Historical Extinctions and Contemporary Conservation: A Case Study of Kiritimati Island

The structure pictured above used to house gods.  It is completely adorned with red and white feathers and was collected by Captain James Cook in the 1770s in Hawai’i (Kaeppler, 57). In ancient Eastern Polynesian cultures, red feathers were thought to be associated with deities and the supernatural world (Steadman, 1997).  When they were available, the feathers were highly prized and culturally important, but today the proportion of birds with red feathers is unfortunately small.  The important status of red feathers caused multiple extinctions of the species of birds carrying those feathers (Steadman 1997). The larger parrots of Eastern Polynesia may be extinct today because of overhunting for their feathers (Steadman 1997).  The pattern of avifaunal extinctions has been characteristic of both ancient and contemporary Polynesian islands since colonization of the islands began, first by Polynesians, and later by Europeans.  The mechanisms for extinction vary from island to island: over hunting, introduced and competitive species, and/or habitat destruction.  For some islands further east, the extinction rates have slowed as the more resilient birds outlast the susceptible ones.  On Kiritimati Island in Kiribati, however, the plight of Polynesian birds is still a dilemma.  The knowledge of historical bird extinctions can and should be used to slow and hopefully counteract the forces fueling contemporary avifaunal extinctions in Polynesia.

The Galapagos Islands are an excellent case study for evaluating the impacts of human colonization on Polynesian island biotic communities.  With no known human contact until it was discovered by a European explorer in 1535, it is easy to make a distinction between the dynamics of the pre-human and post-human animal communities (Steadman 1995; Steadman 1997).  In the 4000-8000 years prior to human contact, only zero-to-three vertebrate extinctions were found in the pre-human fossil record (Steadman 1997).  However, post-human contact, in the past 150-300 years, between twenty-one and twenty-four vertebrate species have either gone extinct or been extirpated from the Galapagos islands.  The rate of extinctions in the islands is one hundred times greater since humans have been interacting with the organisms there.

The fossil record of flightless rails in Oceania may be another good way of estimating the scale and extent of human-caused bird extinctions in the region. Virtually every Polynesian island with a substantial fossil record of bird bones has yielded several extinct species of rails (Steadman, 1995). If there were about one-to-three species of rail on each of the eight hundred islands inhabitable by humans in Oceania, then over the past thousand years of colonization between eight hundred and 2400 species of rails have gone extinct across the region (Steadman 1997). Steadman (1995) estimates that between land birds and seabirds, approximately two thousand species were lost to the first wave of colonization.  Curnutt and Pimm estimate that one thousand species were lost to the first contact with Polynesians (Curnutt & Pimm, 2001; in Pimm 2006).  While the numbers are different, the order of magnitude is still massive.  For perspective, the scientific community has described less than ten thousand species worldwide (Pimm, 2006).  With such a vast number and range of extinctions, the question must be asked: how did so many birds die?

As Polynesians expanded eastward across what is now French Polynesia, Kiribati, Hawai’i, and Easter Island, seabirds and endemic land birds were an invaluable source of protein.  The fossil record of the Marquesas islands shows that birds made up over half of all the animal protein consumed in the early period of human settlement (Steadman 1997).  From the point of arrival, birds were treated by colonists as food.  Polynesians would use nets, sticks, and rocks to down birds out of trees or the air (Steadman 1997). Gathering the birds by hand was more common, either by climbing up into trees or cliffside bird colonies and plucking the birds or eggs right out of their nests; flightless birds or nesting birds would not leave their nests, either because they physically could not, or would not leave their eggs (Steadman 1997).  The feathers were also gathered for decorative purposes, like the house Captain Cook collected in Hawai’i. Feathers and bones were used in rituals and in religious imagery as well, or as tools and toys (Steadman 1997). 

On top of human consumption, the animals Polynesians brought with them wreaked havoc on the birds and their habitat.   The Polynesian rat, Rattus exulans, reproduced quickly and would attack ground nesting birds, or pilfer their eggs (Crosby 1984).   Pigs would either eat flightless birds, or trample nests and eggs, or through grazing destroy the habitat in which birds could live.  The majority of extinctions that happened throughout Polynesia happened with the arrival of the Polynesians.  However, there was a second wave of extinctions with the arrival of Europeans.  They too brought rats, though much more aggressive species that even outcompeted Rattus exulans (Pimm 2006; Steadman 1997).  Europeans also brought cats with them, to kill the rats.  Instead, the cats went for the much easier prey: the small, flightless, accessible birds.  Grazers like goats and cattle devastated the trees and shrubs in which nesting birds made their home (Crosby 1984). 

