The rats of Suwarrow

It would be perfect except for an invasion of rats. “Left unchecked the rats put at risk globally important seabird populations found at the site”, said Ian Karika.   Ian is president of the Te Ipukarea society.  A  Cook Island conservation body who succeeded in brining the Rarotonga Monarch or Flycatcher back from the brink of extinction.   In 1989 it was one of the worlds ten rarest birds with just 29 individuals. Te Ipukarea’s then began a rat control program in 1989.  Now thanks to their efforts there are currently over 300 individuals.

This experience will come to the fore when Ian leads an expedition in partnership with Birdlife Pacific to eradicate the rats of Suwarrow.  Birdlife is bringing the experience gained in the successful removal of invasive species from 30 different islands across 5 different Pacific nations to the partnership.

Birdlife Pacific's Steve Cranwell will use this knowledge lay transect lines across infested islets to set humane poising bait stations for the rats.  The experience is also crucial to limiting any harm to non-target species such as the Bristle Thigh Curlew.  “Time between bait applications, and careful monitoring is very important in tropical situations” said Steve Cranwell of Birdlife Pacific.

The islets infested with rats have no breeding seabirds.  The fear is the rats will continue their invasion to other parts of the atoll.  Suwarrow’s importance as a breeding sanctuary can’t be underestimated.  It has 9% of the world’s population of Lesser Frigate Birds, 3 % of the worlds Red Tailed Tropic Birds and 100,000 Sooty Terns.  This has led to it being declared an IBA or Important Bird Area.  Other breeding seabirds include the Masked Booby, Black Noddy, Red Footed Booby, Great Frigate Bird and Brown Booby.

Wildiaries is sponsoring wildlife documentary filmmaker Nick Hayward to record the expedition.  The film is due to be launched at Birdlife’s international conference later this year.  Combined with documenting the trials of the expedition Nick plans to film ‘blue chip” natural history footage of the atolls wildlife. The film will kick start a campaign for a globally coordinated response to this issue.  There are some big goals in mind such as next year tackling French Polynesia and the ultimate goal, the islands of New Zealand.  With invasive species accounting for 90 % of all known extinctions since 1800 a solution can’t come quick enough. 

Suwarrow is a territory of the Cook Islands, yet extremely remote being 930 Klm from Rarotonga.  The team will spend over a month camping on the atoll.  They are arriving in April just after the cyclone season, which is handy as there are reports of people lashing themselves to trees as cyclonic waves swept over the islets.

Suwarrow is indeed remote but it won’t be lonely ay night.  It’s famous for nocturnal Coconut crabs.  This is the earth’s largest living terrestrial arthropod with a leg span of up to 3 feet and pincers powerful enough to tear the husks of their favorite food, coconuts.   Luckily they’re a bit to slow moving to nip the team.  Nick however needs to keep a wary eye on his camera equipment as they are also known as robber crabs.  In fact this is one theory as to how legendary aviators Amelia Earhart body disappeared, ferreted away into burrows by the crabs.  

There is one other resident the team will meet, Thomas the cat.  Thomas arrived some years ago marooned by German Yachties.  Now living feral and a bit unlovable.  Left on the island he poses a serious risk to any returning seabirds. “I’ve requested a lift for Thomas back to Rarotonga on the Vaka with us” said Nick Hayward.  

The Vaka is a traditional Cook Island Voyaging canoe.  It has been Ian Karika’s dream to voyage the oceans like his ancestor Karika Taraape did in the 13th century.  His dream came true with the construction of the Vaka.  Thomas can test his Polynesian seafaring skills by valiantly grasping the webbing between the hulls of the Vaka as he returns to civilization looking for a new home.