21 Dec 2010

The Magnificent Seven (rat free Fijian islands)

By BirdLife Pacific
Two years after the BirdLife International Fiji Programme implemented an operation to eradicate rats from the Ringgold Islands, all seven islands have been confirmed rodent-free. Early monitoring also shows that the birds, people and wider wildlife of these remote islands are already benefitting from the removal of these invasive pests. BirdLife staff are continuing to work with local people to ensure the rats don’t return. Located to the northeast of Taveuni, Fiji, the Ringgold Islands hold internationally important numbers of nesting seabirds. Seabird populations here, as elsewhere in the Pacific, were suffering because of rats, which eat eggs and nestlings. The Ringgolds are also an important source of natural resources and income for the islands’ landowners. In August 2008, the BirdLife Fiji programme began working closely with the two landowning clans, Yavusa Naqelelevu and Mataqali Qilo, to eradicate the rats. A specially formulated rodent bait was dropped on the islands from a helicopter. Among the positive changes recorded since 2008 Bridled Tern Sterna anaethetus have been observed for two of the seven islands. This species was not previously known in the area, and its appearance is a promising sign that birds vulnerable to the impacts of rats will establish breeding colonies. Click notes to view the image descriptions. In mid-November 2010, BirdLife’s Fiji team led a survey of the Ringgold Islands. Colonies of Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel, Black Noddy Anous minutus and Brown Booby Sula leucogaster were recorded. These populations represent over 1% of the global number for each species, and qualify the island group as an Important Bird Area. In addition, nationally significant numbers of Red-footed Booby Sula sula, Brown Noddy Anous stolidus, Common White Tern Gygis alba, and the globally Vulnerable Bristle-thighed Curlew Numenius tahitiensis were also present. Significant numbers of turtle nests were recorded on three islands and skink activity had also increased, particularly the Pacific Black Skink Emoia nigra, which is listed under Fiji’s Endangered and Protected Species Act. The eradication programme was only the first step in keeping these islands free of rats and other foreign pests. Biosecurity plans have been developed for all the islands, and village representatives have been trained in techniques to prevent the introduction of alien species.

Bridled Tern have been observed on two of the islands for the first time. An early sign of success. Credit: Rosswebsdale / Flickr.

“BirdLife urges all visitors to these islands to check their boats and equipment for stowaway rats prior to departure”, said Mr Sialisi Rasalato, BirdLife Fiji programme Conservation Officer. “The introduction of just one pregnant rat would be enough to undo all the hard work, and set the clock back to a time where the islands were crawling with rats.” Sia Rasalato added that the BirdLife International Fiji programme is grateful to the two land owning clans for their support. “Without this, the eradication and the islands’ ongoing pest free status would not have been possible.” In association with the landowning communities, BirdLife has established a Site Support Group - the Ringgold Seabird Committee - to lead the islands’ management, communicate the results of the eradication, and champion the islands’ protection among the wider communities. The seven islands are traditionally under the District (tikina) of Laucala. Mr Josefa Tale, the Mata ni Tikina (Laucala District representative), heads the SSG, and provides a link to the Cakaudrove Provincial Council in achieving support for the islands protection. Mr Tale has affirmed the interest of the landowners in protecting the islands from invasive species such as rats. “In order to achieve this, we the island owners must ensure that the islands continue to be rat free. On behalf of the Ringgold Seabird Committee and the Ringgolds Community, I therefore ask visitors to be especially careful when visiting the Ringgolds”, said Mr Tale.

Pacific rats predate bird eggs in huge numbers.

Mr Tevita Mereti of Naqelelevu village thanked BirdLife International Fiji programme for eradicating rats off the islands, as they were damaging the islands unique biodiversity, and ruining their plantation crops and food stores. He urged fishermen and others who may visit the islands to check their boats and equipment for possible stowaways. “It has taken years of preparation and work to get rid of rats; a careless visitor could bring it back in a day, so we ask visitors to be especially careful” concluded Mr Mereti. The BirdLife Seabird Island Restoration programme is supported by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Darwin Initiative. Assistance to the programme has also been provided by the Pacific Invasives Initiative, the Pacific Invasives Learning Network, and the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The Fiji Department of Environment and wider Fiji Government have also supported the island restoration programme.