Sunday, September 30, 2007

ENV: Rimatara Lorikeets

With Birdfair's help, Rimatara Lorikeets return to the Cook Islands

27 Rimatara Lorikeets Vini kuhlii have been released on the island of Atiu in the Cook Islands after an absence of almost two centuries.

The reintroduction proposal emerged from research in 1992 on Rimatara by Gerald McCormack and Judith Kunzlé of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust. For 15 years McCormack worked patiently towards the reintroduction, which was implemented with funding from the 2006 British Birdwatching Fair.

The reintroduction would not have been possible without the generous permission of the people of Rimatara, French Polynesia, for whom the lorikeet is a symbol of joy and wellbeing. Around a hundred years ago, the Queen of Rimatara imposed the tapu (taboo) which saved the lorikeet (also known as Kuhl’s Lorikeet) from extinction within its natural range (though there are introduced populations on two of the Northern Line Islands, Kiribati).

The bird (currently listed by BirdLife as Endangered) had been extirpated from Atiu and the other Cook Islands by the 1820s, hunted for its red feathers, which were used in ceremonial and chiefly attire. Since then, the tree-climbing, egg-eating Black or Ship’s Rat has become widely established in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, devastating other Pacific parrot species, and dooming most hopes of reintroduction.

"...we're delighted to be able to contribute to this wonderful outcome..." —Martin Davies, Co-organiser, British Birdwatching Fair.

In 1994, McCormack and other researchers established that Atiu, like Rimatara, had surprisingly remained free of Black Rats. The vegetation on Atiu was the same as on Rimatara, ensuring that the birds would find the nectar and fruit they needed.

From then on, according to Gerald McCormack, the project was “off more often than it was on”, because of the difficulties of obtaining the support of ornithologists, local communities, and numerous government agencies. In 2005, Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai delivered a letter from McCormack to the French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru. He in turn passed it to MANU (BirdLife in French Polynesia), who approved the programme and joined the reintroduction project. Other key partners included TIS (BirdLife in the Cook Islands), and the Zoological Society of San Diego.

Also in 2005, BirdLife International added the reintroduction to their regional programme 'Saving the Pacific's Parrots', the beneficiary of the 2006 British Birdfair.

By April 2007 all approvals were in place and McCormack lead an international team of 15 to Rimatara. The lorikeets were caught in mist nets between 13 and 18 April. Air Rarotonga donated two flights to transport the birds, the project team, and island representatives. “Cook Islands protocol has elaborate welcoming ceremonies, but in this case the Atiu community agreed to postpone the welcome until after the release of the birds,” says Gerald McCormack. “All 27 birds flew strongly to the nearest tree, where they spent several minutes preening, orienting and exploring the immediate surroundings, before they flew out of the area.”

There have been regular sightings since, with flocks of up to 13 being reported on sunny days. Gerald McCormack says the birds have spread over the whole 30 km2 of the island –though they have never been seen again at either of the release sites.

Altogether, the Birdfair raised £215,000 towards the BirdLife International Programme 'Saving the Pacific's Parrots' . The Rimatara project received £35,000 from this programme, of which £23,000 was spent on the reintroduction; the rest will be used for monitoring the population over the next four years –and procedures to ensure that the Black Rat doesn’t establish itself on Atiu.

“Some conservation projects that Birdfair funds can take years to bear fruit,” said Birdfair co-organiser Martin Davies. “This project too had already been a long time in the planning by Gerald and Judith, but we're delighted now to have been given the opportunity to contribute to this wonderful outcome, helping bring their dreams to reality. How satisfying it must be for all concerned to see these beautiful birds flying once again over the island of Atiu."

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