14 Apr 2016

Appointment of an Island Restoration Manager marks the start of BirdLife’s ambitious project to restore the Marquesas Archipelago and Rapa

New Island Restoration Manager Tehani Withers on the job
By SOP Manu

Last year the restoration and protection of 8 islands in Acteon and Gambier groups of islands was the most ambitious project undertaken by BirdLife in the Pacific.  The next major restoration of up to 18 islands of the Marquesas and at Rapa is an even greater challenge and of huge biodiversity significance.  Sharing this vision is the David and Lucile Packard Foundation

The Marquesas is one of the most important archipelagos for bird conservation in the world.  It is home to 22 species of seabird including three globally threatened (Tahiti Petrel, Phoenix Petrel, Polynesian Storm-Petrel) and at least two globally threatened land birds (Marquesas Ground-Dove, Marquesas Monarch). 

Rapa is the eastern most island of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia. Nine satellite islets ranging in size from approximately one to 26 hectares surround the main island.  They are home to an assemblage of seabirds unlike those found elsewhere in French Polynesia with eleven species, seven of which are petrels and shearwaters including an endemic form of the White-bellied storm petrel.

Restoration on this scale does not just happen.  It requires a long lead time of research and planning and most importantly, getting the agreement of the local communities and enlisting their support.  BirdLife French Polynesian partner, SOP (Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie) Manu. SOP Manu is very experienced in this community liaison and gaining local support over many projects including the ongoing work to save the Fatu Hiva and Tahiti monarchs from extinction, at Acteon and Gambier and many other species recovery projects.  That is why the first `on-the-ground’ significant step in this new project is the appointment, by SOP Manu, of Tehani Withers as its Island Restoration Manager.

Tehani grew up in French Polynesia and her family resides there. After completing secondary school in Tahiti, she completed her tertiary study in New Zealand. During her BSc (Tech) degree, she completed two work placements in French Polynesia, both with the SOP Manu.

During her first three-month placement, Tehani went to Tahuata Island, one of the islands of the Marquesas Archipelago. There she studied the Marquesas kingfisher population and spent time learning skills such as bird monitoring and using GPS.  She also worked to raise community awareness by talking to the local children about the birds inhabiting their island. This trip was funded by the Conservation Leadership Program

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During the second work placement of six months, Tehani returned to SOP Manu to study the Tahiti monarch, one of the areas most threatened species.  She monitored the reproductive and feeding behaviours of the birds, their interactions with invasive birds and completed a survey of little fire ants colony that was near one of the Tahiti monarch’s valley.

While doing her masters’ degree, Waikato University conferred on Tehani a $1500 Tertiary Achievement in Pacific Ako (TAPA) Award to research the habitat requirements of translocated South Island takahe on Motutapu Island and Maungatautari. This research was also supported by the Department of Conservation and the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust (MEIT).

As Island Restoration Manager for SOP Manu Tehani has a range of duties, especially obtaining local and national support for effective island biosecurity and the removal of introduced vertebrates.  She will be leading field expeditions to inform biosecurity and eradication operation planning for the islets of Marquesas and Rapa.  Teheni will also develop and ensure the adoption of biosecurity systems and practices for the Acteon islands and the Gambier Islets, a key to ensure the islands remain free of invasive species.  

At the moment, Tehani and SOP Manu are planning a trip to Turéia next month to ensure that coprah workers and the Nuku Hau (commercial boat) will follow biosecurity measures when going to the Actéon atolls. As the islands belong to the Catholic Church and are managed by the SCAA (Société Civile’ Agricole des Actéon), Tenania is still being used for the harvest of coprah. This is why, every year between April and December, a commercial boat brings workers to these islands. This is the first year that they will be heading to the atolls since the Acteon and Gambier restoration operation. It is essential that biosecurity measures are in place to avoid the re-introduction of these invasive species (especially rats and ants).

Next up is the Marqueseas and Rapa project preparation.  In June and July Tehani, with her SOP Manu colleagues, will go to Marquesas Islands to meet the local community to talk about the removal of exotic species on the uninhabited islets surrounding their main islands. This trip is also to gather their opinions, since it will be necessary to work together if this project is to be a success. A trip to Rapa, to also talk to the community, will be harder to arrange, as boats do not often visit the island (every two months). Field surveys on biodiversity and the presence of introduced species will be done later in the year, depending on the availability of research scientists (from BirdLife & Island Conservation). 

This is a huge project and there is a long way to go.  But SOP Manu, BirdLife and our other partners, including Island Conservation, know that success will mean huge gains for biodiversity and in reversing the decline of so many species.   This first stage is thanks to the very generous support of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.