Health

How one tiny island is rallying to save a critically endangered parrot

Rimatara, French PolynesiaEvery day at sunrise on the small French Polynesian island of Rimatara, Tiraha Mooroa goes for a run with Koha the dog. Koha, a scruffy border terrier mix, has an important job: to sniff out and kill any black rats he can find. 

Koha is the island’s only defense against the invasive rodents. Keeping the island rat-free is vital: the rats, which arrive via boats and cargo ships, are the single biggest threat to native birds of the Pacific Islands. They’re extremely adept at finding nests and preying on eggs. 

One species is especially important: the Rimatara lorikeet, a beautiful, crimson-chested bird with a green and blue crest. Endemic to Polynesia, the lorikeet is critically endangered—only 1,500 remain in the wild. A third of the entire population lives on tiny Rimatara island. Efforts to protect the lorikeets highlight the unique challenges of trying to save a species that’s heavily concentrated in a single small and vulnerable area.

“Every time the cargo ship arrives, I go with Koha and we check every container coming ashore,” says Mooroa, who works for conservation association Rima Ura. “If he smells a rat, people will make a circle around the container, then open it … and Koha does the rest,” exterminating the rat. 

The canine’s efforts have worked. “Koha is our protector—he’s our star,” says Mooroa, smiling. Of the 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia, Rimatara is one of only three without black rats. Mooroa is committed to keeping it that way.

A small island with a special bird

Rimatara, a three-and-a-half-square-mile island in French Polynesia, is lined with white sand beaches and coconut palms. Among the interior’s three small villages and numerous taro fields, signs, bus stops, and buildings all bear images of the island’s emblem and mascot: the Rimatara lorikeet.

Known in French Polynesia as the ‘Ura, which means red, the lorikeet was once widespread in the South Pacific. By the 18th century, however, it had already been hunted to near extinction by the Polynesians, who prized the bird’s red feathers for making cloaks and headdresses. By 1900, the lorikeets survived only on Rimatara, where the island’s queen, Temaeva V, banned hunting of the birds, effectively preserving the remaining population, which remained stable through the 20th century.

Since the 1990s, however, the lorikeets have faced rising threats on Rimatara, bringing the population on the island down from 1,000 in 1992 to an estimated 500 today. While the prospect of black rats establishing a foothold on the island would mean disaster for the Rimatara lorikeet, other factors such as habitat destruction and nest competition account for the bird’s already dwindling numbers.

In 2007, in an effort to reestablish a Rimatara lorikeet population elsewhere, 27 of the birds were relocated from Rimatara to the island of Atiu, in the Cook Islands.  The conservation project, organized by Rima Ura, the Cook Island Natural Heritage Trust, and various government and international partners, was successful. Today in Atiu, the lorikeet population has grown to at least 400. The species also survives in small numbers on several atolls in the Kiribati Islands.

In the future, “they might only be left on Atiu,” says Caroline Blanvillain, the founder of Rima Ura and head of conservation at the Polynesian Ornithological Society. But because 500 remain on Rimatara, she says, “we have what I call a margin before the crash.” The lorikeets, nicknamed vini—which means conversing or chatting—are beloved for their charisma. “These birds are constantly talking to one another. When you hear [them] and then you see them,” Blanvillain says, “you become so enthusiastic about protecting them.”.

An unexpected discovery

Standing beneath a tree home to a nesting pair of lorikeets dubbed “nest number 12,” Samuel Ravatua-Smith transfers a new video from the camera monitoring the nest to his iPad. He’s hoping to get a view of the lorikeets’ two new hatchlings.

Socio-environmental researcher Ravatua-Smith heads up a nest observation program that Rima Ura launched in 2021 to better understand the lorikeet and its population decline. Funded by the French Office of Biosecurity, the program tracks and monitors all lorikeet nests on the island with Bluetooth-enabled cameras. The cameras, triggered by movement, keep track of any outsiders who may find their way into the nests.  

Ravatua-Smith’s face falls as he watches the footage. He speaks into the iPad to record his observations: “The videos confirm that after the visit of [a] white-tailed tropicbird, the two hatchlings are no longer in the nest. This is a confirmed predation event.”

It’s an important finding that brings Rima Ura another step closer to saving the lorikeet. The footage reveals that the white-tailed tropicbird may be targeting and taking over lorikeet nests because of its own habitat loss, Ravatua-Smith says.  

Dealing with habitat destruction

Likewise, Ravatua-Smith and Blanvillain believe habitat loss may be the primary reason for the lorikeet’s dramatic population decline on Rimatara. Between 2006 and 2008, an airport, an airstrip, and the first tourist accommodations were built on the island, the construction of which cleared huge swaths of land.

This year, close to 100 new houses are set to be built, funded by a new government initiative to provide land and housing for residents in need. The clearing and construction may end up encompassing more than half of the island. 

To mitigate the effects of habitat loss, Rima Ura works to educate residents of Rimatara about how they can help protect the lorikeet, for instance encouraging locals to plant more fruit trees around their houses. The association has blossomed into a true community initiative: it now has over 400 members—roughly half the island’s population. Members of Rima Ura who live on the island also mark nesting trees and participate in reforestation initiatives. They’re currently planting lorikeet-friendly trees on the island’s uninhabited high plateau.  

Ravatua-Smith says, “There’s a Hawaiian proverb: ʻAʻohe hana nui ke alu ʻia,’ which says that no task is too big when we work together. I really believe that. That gives me hope for the future.”

Tehio Pererina, a 62-year-old schoolteacher and the president of Rima Ura, has immense pride in the work the group does. “Before, I didn’t have any love for the trees, for nature,” she says, sitting outside her classroom. “It’s only when I became part of Rima Ura that that all changed. I was given responsibility to do something more, to work from the heart. The ‘Ura, this island, it’s our heritage. We need to preserve it. Doing this, it brings us so much joy.”

Tiare Tuuhia is a freelance writer based in French Polynesia. She writes about the Pacific Islands, travel, parenting and culture.



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