Restoring the Balance of Life in the South Pacific

In Focus, March 2006

by Ben Jolliffe

The Samoan island of Nu’utele in the Polynesia-Micronesia Hotspot may seem like a tropical paradise, but it has seen more than its fair share of death and disease. Until the early 20th century, it was home to Samoa’s only leper colony. Today, its remarkable fauna and flora are threatened by another plague – that of invasive alien species.

Endemic species such as the Vulnerable friendly ground-dove (Gallicolumba stairi) and the Endangered tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris) are unable to put up much of a fight against invasive species like the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans). As they threaten endemic plants and animals alike, alien species compromise the balance of native ecosystems and the many services they provide.

With island communities in particular so highly dependent on biological resources for survival, protecting against invasive species is critical not only for the maintenance of essential ecosystem function, but also for sustaining human livelihoods. Furthermore, since only about 0.1 percent of the hotspot is land, the islands are extremely fragile and vulnerable to impacts.

While a number of global and regional projects have focused on researching, gathering, and disseminating information on invasive species, relatively little funding has been available thus far for in situ projects, and there is a particular need for projects that address invasive species management.

A new partnership is beginning to meet this need with an Invasive Alien Species Program recently launched in the hotspot. The one-year program provides a new source of funding for local projects that prevent, control, and eradicate invasive species.

A Partnership for Funding and Implementation

Funded by the Regional Natural Heritage Program of the Australian government, the program is being implemented through a partnership of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and the Pacific Invasives Initiative of the Cooperative Islands Initiative.

The program aims to deal more effectively with invasive species across the hotspot, particularly by preventing the introduction of these species to alien-free islands and habitats. Other key objectives include improving local livelihoods through employment generation and protection of natural resources as well as providing lessons learned to be used in capacity-building and training by the Pacific Invasives Learning Network (PILN).

CEPF’s administration of this program serves as the first step toward the implementation of a complete CEPF investment strategy, called an ecosystem profile, prepared for the hotspot. Funding for this profile is expected to happen in the near future and will include the prevention, control, and eradication of invasive species in key biodiversity sites as the first of several strategic directions.

Species at Risk

More species have gone extinct in the Polynesia-Micronesia Hotspot than in any other, partly due to the fact that early colonists of the islands introduced a number of plants and animals for food, medicines, building materials, and ornamentation. Species including the Pacific rat were already pests when European colonization that began in the mid-nineteenth century added hundreds more to their number.

The most serious invasive species vary from country to country in the hotspot but there are a few species that appear to be a problem on almost every island, especially rats and ants. Introduced species of land snails, such as the rosy wolf snail (Euglandina rosea), have also decimated native land snail populations.

According to the Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk database, there are at least 297 invasive plant species in and around the Pacific Islands. These include the African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata), the velvet tree (Miconia calvescens), climbing vines such as Merremia peltata, and various other grasses, creeping herbs, and aquatic plants.

Only 20 percent of the native vegetation now remains in a natural state and approximately 75 percent of the globally threatened species identified in the hotspot are threatened by alien invasive species.

Targeted Conservation

To make best use of the resources available, conservation efforts are being carefully targeted. As part of the planning for a wider investment program, CEPF facilitated an 18-month process that included workshops in the islands of Fiji, French Polynesia, Micronesia, and Western Polynesia, as well as contributions from local stakeholders representing civil society, government, academia, and the private sector.

The planning process, which was used as the basis for the Invasive Alien Species Program, identified 476 globally threatened terrestrial species in all the countries and territories of the hotspot. Almost half of these species, however, fell in countries and territories that are ineligible for CEPF funding.

In the 15 eligible countries and territories, 244 globally threatened target species and 164 key biodiversity sites were identified, all vitally important to global biodiversity.

Working with Local Communities

Since the implementation of the Invasive Alien Species Program, six projects have been funded, the majority of which tie in with local organizations’ existing conservation efforts. These projects are designed to serve as demonstration and pilot projects that will raise civil society’s capacity to continue to implement similar programs in the future.

In Nu’utele and its sister island Nu’ulua, located off the coast of Samoa and known together as the Aleipata Islands, 11 local communities partnered with the Samoan government in 2001 to create a marine protected area to conserve their rich natural and cultural heritage.

Funding from the Invasive Alien Species Program will help these communities remove the rat population from their islands and create a secure wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary will also act as a viable refuge for threatened species such as the Endangered maomao (Gymnomyza samoensis), a forest bird whose habitat is rapidly declining elsewhere.

But as CEPF Grant Manager James Atherton points out, "Restoring the region’s natural heritage is first and foremost about working with local communities. Unlike other hotspots, once the initial work has been done, you have to keep monitoring in case other alien species return and recolonize."

Awareness of traditional beliefs is also important if local people are to become long-term biodiversity stewards. Ancestral gravesites on the Aleipata Islands, for example, are traditionally held to be the home of important spirits, which must be taken into account by any management or conservation plans.

Furthermore, where the traditional way of life has eroded, so have sustainable practices developed over many generations that once ensured the continued supply of particular food stocks and medicines. Working with communities to prevent the loss of such knowledge is an important part of successful conservation.

Elsewhere with program support, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community – a regional organization that addresses the social, land, and marine resource issues for 22 Pacific island countries – has embarked on an ant prevention program for multiple areas across the hotspot.

The project is working to control or eradicate invasive ants and to strengthen island defenses against the introduction of new populations. Training local community members in invasive ant management techniques is also part of the initiative.

Creating Jobs, Building Skills

In another project funded by the program, the University of the South Pacific is restoring the populations of native fauna on the island of Viwa in Fiji and ensuring the long-term conservation of the Endangered Fijian ground frog (Platymantis vitiana). The frog is found only in a limited area and its distribution is severely fragmented, causing continuing decline in the number of mature individuals.

The university’s project, as part of its interest in developing ecotourism potential, addresses the important issue of water storage on the island. Additionally, the project will employ a number of local people as well as providing research opportunities for Fijian students at the university.

Sharing Information for the Future

Other projects funded by the program are helping to ensure that practitioners and decisionmakers have access to the latest invasive species data, and that program grantees are equipped with the most up-to-date technical input on endangered plants and animals threatened by invasives across the hotspot.

Findings from all the demonstration programs will be fully reported and disseminated to a wider audience and incorporated in the Global Invasive Species Database so effective models can be replicated elsewhere. Additionally, all program grantees will come together later this year for a workshop to exchange experiences and lessons learned.

Throughout history, the many species introduced to the islands from the outside have had a negative impact on the area’s cultural and ecological life leading to disease, extinction, habitat degradation, and poverty. The work of programs like the Invasive Alien Species Program is already beginning to redress that balance in key biodiversity areas.

The hope is that the pilot projects now underway will lead to long-term solutions, and will continue to provide a secure future for the diversity of life found on these geographically complex and biologically wealthy islands of the South Pacific.

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