30 Nov 2011

Invasive species Cast Away in Fiji

By BirdLife Pacific
Goats and rats have been removed from two Fijian islands in a joint operation conducted by BirdLife International’s Fiji Programme and the National Trust of Fiji aimed at protecting unique wildlife on Monuriki and Kadomo. “This is a massive achievement which will provide benefits for the iguanas, birds, plants and people of these islands”, said Sialesi Rasalato from BirdLife International. The Mamanuca island chain is a well-known tourist destination and nationally important for some unique and threatened wildlife. The islands of Monuriki and Kadomo are among Fiji’s most critical islands for burrowing seabirds and endemic iguana. Monuriki was the location for the Tom Hanks film Cast Away which depicts his successful attempts to survive on the island following a plane crash. In real life, the 41 hectare island is home to less than a hundred Critically Endangered Fijian Crested Iguana Brachylophus vitiensis which are found on only a few islands, in the dry western side of the Fijian archipelago. Both Monuriki and Kadomo also provide vital habitat for nationally significant breeding colonies of Wedge-tailed Shearwater Puffinus pacificus. Thousands of the fish-eating seabirds have excavated burrows across the islands in which to rear their chicks, and can be heard making their strange ‘baby-crying’ calls after dark.

In 1999 and 2003, the National Trust of Fiji surveyed a few islands in the Mamanuca Group detecting a rapid decline in the iguana population as a result of major habitat degradation by goats. In 2009, BirdLife International undertook surveys that showed that rats and goats were also posing severe threats to  the breeding seabirds on both islands.

Introduced by humans and alien to Fiji, rats eat many life forms including eggs, seeds, and insects, whilst goats eat all plants within reach and trample fragile seabird burrows. Together these pests have substantially altered the ability of native plants and animals to exist on the islands and, if left unchecked, would lead to the loss of many including the shearwaters and iguanas. “Most documented extinctions, and present causes for decline among Pacific island birds, are the result of invasive alien species like rats and goats”, said Elenoa Seniloli of BirdLife International.

To deal with these threats, the National Trust of Fiji and BirdLife International carried out an intensive and complex operation to rid the two islands permanently of goats and rats. For the goats, those that could be mustered and caught - by the local Yanuya Rugby Team - were taken to the mainland, while all remaining animals were later eliminated by professional hunters from New Zealand using trained sniffer dogs. The rats were eradicated by spreading specially-formulated rodenticide from a helicopter in a hi-tech procedure using GPS equipment and a specifically designed spreader bucket which could calibrate required bait-drops. If no sign of either pest are detected after two years, Monuriki and Kadomo islands will be officially declared rat and goat-free. It’s now vitally important that these alien creatures don’t return, and project partners are calling for all visitors to check their boats and equipment for unwanted stowaways before landing on the islands. “It has taken years of preparation and work to rid these introduced pest animals from Monuriki and Kadomo, and a careless visitor could bring them back in a day”, said Jone Niukula of the National Trust of Fiji. “We ask visitors to be especially careful”, added Joeli Vadada – landowner and National Trust of Fiji Volunteer Ranger for Monuriki Island. “Visitors to the islands need to check everything before they go ashore for stowaway seeds, lizards, rodents and insects.” BirdLife is now developing a bio-security programme that will provide further information and training to the Islands communities and tourist operators, enabling them to prevent pests from getting back to the Islands. “We also intend to work with the landowners in developing projects that enable them to benefit from the islands natural resources in a sustainable way such as through eco-tourism”, noted Mrs Seniloli. This is the 12th successful island restoration programme completed by the BirdLife International Fiji Programme. With over 300 islands in Fiji there are many opportunities to eradicate unwanted pests and improve the future for biodiversity and people. The planning, consultations, financing, technical assistance and implementation of the goat and rat operations have required numerous partnerships within Fiji and around the world. In communicating the project’s success, BirdLife International and the National Trust of Fiji acknowledge that this result would not have been possible without the efforts of many, including Nadroga/Navosa Provincial Council, the Fiji Department of Environment, the Fiji Police Force, Biosecurity Authority of Fiji, Mamanuca Environment Society, the Pacific Invasives Initiative, Ross Wharfe, Luke Robertson, New Zealand Department of Conservation, skilled hunters, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the UK Darwin Initiative, Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, Aage V. Jensen Foundation and European Community and the landowners of Monuriki and Kadomo Mataqali Vuna-i-vi and Mataqali Namatua, Taukei Yanuya, and the village of Yanuya (Koro ko Yanuya). Subscribe to The BirdLife Pacific Quarterly E-Newsletter