20 Dec 2017

How to highlight bird conservation and plastic waste? Enter Miss World

Conservation Project Officer Alanna Smith, aka “Miss Cook Islands”, talks about her passion for conserving her country’s bird species, and how she’s more likely to be found making compost with local kids than wearing heels.

Conservation Project Officer Alanna Smith (centre) in the field © Te Ipukarea Society
Conservation Project Officer Alanna Smith (centre) in the field © Te Ipukarea Society
By Jessica Law

Alanna Smith works for Te Ipukarea Society (TIS – BirdLife in the Cook Islands), where she can often be found trekking through forest to protect birds, snorkelling the reef, encouraging tourists to donate to conservation work, handling worms on a compost heap, or delving through waste to show schoolchildren how to improve recycling. However, for a short while this year Alanna swapped her hiking boots and fins for a pair of heels: she was crowned “Miss Cook Islands” this summer, and then hastily rearranged her working schedule to attend the 2017 Miss World Semi-finals held in Sanya, China. This was a unique opportunity to extend awareness of the pressing conservation issues in the Cook Islands to the world stage.

Now a major part of the competition, the “Beauty with a Purpose” component allows Miss World contestants to showcase environmental or social projects that they are passionate about; entry takes the form of a video:

 

 

“Here in the Cook Islands, our people have been brought up with the bad habit of burning our rubbish—be it general waste, organic waste, or even plastics!” says Alanna.

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“We need to remind our people of the harmful effects burning plastics has, not only on our environment, but on our own health.”

Waste management is one of five pillars of TIS’ work (which also includes Biodiversity, Youth Engagement, Climate Change, and Eco-sustainable Development), and Alanna is currently rolling out an innovative project to all schools within the Cook Islands. Students learned how to produce organic fertiliser through composting and worm farms, teaching the valuable lesson that organic waste doesn’t have to be burned, but can instead create a free and sustainable alternative to chemical fertilisers. The project was made possible with support from the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, administered by UNDP.

 

A passion for birds

 

Alanna has always been passionate about conserving the Cook Islands’ endemic bird species. In another part of the competition, Alanna wore an amazing costume inspired by the Kura Bird of Atiu, the Rimatara Lorikeet Vini kuhlii (Endangered). She explains the reason for her choice:

 

Alanna's costume was inspired by the Rimatara Lorikeet, an Endangered bird species native to the Cook Islands © Te Ipukarea Society

 

"The beautiful Rimatara was over-harvested...now within the Cook Islands it is only found on Atiu—the island where I'm from"

“In prehistoric times, the Kura bird was found throughout the southern Cook Islands, especially the island of Atiu. But because of its beautiful red feathers, the bird was over-harvested and became lost except on Rimatara in Tahiti. It wasn’t until 2007 that 27 Rimatara Lorikeets were brought over to re-establish the once-thriving Kura population. I chose to showcase the Kura bird not only because it is a stunning bird altogether, but because within the Cook Islands it is now only found on Atiu—and Atiu is the island I am from.”

Alanna also works with TIS on the endemic Mangaia Kingfisher Todiramphus ruficollaris (Vulnerable), locally known as Tanga’eo. Both bird species are threatened by invasive species. You can watch the documentary of the plan to preserve this stunning bird here:

 

The project received support from the Jensen Foundation and the Arcadia Foundation, funded through BirdLife International.

 

For the youth

 

A Miss Cook Islands who gets her hands dirty and passionately highlights waste issues is the kind of role model young people can look up to. Alanna feels that her exposure on Miss World has helped to inspire the next generation of young conservationists:

“I feel as though my people might now actually take an interest in what I'm practicing and teaching, and hopefully follow suit with the methods I teach – especially among our youth.”

 

Alanna Smith works hard to engage the local community in conservation © Te Ipukarea Society

 

Alanna’s long-term aim is to lobby the government of the Cook Islands to introduce an outright ban on plastic bags and straws:

“I feel as though we have a great deal of unnecessary plastic waste on the island."

"For instance, I see people buying plastic water bottles on a daily basis, and using plastic straws without even realising the life span of that plastic product lasts a lot longer than its one-off use.”

Her work encourages the Cook Islands to lead by example, and she hopes to encourage neighbouring Pacific islands, and nations from around the world, to follow suit.

Although Alanna didn’t win Miss World overall, her achievements were invaluable: she may not be Miss World, but she’s definitely the kind of Miss that the world needs.

 

Alanna Smith's work with school children is inspiring the next generation of conservationists © Te Ipukarea Society