Building a future for the Cook Islands' Mangaia Kingfisher
A special bird in the Cook Islands in the Pacific is the Mangaian Kingfisher, (known locally as Tanga'eo). It is unique to the 5180 hectare Mangaia Island. The Tanga’eo is small, being mainly blue and white with orange bands around its eyes, and despite its name, it actually eats mainly lizards and insects rather than fish.
It is only rated as vulnerable and its population of around 500 birds seems fairly stable but, as with any species that rely on a single and relatively small habitat, that could change as it has many threats. Cats and rats, both Pacific rat and black rat, are present in all forest-types especially in areas with a lot of coconut trees) and are potential predators. The Common Myna introduced from India numbers over 9000 birds. Goats, pigs, and rodents impact forest regeneration and there is land clearing for agriculture, all of which could potentially threaten the survival of the Tanga’eo.
One of the problems in protecting the population was a lack of ongoing population data as well as limited studies into nesting sites, breeding biology and spatial range. These had only have been assessed spasmodically over the years. Additionally, Mangaia island, although the second largest island within the Cook group, suffers from geographical isolation, combined with the high cost of domestic airfares to access Mangaia from the capital island, Rarotonga. The future of this unique bird depends on the local community. But the total population of less than 500 residents on Mangaia lacked the knowledge and resources to implement long-term conservation measures to protect the Tanga’eo.
Stepping up was the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation as part of its wider `Saving Paradise’ project with BirdLife International. This project has enabled a longer-term study to take place which looks at bird biology and behaviour over differing seasons as well as time progression. It also has been an important means of addressing gaps in conservation knowledge combined with species-specific information; in order to achieve a long term conservation vision for this iconic Kingfisher. And to share the information with the local community and empower them to take the lead in an important part of their natural heritage.
The main outcome of the project was a significant raising of awareness of the island people that they are the custodians of a very special part of the world's biodiversity, the Tanga'eo. And if they do not look after it, it will be lost to the world forever. They are now more aware of the potential threats to the survival of the Tanga'eo, such as invasive species and habitat loss. The Tanga'eo rangers, originally established 16 years ago to get young people in involved in biodiversity and other aspects of environmental protection, is also being re-formed as a result of the project.
Due to the fact that the bird is widely distributed throughout many parts of the island, these threats are not having a significant impact at present – in fact the population may be increasing a little. Population numbers appear constant, or may even be increasing, based on the latest surveys and verbal reports from the locals. Having said that, the island has now been declared by proclamation as a reserve for the Tanga'eo. The Island Council has not however regulated this in any by-laws, as they do not think it is needed at present. There is some further consideration being given to some smaller areas for more specific protection.
The project phase has now come to an end and the local community will be the champions of the Tanga’eo. To brief them and also to celebrate the new commitment to conservation and nature on Mangaia, at the end of August Te Ipukarea Society staff Liam Kokaua, Alanna Smith and Mere McDonald and local biodiversity expert Jason Tuara travelled to the island to conduct a final presentation on Tanga’eo conservation. This was a premier screening of the new 15 minute Tanga’eo Documentary directed by Alanna Smith – and presented, along with popcorn, to an enthusiastic crowd. The documentary provides viewers with an overview of the Tanga’eo, its habitat, and the history of conservation activities relating to the bird. The documentary also doubles as a management plan for the bird, to help guide the Mangaia community in its future conservation.
This project is a great illustration of practical conservation in action where the sustainability of nature depends so much on the community, accepting as its own, the conservation of its local species and the habitat on which they depend.
As part of the trip and a wider TIS project supporting the use of composting and worm farms in the Cooks, the TIS team conducted a training session for senior students and the handover of a worm farm and compost bin to Mangaia School. The training consisted of TIS staff covering the “do’s and don’ts” of what to put into the worm farms and compost bins, as well as an overview of the process of decomposition and how it can reduce the amount of organic waste they burn on Mangaia. The Mangaia students and staff were enthusiastic about caring for their worms and compost bin, and principal promised to build a shed to house the two waste units. The senior students were then given the opportunity to watch the new Tanga’eo documentary, and the students enjoyed seeing some of their fellow classmates being interviewed about the kingfisher. While on the island, the TIS team managed to gather more information to add to the documentary including clarification of tree species, and received more interview footage from veteran Mangaian environmentalist, Allan Tuara.