tobia, official representative of the Church and the manager of copra harvest, and I were dropped off on Tenarunga, which is owned by the Catholic Church and utilized to harvest copra 6 months out of the year The two of us spent six days walking the 20km around the island across coral rubble, coconut piles, and sandy beaches, placing trail cameras while also looking for signs of recovery.


Coconuts on Tenarunga. Credit: David Will/Island Conservation

Tobia had never walked completely around the island before and seemed to enjoy exploring the motus looking for birds, but he did repeatedly mutter “No Run Run Forrest Gump,” which suggested there were limits to our walking.


Deacon Tobia in the field. Credit: David Will/Island Conservation

The two of us spent six days walking the 20km around the island across coral rubble, coconut piles, and sandy beaches, placing trail cameras while also looking for signs of recovery.

We observed approximately six individuals of Critically Endangered Polynesia Ground-dove (Tutururu) on the island (in 2015 there were only thought to be two individuals) and had the first confirmed observation of the Endangered Tuamotu Sandpiper (Titi) on Tenarunga.


Tuamotu Sandpiper (Titi) perching. Credit: David Will/Island Conservation

I also noticed new growth of both Pisonia (pictured) and Achyranthes, which the Tutururu prefer for food, in between the rows of coconut palms–all of which is very encouraging for future recovery.


New Pisonia growth. Credit: David Will/Island Conservation

We took to the customary diet of biscuits, three to four coconuts a day, and on one occasion fish and lobster for dinner. Tenarunga was pleasantly free of coconut flies this time around–they were an oppressive force the last time I was here.

After an exhaustive search we are happy to report that no sign of invasive rats or feral cats was found on Tenarunga.

This project has received support from many international and national organisations with significant funding from the European Union, the British Birdwatching Fair, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, and National Geographic Society; sponsorships from Bell Laboratories and T-Gear Trust Canada; and assistance from the Government of French Polynesia and many individual people around the world.

Featured photo: Palm Tree Avenue. Credit: Jason Zito/Island Conservation

About David Will

David received a BS in bioinformatics from the University of California, Santa Cruz. During his tenure, David worked with the Site Stewardship Program, as part of the Chancellors Undergraduate Internship Program, to restore and maintain the campus’s numerous sensitive natural areas. Over the course of the internship he developed an internal wiki to store mitigation documents, survey data, and maps relevant to campus restoration efforts. David has a strong background in computer science and a keen interest in using computer applications and GIS as a tool to aid conservation and restoration efforts. He is currently developing a database and integrated data-collection system for monitoring, analyzing, and displaying field data.

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