Rat Hunters Saving the Kakerori

Saturday April 20, 2013

Nested in the south of Rarotonga is a small gem, the Takitumu Conservation Area (TCA). Its 155 acres of forest is replete with tangling vines, towering ferns and glistening, fast flowing streams from which peer large-clawed freshwater prawns. Most of all it’s the home of the Kakerori Rarotonga Monarch, a small grey flycatcher.

For the Suwarrow team, the plight of the Kakerori is a symbol of how effective invasive species control can make a major impact. By the 1960s, the Kakerori, which can live up to 24 years, was thought to be extinct. It was rediscovered in 1973 and when surveyed in 1989, they found only 13 pairs making it one of the world’s 10 rarest birds. The main culprit in the monarch’s decline was the introduced Ship Rat (Rattus rattus), an agile climber who feeds on the eggs and chicks. The adult Kakerori are vigorous defenders of the nests and were sometimes killed by the rats.

The Cook Island Conservation Society, determined to halt the Kakerori’s decline, began a rat control program during the 1989 breeding season. Twenty-four years later, there are populations on two islands and over 500 individuals.

Our expedition leader Ian Karika, our expedition leader is also president of Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife in the Cook Islands) and was able to show me the Kakerori and its forest haven. We climbed through vine thickets into an opening and heard the noisy chatter of the resident birds. They are curious and aggressive; calling from the treetops at the intruders, no rats just some bumbling humans.

From a lookout at the top of the reserve we had a great view down to the ocean. Standing out clearly against the bright blue sea were dazzling White-tailed Tropicbirds. Ian is an elder of the Karika family who, along with two other families, the Manavaroa and Kainuku, are traditional owners of the land. In 1996, these families took over the management of the rat control program. Ian spoke to me of the sense of pride he has that the Kakerori was rediscovered on his land and how the three families have worked together to control the introduced rats.

Tom Daniel, an elder of the Manavaroa family, works as a tour guide for the TCA. Despite being 79, he glides up the steep hills like a mountain goat. Tom says guiding here “keeps him alive” and he plans to continue for another 20 years.

Tom, Suwarrow’s first caretaker in 1978, is a font of all knowledge about the atoll. He also worked on the application to make Suwarrow a national park. A person with a valuable understanding of the atoll’s geography and biodiversity for the Suwarrow team.

In early May, a group of 10 landowners from Tahiti – alongside staff from Ornithological Society of Polynesia-Manu (SOP-Manu – BirdLife in French Polynesia) - will be visiting Rarotonga to learn about the Kakerori conservation program. Rats also threaten the Tahiti and Fatu Hiva Monarchs, two species closely related to the Kakerori. This is a wonderful example of how local conservation groups are sharing their successes and expertise throughout the BirdLife Pacific Partnership.

If you’re in Rarotonga, I highly recommend visiting the Kakerori at the TCA. To protect the reserve and contribute to the maintenance costs, including rat control, all visitors must join a guided tour. If you'd like help organising a tour, please contact Diverse Travel.

For further information about the TCA:

http://www.birdlife.org/community/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Takitumu-Conservation-Area.pdf

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The BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme urgently needs your support to tackle more sites and save more species. To support our work and make a donation today, please go to www.justgiving.com/BirdLife-invasive-species where every penny counts. Thank you.

The expedition to remove rats from Suwarrow National Park is a joint project between BirdLife International, Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife Partner in the Cook Islands).

Location

Wildlife

Land Birds 1 species
Rarotonga Monarch (Pomarea dimidiata) 1
Seabirds 1 species
White-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) 1

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BirdLife International is a global Partnership of conservation organisations that strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, working with people towards sustainability in the use of natural resources. They're the World's largest partnership of conservation organisations.

The BirdLife Pacific Partnership comprises a network of six national conservation organisations as follows: BirdLife Australia – Australia; Te Ipukerea Society – Cook Islands; Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie Manu – French Polynesia; Société Calédonienne d'Ornithologie – New Caledonia; Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society Inc – New Zealand, and; Palau Conservation Society – Palau. Together they are tackling the biggest threats to the region's threatened wildlife such as invasive species, habitat loss and climate change.


Acknowledgements: The expedition to remove rats from Suwarrow National Park is a joint project between BirdLife International, Te Ipukarea Society (BirdLife Partner in the Cook Islands) and the Cook Island National Environment Service. The project is being kindly supported by the European Community, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, SPREP, GEF and Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, and forms part of the BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme which is tackling this greatest of threats to wildlife around the world. BirdLife wishes to thank the efforts of many who are supporting the programme including Pacific Invasive Initiative, Pacific Invasive Learning Network, New Zealand Department of Conservation the University of the South Pacific, Landcare Research New Zealand, Island Conservation, Wildiaries and Nick Hayward. The BirdLife Invasive Alien Species Programme urgently needs your support to tackle more sites and save more species. To support our work and make a donation today, please go to www.justgiving.com/BirdLife-invasive-species. Thank you.