To try to stop more bird species becoming extinct two major conservation organisations are getting together to try to eradicate rats and feral cats that a major threat to bird life.
In the new year Island Conservation, a California based organisation will work with BirdLife International's Pacific office in Fiji in a series of programs across the Pacific.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Ray Nias, south western Pacific regional director, Island Conservation
NIAS: The islands are particularly susceptible to threats from invasive species like feral cats and rats. Essentially what happened is this is a problem that's been occurring over the course of history. Some of the species were moved around from island to island very early on, hundreds of years ago, in fact in some cases thousands of years ago. Up until very recently where for example the brown tree snake was allowed to get out of Solomon Islands and is now a major pest species in many parts of the Pacific. People just move animals around for different reasons, both deliberate and accidental. Shipwrecks result in rats getting onto islands all of the time, even now.
COUTTS: And introducing mongoose to Fiji hasn't helped either? They were brought in initially as pets?
NIAS: Yes unfortunately there's a number of examples where people have been very misguided in their choice of pets, and we see things like the mongoose. But there are monkeys in Palau which are now a major pest problem in that country, and there are American iguanas in Fiji which are potentially major pest problem too. So unfortunately it's a very widespread problem and it's one that's going to take a lot of effort to try and curb.
COUTTS: Now Island Conservation and BirdLife International Pacific are getting together next year to try and prevent more birds becoming extinct. Which ones will you target first?
NIAS: Well we have a range of island projects that we're considering at the moment, and some of them for example are in the stages of planning and are very close to being able to get done. So for example in French Polynesia, the Tuamotu Archipelago, we're looking at islands there that contain species of birds, including the world's only tropical sand piper, a shore bird. So that Tuamotu Archipelago is very important, and the nearby Gambier Archipelago is also an extremely important one. But that's just one example of a place that's had considerable amount of effort already, some good study and planning has gone into that, and it should be possible within the next two years to remove rats in particular from a number of islands in that group there in French Polynesia.
COUTTS: But there's good and bad I suppose, once you get rid of one predator it generally causes other problems elsewhere. Are you looking at that too, sort of the winning and losing efforts of these kinds of eradication programs?
NIAS: Yes we take a whole of eco system approach when we think about this. We are aware of course that if you for example remove cats from an island, you may end up with a population explosion of rats. So yes we do take an eco-system based approach and are very careful of interfering in eco systems, because essentially that's what we are doing. We try to fix the problem, but it's still interfering with an eco-system. So we do a lot of scientific background work and a lot of preparation to make sure that any unintended consequences are kept to an absolute minimum.
COUTTS: And what are some of the species that have been lost to the Pacific forever?
NIAS: This list is I'm afraid far too long to go into. But there are dozens, if you look at places like New Zealand for example, there are dozens and dozens of birds that have been lost from New Zealand over the years. And almost every island has lost species throughout the Pacific. Probably one of the most recent ones is the Norfolk Island Silver Eye, a tiny little thing, small little bird from Norfolk Island which is the most overseas territory of Australia in fact. We believe that bird went extinct is almost certainly extinct, and went extinct sometime in the last ten or 20 years.
COUTTS: Now these are the birds that we know of of course, and we also know that we're finding more and more species as scientists get out there and start researching. So the islands haven't been mapped entirely, so it's quite possible that a lot more have been lost to us that we are unaware of?
NIAS: We find evidence of species that have gone extinct hundreds of years ago as a result of movement of rats around the Pacific, that's true, and these species weren't recorded live by European scientists, but they are present sometimes as sub-fossil deposits. So there is absolutely no doubt from the research that's been done that bird life of the Pacific was once much greater than it is now.
COUTTS: Well give us the dimensions of this, these programs that Island Conservation and BirdLife International will be doing? I mean like how many people, over what period of time and who's funding it, where's the money coming from?
NIAS: BirdLife and Island Conservation are both looking to bring in funding for these programs. BirdLife has already received quite a reasonable amount of funding from European Union sources, I think it's in the order of one-and-a-half-million Euro. So Island Conservation will also be looking to try and find money of that sort of magnitude, several million dollars over the next few years, so that we can help match the word that's being done by BirdLife and bring our own expertise and resources to it. But the thing is a project on this scale, we are talking about dozens of islands across six or seven different countries, a project of that scale is going to take multiple millions of dollars over the next few years and involve hundreds of different people in action and on islands, everybody from helicopter pilots through to local community people.
COUTTS: Are you going to use the community on that note that you've just mentioned there? We've seen in the past the preservation and protection of turtles for instance using the campaign on creating awareness that they shouldn't just eat them and kill them at will, at random, has actually worked quite well. Is that something you'd also entertain?
NIAS: Yes we are very keen to involve the community in as many aspects of this work as is feasible to do so. And there are opportunities for people to be involved at local community level, in villages, on islands, in fact in most cases it's impossible to work on islands of course without actually work with local communities. So we believe there are going to be good opportunities for involving people in these projects, and of course some of the species that we're talking about, like the black rat for example, are a well-known threat to human health and agriculture in their own right. So there are also we believe going to be community benefits to these sorts of programs.
COUTTS: Alright well good luck with it and just once again just run us through some of the countries that can expect visits from you next year?
NIAS: Well right on the top of our list, French Polynesia, Palau, we've just recently been to Palau to talk to people there. Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, Samoa, that's just off the top of my head.
COUTTS: And are you going to Guam where the brown tree snake is running riot there?
NIAS: This is not part of that particular project, but we are very interested in what's going on in Guam and we are looking through that from our North American office, because of the fact that Guam of course is a US territory. We are looking at what we can do and what can be done if anything about the brown tree snake problem in Guam and elsewhere in the Northern Marianas Islands.