Paradise saved: some of world’s rarest birds rebound on Pacific islands cleared of invasive predators

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(Shaun Hurrell 20 June 2017; Photo: Marie-Helene Burle)

Five remote Pacific islands are once again safe havens for four of our world’s rarest bird species following the success of one of the most ambitious island restoration projects ever implemented

Just two years after ambitious efforts by a team of international conservation organisations to rid French Polynesia’s Acteon & Gambier island groups of invasive mammals began, five of six targeted islands are now confirmed as predator-free—a ground-breaking one thousand hectares in total. Early signs already indicate that rare birds found nowhere else in the world (endemic) and other native plants and animals are recovering as the remote islands return to their former glory.

The Polynesian Ground-dove Alopecoenas erythropterus (locally known as Tutururu) is one of the rarest birds on the planet with fewer than 200 individuals left. Predation and competition by destructive, non-native (invasive) mammals in French Polynesia have driven this and other rare, endemic bird species to the brink of extinction. The species is listed by BirdLife International as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List—a category that signals an extremely high risk of extinction within our lifetimes.

“The Acteon Gambier island group is home to the last viable population of Polynesian Ground-dove, a species once much more widespread in the Pacific”, said Steve Cranwell, BirdLife International’s Invasive Species Manager. “This bird’s remaining predator-free habitat was so small that without this intervention, a cyclone, prolonged drought, or accidental rat or avian disease introduction could trigger extinction”.

Introduced mammalian species alone are believed to be responsible for 90% of all bird extinctions since 1500. Early human explorers introduced invasive species such as rats to the remote Acteon & Gambier islands (and thousands more around the world), upsetting the natural balances of the islands and threatening the native plants and wildlife that evolved without defences against land predators.

Operation Restoration

Combining resources, expertise, equipment, and logistical skills, a coalition of NGOs, BirdLife International, SOP Manu (BirdLife Partner, French Polynesia) and Island Conservation—together with the support of the government of French Polynesia, landowners, other partners and local volunteers—voyaged over 1,500 km to six of French Polynesia’s remote islands—Vahanga , Tenarunga, Temoe, Kamaka, Makaroa and Manui to complete the challenging project in 2015.

The project required years of planning and fundraising (including a cooperation with Rovio, the maker of Angry Birds), involved nine permits, 165 helicopter flight hours, three ships transporting hundreds of tonnes of equipment and donated bait from key partners Bell Laboratories and Tomcat, as well as 31 personnel from six countries (from three continents) who endured extraordinary weather and sea conditions during 12-day journeys to and from the islands. The prospect of a brighter future for the Tutururu and other native island species made the operations well-worth the effort.

“After extensive monitoring, a survey in April has confirmed great success on five of the six islands”, reported Dr David Beaune, Director SOP Manu. “This is a tremendous achievement that will provide a permanent solution to the alarming declines of native species on these islands due to predation and competition from invasive species”.

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