Bird islands in peril

Tahanea was the first atoll we ever sailed too. We were enchanted by the bird colonies and healthy reefs and expected other atolls to be just like that. We were disappointed wherever we went. On populated atolls the motus were all burned down (‘cleaned’) at some point and the endemic shrubs replaced by coconut plantations where people make copra that is then turned into palm oil. Here in French Polynesia the price of copra is subsidised, so the locals are encouraged to continue burning down the last remaining motus with natural vegetation–the only places where birds can dwell and nest.

Additionally coconut trees only have shallow roots that cannot resist the assault of the ocean and so erosion starts once the endemic shrubs are gone. There are many uninhabited little atolls in the Tuamotus and we used to think that they were wild, unspoiled places, but we found out that even these were turned into plantations by well meaning organisations in the past. Quite often rats were accidentally introduced during the copra raids and these rodents finish off the eggs and chicks of remaining nests.

Last year a few people from the neighbouring atoll of Faaite moved to Tahanea, which had been uninhabited for an extended period before, and we can already see the effects. We were hoping that they would limit their activities to the large, long motus in the north, east and south of Tahanea that were already cultivated before and feature mainly coconut trees (and rats). But revisiting the 3 motu clusters in the Southwest that used to be bird sanctuaries we see fewer terns (their eggs are considered a delicacy) and yesterday we were shocked to find a copra drying rack, a basic hut and plastic trash on one of the bigger bird motus. In October 2014 we were anchored in front of exactly this motu and wrote a blog post called ‘the sounds of a motu’ describing the cackling, squeaking, chirping and roaring sounds that reminded us of the South American jungle. This morning we listened again, but could only hear a few sporadic calls. The quietness of the motu is a silent cry for help.

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