8 Oct 2019

Palau Conservation Society: protecting paradise for 25 years

When unregulated tourism threatened to destroy the Pacific nation of Palau, a movement was formed to preserve paradise for future generations. 25 years on, our Partner, the Palau Conservation Society, has inspired ideas that have gone on to transform the nation.

Bai (traditional Palauan meeting house) © highD / Shutterstock
Bai (traditional Palauan meeting house) © highD / Shutterstock
By Jessica Law

The Pacific nation of Palau has created something no other nation on earth has. Before entering any of its 200+ islands, you are asked at customs to sign the Palau Pledge – a formal agreement to respect the natural environment throughout your stay.

Palau is the first nation on earth to include environmental protection in its immigration laws, and many of the rules refer directly to the archipelago’s unique wildlife: don’t collect marine life from beaches, don’t step on coral, and don’t feed the fish or sharks. But the pledge also features clear social guidelines: support local businesses, learn about the local culture and respect traditional customs. The close relationship between wildlife and community is highlighted by the fact that the pledge was written not by the government, or even conservation organisations, but the children of Palau.

But it might not have been this way. Palau could easily have gone the way of Maya Bay in Thailand, which in 2018 was closed by the government after conservationists found that 80% of its corals had been destroyed by tourism activities. Our Partner the Palau Conservation Society (PCS) played a pivotal role in steering Palau towards the right path, promoting a way of thinking where nature and culture come first.

Palau is well worth protecting. Its islands boast the richest and most diverse flora and fauna in Micronesia, with many unique species found only in Palau. These species are ingrained in the traditions of the local people, who rely heavily on natural resources for food and livelihoods. For example, the Palau Flycatcher Myiagra erythrops is known as ‘Charmelachull’ in the local language, which means ‘animal of rain’. According to some cultures, its song is a sign that rain is on its way. This is just one of 13 endemic bird species that depend on Palau to survive.

PCS was founded in 1994 – the same year that Palau gained independence from the United States’ governance. The newly-independent nation was being pressured from all sides to develop. Concerned that unchecked development would wreak irreparable damage, ten visionary leaders from across the nation came together to make sure all growth would be sustainable. This year, PCS is celebrating its 25th birthday, having educated people, saved species and inspired ideas that have gone on to transform the nation.

The Palau Fruit-dove is the official bird of Palau © Devon Pike

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PCS kicked off their work with a project to protect Palau Fruit-dove Ptilinopus pelewensis. Known locally as the ‘Biib’, this iconic species was used as a flagship around which to rally Palau communities. PCS started as they meant to go on, safeguarding the bird by educating and empowering local people to become stewards of their own protected areas. This vivid dove is now a common sight across the archipelago. During a project to educate children about Palau’s endemic birds, school pupils voted for the Biib to become Palau’s national bird. Not only did the Palau Fruit-dove win the vote, but also ended up as the species featured on the PCS logo.

Invasive species have been a problem for many years, especially for the Micronesian Scrubfowl Megapodius laperouse (Endangered), whose eggs are frequently devoured by rats. PCS achieved a major success in 2012, when three islands on Kayangel Atoll, the scrubfowl’s major stronghold, were completely cleared of rats. Last year, they continued a large-scale project to remove rodents from the final, largest island, hopefully making it the first inhabited island in Palau to be declared rat-free.

The Micronesian Scrubfowl incubates its eggs using volcanic heat © Island Conservation

Pioneers in responsible tourism, PCS brought the ‘Green Fins’ environmentally-friendly diving and snorkelling standards to Palau. And although PCS was just one of many organisations who helped to implement the Palau Pledge, it’s no surprise the children of Palau were inspired to write it. PCS has long had a partnership with the Ministry of Education, and their “Ridge to Reef” education programme is part of the school curriculum. In the field, youths get hands-on planting trees - but these aren’t the only seeds that PCS has planted.

“PCS has brought modern conservation to Palau and integrated it with traditional values and practices. We have employed over 70 staff over the years, many of whom now are leading conservation efforts in the national government at some of the highest levels,” says Abolade Majekobaje, Executive Director of PCS.

There are still challenges ahead. A proposed tourism resort threatens the pristine coastal wetland of Peleliu Lkes. Climate change is a growing threat that PCS has been tackling by promoting sustainable land management and reviving traditional croplands to hold back flooding and erosion. But as they face these upcoming challenges, they can be confident in the fact that they have the support of the whole island – as well as anyone who visits.