Tuesday, 1 September 2009 9:07 AM

Protecting the Natural Heritage of Samoa

Press Release - As fairytales go, Hamelin used a pied piper and pipes to rid the town of rats. In real life, Samoa is using a helicopter and rat bait.

The valuable native wildlife of Samoa's Nu'utele and Nu'ulua islands is severely affected by the Pacific rat. These islands are two of the four which make up the Aleipata islands group. They are rich in Samoa's natural heritage but this heritage is under severe threat. For example, these islands are home to the last remaining Friendly Ground Doves, now one of the rarest birds of Samoa but which used to inhabit Upolu. Rats eat the eggs of the birds and other animal life, and they also have a negative impact upon the lowland forests by eating seeds and young plant shoots. If the natural heritage on the islands is to survive so that future generations can see the original wildlife and lowland forests of Samoa then action needs to be taken now to remove threats, including rats.

The Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) of the Government of Samoa, Dr. Tu'u'u Ieti Taulealo, believes that partnerships are a special feature of this project, highlighting the importance of community support in sustaining nature conservation.

"This is the first project of its kind in Samoa, to protect our natural heritage. We want to see our unique plant and animal life thrive and I hope our community will see the value of this project and support further work in this area. It's also a great opportunity for our staff to learn as we work in partnership with many other organisations out there to make sure this project is carried out effectively."

In the early 1990s, biologists identified the forests of Nu'utele and Nu'ulua islands as among the best remaining lowland forests in Samoa. With lowland forest being the most threatened habitat in the Pacific, work to save this ecosystem in Samoa has become an environmental priority. An important first step in restoring these islands to their former glory is to remove the rats, which were brought there by early human colonists hundreds of years ago. The most effective way to do this is to use a helicopter to drop carefully selected rat bait as well as a lot of expertise, preparation and good weather.

The helicopter is used to fly above the two islands to drop brodifacoum bait, using a spreader to ensure it is dropped evenly and widely. Brodifacoum is the same chemical used in ordinary rat bait that anyone can buy in shops for use around the house, and has been developed specifically for mammals. A state of the art GPS tracking tool helps ensure that all areas of the two islands are scientifically covered by the bait. Two bait drops need to be made island wide at least a week apart to ensure all rats are eradicated.

This form of rat eradication has proven successful in New Zealand, Fiji and elsewhere. In New Zealand, a rat eradication project on Raoul Island helped the long term survival of threatened birds such as the Kermadec storm petrel, white tern and masked booby, while in Fiji rats have been eradicated from the Ringgold Islands and some others, to help the recovery of seabird populations and iguanas there.

"I think the opportunity for everyone to learn from this experience in Samoa is great and who knows? Maybe some of the other Pacific islands will see it appropriate for them to do likewise in their own communities," said Dr Taulealo.

As a safety measure in the Nu'utele and Nu'ulua operation, Friendly Ground Doves were captured and removed first, in case the doves mistook the rat bait for food as they are ground feeding birds. The doves were kept in captivity during the operation.

"We've been working closely with experts from zoos around the world and built an aviary to house the doves temporarily. 23 doves are now being held in captivity, and we'll return them after the operation when the baits are no longer a risk," said Dr David Butler who is the project adviser.

"This is really the whole of Samoa's Friendly Ground Dove population, and we needed to make sure they were safe."

However, monitoring after the first bait drop showed that doves were still alive and healthy on the islands after the first bait drop, so these fears appear to have been unfounded.

"The significance of this project is that once all the rats are gone, all the original Samoan species of wildlife will breed much more successfully"

A large number of agencies have been involved in this project including the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) which is the implementing agency. SPREP has worked to ensure that this project, which was first conceived in the early 1990s, continued to take shape. The final project, which will also includes management of pest ants during 2010, is budgeted at just over USD 200,000.

"We are all pleased, especially everyone who has been involved in this since the beginning. It has been a priority of the MNRE in Samoa for a very long time. It's also a good opportunity to demonstrate within Polynesia that this can be done and how it is done," said Dr Alan Tye, the Invasives Species Officer of SPREP and the project's manager. He echoes Dr Taulealo's hope that other Pacific nations will take up the challenge of effective rat management.

"This project in Samoa is adapting techniques that have been developed and tested by New Zealand and which have recently proved effective in Fiji. The method is definitely appropriate for use throughout Polynesia."

A major aspect of this project is the careful documentation, monitoring and evaluation, activities are filmed and recorded in full so that that lessons learnt can be passed on to other islands in the future.

While lessons include plenty of minor hiccups along the way, a more pressing concern is the good weather needed in Samoa during the month of the operation, to ensure the project can be carried out successfully.

The good weather is perhaps the trickiest part of this project.


This project is the work of many different partners; The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, Samoa's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, David Butler Associates, New Zealand Department of Conservation, The Pacific Invasives Initiative, Wellington Zoo, and the Pacific Invasives Learning Network.

Funding was provided by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) through Conservation international's Pacific Programme.

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