5 Feb 2020

Explore the remote islands at the crossroads of restoration and extinction

Join us on a photographic journey to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to explore the Marquesas, a remote French Polynesian archipelago where irreplaceable nature and culture are threatened by introduced and invasive species – and where BirdLife has big plans for restoration…

Hatuta’a Island © Fred Jacq
Hatuta’a Island, the Marquesas © Fred Jacq
By Shaun Hurrell

Approaching by sea, as Polynesians first did over 1,000 years ago, the jagged peaks of the Marquesas surge out of the Pacific as a flurry of seabirds seek sanctuary on steep cliff ledges. One of the most isolated island chains in the world, the Marquesas have evolved a unique and diverse community of plants and animals, including twelve endemic bird species, and remnant patches of a highly threatened tropical dry forest.

Introduced invasive species, however, are decimating the Marquesas’ native wildlife. Three bird species have gone extinct in living memory, such as the Eiao Monarch Pomarea fluxa, last seen in 1977; whilst dry, reddish, mineral-rich soil crumbles into the sea due to overgrazing. Following a successful pilot project to restore Teuaua islet which strengthened the support and conservation skills of local people, and a recent expedition to Mohotani to refine plans for safeguarding the Marquesas’ native birds, BirdLife and SOP Manu (our Partner in French Polynesia) are busy preparing for an unparalleled restoration operation. Our ambition is to simultaneously restore seven islands and islets, providing safe havens for five highly threatened bird species, whilst benefitting the islands’ wider ecosystems and the local Polynesian community.

 

As remote as it gets

Unloading at Mohotani island © Steve Cranwell

The Marquesas are almost 5,000 km from the nearest continental landmass, and over 1,300 km northeast of Tahiti. Of outstanding natural beauty and exceptional archaeological significance, the Marquesas are a proposed dual natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though impacted by tropical storms and droughts, their vegetation and altitude will provide a future refuge for Pacific species vulnerable to sea level rise.

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Rising from the ashes

Phoenix Petrel (Endangered) © Fred Jacq

These islands are the last stronghold of the Phoenix Petrel Pterodrama alba. Like the Polynesian Storm-petrel Nesofregetta fuliginosa, it is Endangered and at the mercy of introduced rats.

 

The Last of the Monarchs 

Marquesas Monarch (Endangered) © Fred Jacq

The Marquesas are the epicentre of the Pomarea Monarch species, holding four of the world’s six remaining species. Like this Marquesas Monarch Pomarea mendozae found on Mohotani, each is confined to one island. 

 

The navigators

Accessing Mohotani island with the help of local boat owner Tieke © Steve Cranwell

The knowledge and sailing skills of local Marquesan people are crucial to the success of our restoration plans and operations. Here, Teiki Richmond and two of the team make their way from Hiva Oa to Mohotani Island.

 

A ghost of extinctions past

White-capped Fruit-dove © Steve Cranwell

The endemic Red-moustached Fruit-dove Ptilinopus mercierii was last seen on Hiva Oa in 1922, before rats caused its extinction. It was even more colourful than its cousin, the White-capped Fruit-dove Ptilinopus dupetithouarsii (pictured), which is widespread in the Marquesas, but in decline.

 

Land laid bare

© D Derand

In this fragile habitat, grazing leads to the loss of native vegetation and topsoil, leaving a barren, highly-degraded landscape. “The Marquesas are at a critical junction between restoration and extinction. We have the opportunity now to secure the future of the islands' wildlife and culture,” says Steve Cranwell, Invasive Species Programme Manager for BirdLife International. 

 

A remote culture at risk

Marquesas Culture Festival © Fred Jacq

Here, nature and Polynesian culture are as closely linked as the resident seabirds are to the ocean. Nature lies at the heart of Marquesan culture: birds, fish, forests and island landmarks are connections to the spiritual world and dominate legends, storytelling and art forms. Tapu (traditional protection) is used to safeguard nature – once the only source of food and shelter. Many of these traditions have undergone a recent renaissance, with tattooing, wood carving and dance all depicting or utilising native fauna and flora. Legend says that Oatea, one of the first ancestors, built a house overnight with each of the Marquesan islands representing a different part of the traditional structure. Mohotani is known as the place of morning bird song, likely owing to the millions of seabirds it would have once supported.

 

Motivated by saving species

The island restoration team on Hatuta’a © Fred Jacq

 

Tehani Withers (left), SOP Manu’s island restoration expert, led a recent feasibility research trip to remote Hatuta’a island, where there is no fresh water supply.

 

Nature responds to restoration

White Tern © Fred Jacq

By removing rats and preventing overgrazing, the whole ecosystem will recover, benefiting a huge number of endemic species. Droppings from returning seabirds, like this Common White Tern Gygis alba, also provide vital nutrients for the island’s soils and ecosystem.

 

Change from the ground up

Marquesas Ground-dove (Endangered) © Fred Jacq

There are fewer than 250 Marquesas Ground-dove Alopecoenas rubescens individuals left, on just two islets. Restoring natural vegetation will help save this docile, herbivorous and insectivorous bird.

 

Help us to restore paradise: support the Marquesas restoration project here