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Tale of the last lorikeet: Biological eradication and species conservation in the Marquesas

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

A glint of shimmering blue streaks across the sky. A jewel flung into the air. A cackle and a screech follow shortly. This is, of course, the fleeting fingerprint of the critically endangered ultramarine lorikeet. The ultramarine lorikeet, given the moniker pihiti in its native country French Polynesia, is one of the most threatened lory species in the world. The ultramarine lorikeet embodies a tale of environmental destruction and callous species introduction that is far too common.

Islands are home to a disproportionately high amount of the world’s biodiversity, as their unique habitats and isolation from the mainland provides the perfect setting for high rates of speciation. However, this isolation also renders these ecosystems especially vulnerable to change. This is especially true for island birds, as they tend to exist in small populations which are ecologically naive to introduced species. Poignantly, more species of eastern Polynesian landbirds have become extinct since the arrival of humans than currently survive on the islands today. This conservation crisis facing island birds is not limited to Polynesia. Of the species of birds which have become extinct since 1600, 93% lived on islands. Pacific island birds are struggling against the devastating effects of introduced predators, herbivores, plants, disease, and habitat disturbance that accompanied the arrival of humans to their fragile, small, isolated ecosystem.

The rugged and harsh landscape of Ua Huka is becoming a more frequent sight with longer dry seasons

Today, the small and social ultramarine lorikeet perches on one of the world's most remote islands. The island of Ua Huka is its last remaining habitat, following local extinctions on the surrounding islands after the progressive spread of the invasive black rat. Fleeting visions of iridescent aqua, soft white feathers, tangerine orange, and speckled blue betray its presence on this island that harbours both scorched orange earth and deep green valleys cloaked in coconut plantations. This sight of a habitat akin to the surface of mars is becoming more frequent as goat populations boom and climate change increases the frequency and length of the dry season, ultimately hindering the establishment of new forests. Paired with the threats of habitat destruction and black rat colonisation, any small isolated populations of these critically endangered birds are in danger of extinction. A singular major weather event or the arrival of a pesky black rat could wipe the last 2,000 birds off the face of these craggy rocks. It has been hypothesised that if the black rat were to colonise Ua Huka, the ultramarine lorikeet could become extinct within twenty years.

Presently, five hundred islanders live on Ua Huka and they have played a significant role in the conservation of the ultramarine lorikeet. Work by local conservation organisations, SOP Manu and Vaikua, seek to engage Ua Hukan islanders with the conservation of their unique wildlife. Biosecurity measures are being taken to ensure that the last remaining population persists, where trained dogs are being used to detect the presence of rats in incoming cargo. This has been driven largely by Tuhuna Sulpice, who sprung from the same volcanic Ua Hukan earth as the mango trees (mako in Marquesan) that he will often scramble up to pluck a fieldwork snack from. He has been likened to the guardian of the island, proudly inscribing his ancestors history onto his skin whilst protecting the natural legacy left by them. The preservation of the island lies in his worn hands, as does the lead that tugs Dora, the trained biosecurity dog, towards any incoming cargo that needs to be thoroughly sniffed for any rat presence.

Recently, there has been a push to translocate some individuals to an uninhabited island where they would establish a second population that is exposed to fewer environmental pressures. This would also reduce the vulnerability of the species, as a wider distribution provides increased protection against further destruction or invasions on Ua Huka. The importance of local engagement with nature is illustrated through the tenuous survival of this charismatic bird on Ua Huka. The island remains free of black rats and bursting with endangered bird song, thanks to the measures taken by locals to preserve such beauty. The conservation success of the exquisite ultramarine lorikeet is underpinned by the globally resonant themes of the threats facing island habitats and the role of cultural engagement with nature, illustrating the agency that every individual possesses.

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