7 Feb 2019

Pacific paradise in peril: tourism resort threatens Palau shorebird haven

Pristine coastal wetland Peleliu Lkes has been treasured in local art and culture for centuries, and acts as a refuge for Endangered shorebirds such as the Far Eastern Curlew. However, the time-honoured bond between people and nature is threatened by the development of a nearby tourism resort.

Paradise: but for how long? A nearby island has been leased for $300,000 as a resort © howamo / Shutterstock
Paradise: but for how long? A nearby island has been leased for $300,000 © howamo / Shutterstock
By Lolita Gibbons-Decherong, Palau Conservation Society

Nestled inside the tropical island nation of Palau is Peleliu Lkes, an intertidal zone made up of pristine sand flats and islets that have lain unspoiled for hundreds of years. This area has been a sanctuary for a multitude of shorebirds over the years, with Peleliu Lkes serving as a stopover point as they travel from breeding grounds in the arctic and subarctic regions of East Asia, Siberia and Alaska down to coastal habitats as far south as Australia and New Zealand. Several globally Endangered species including the Micronesian Scrubfowl Megapodius laperouse, Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis and Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris rely on Peleliu Lkes. Its favourable tidal conditions lead to abundant feeding opportunities, while its islets provide a perfect place to rest. For this reason, BirdLife has added the site to our inventory of global Important Bird & Biodiversity Areas (IBAs).

The Far Eastern Curlew or "money bird" is a symbol of good fortune © Wang LiQiang / Shutterstock

Over the course of history, there has emerged a time-honoured bond between shorebirds and Palauans. They are seen in local values, beliefs, oral history, literature, art, and chants. This bond is displayed in the relationship between Palauans and the Far Eastern Curlew, the Delerrok. An ancient icon of culture, pride, and prosperity, the Delerrok as it is called in the Palauan language is etched in the Bai, the chief’s meeting house. Oral tradition states that the Far Eastern Curlew brought the first monies into Palau, earning its locally common name, the ‘money bird’. Unfortunately, these birds are in peril. An islet adjacent to the Lkes has been leased to a foreign developer for $300,000 with the intention of developing it into a resort. Resort operations on the islet will encroach into the reef flat and result in the degradation of this habitat for endangered shorebirds and other wildlife.

Bai (traditional meeting house). Far Eastern Curlews appear on each corner post © highD / Shutterstock

Palau Conservation Society (BirdLife Partner) has been working to preserve the area. Stressing the vital role Peleliu Lkes plays for both the local community and birds, we are lobbying to convince the public and politicians that the area vitally needs protection. Hopefully, both local and global pressure will lead to the site being included on the national network of protected areas.

Dedicated in memory of the “bird man”, Alan Olsen 1946 - 2018