The lasting impact of the European and Polynesian colonization of the Polynesian islands is a sad one.  Pimm (2006) estimates that seventy to ninety endemic bid species (out of 125 to 145) were lost in the Hawaiian Islands alone.  Out of the 450 seabird species alive today, 130 of them are at risk of extinction (Pimm 2006).  Ironically, the Polynesian and Micronesian islands are now considered a biodiversity hotspot, of which only thirty-four exist in the world.  Sixty-five percent of all animal and plant species reside in these thirty-four places worldwide (Ornithological Society of Polynesia 2011).   While the rate of extinctions has slowed down in Polynesia since 1900, it is now more important than ever to conserve what is still left, as the extinctions continue to happen.

Kiritimati Island is a fascinating, contemporary example of what the impact of colonization on Polynesian islands may have looked like hundreds of years ago.  The island provides roosting, feeding, and migration sites for over forty seabird species. The bird population has plummeted from thirty-nine million nesting seabirds pre-World War II to just over one million seabirds today (Witting 2013). The majority of the die-offs occurred in the 1950s, when the British military tested tens of atmospheric nuclear bombs.  While the exact numbers are unclear, millions of birds disappeared due to nuclear testing.  In contrast, the resident population of Kiritimati Island was less than fifty laborers prior to World War II (ECF 1999).  However, the population of Kiritimati has been growing rapidly since the 1970s.  The population of Kiritimati doubled between 1993 to 1999 from two thousand to four thousand residents (ECF 1999).  Now, the population stands somewhere between 7,500 and 8,500. As the human population grows at a near exponential rate, the bird population crashes even faster due to poaching and habitat destruction.

The situation of Kiritimati Island is a complicated one, both on a social and conservation level.  The island has more than half the entire landmass of Kiribati.  The nation’s capital, Tarawa, is a fraction of the size of Kiritimati, yet is home to over forty thousand residents (Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning 2012).  Kiritimati Island is becoming a destination for many people seeking to escape overcrowding on Tarawa.  The atoll has poor soils, if any, and infrequent importation of foodstuffs, so the residents are completely reliant on fish and birds for food, much like the colonizers hundreds of years ago. Water, too, is a scarce resource, as rain visits the island very rarely throughout the year.  On an island that has never supported more than a few score of people, the repercussions of thousands of new residents are quite noticeable.

The Wildlife Conservation Unit (WCU) is a branch of the Ministry of Line & Phoenix Island Development, and was put together to mitigate those very repercussions.  Their mandate is to preserve the wildlife of Kiritimati, and reduce humans’ negative impact on the environment.  However, as the Environment Consultants Fiji harshly put it in their 1999 report: “The WCU is clearly failing in its mandate and an internationally significant wildlife heritage is severely threatened.”  It is not for lack of effort or commitment.  The Unit is a subsection of a Development Ministry; various development plans around tourism and infrastructure are at complete odds with the conservation of Kiritimati’s birds, and therefore the Unit is underfunded, understaffed, and underequipped.  The WCU has established “Closed Areas” around the island to protect nesting sites of seabirds: about 15% of the island is closed to residents (ECF 1999).  However, the areas are not demarcated, nor are they enforced.  There are eight members of the Unit, some of them paid, some of them volunteer, operating without a management plan, to monitor the poaching activities of a population a thousand times larger than their workforce.  When poachers are apprehended and put in jail, they are more often than not bailed out with a $200 fine, an anonymous member of the WCU said.  Enforcement through arrests and closed areas is not working as a strong enough motivation for residents to keep away from endangered seabirds.  So what is working?

“We are focusing on the younger generation,” an anonymous WCU volunteer said.  The WCU runs an educational program in Kiritimati Island schools about the ecology of the island and why it is important to conserve.  The information being taught to the children is sound and based on ecological principles, though the WCU does not have adequate funding to be able to distribute materials for students to take home (Anonymous 2013; ECF 1999). The members of the WCU say that the program is working in instilling respect for the birds of Kiritimati in the children that live there. But what will happen when they grow up and have to feed themselves and a family as well?  A WCU volunteer said that people eat birds to vary their diet, which consists mostly of fish.  And while most people have chickens in their yards, people go to seabird colonies for boobies or terns because they prefer the taste of the meat.  The image at top right shows how close one can get to a nesting blue-footed booby on Kiritimati Island: close enough to touch.  The realities of simply surviving may be a greater influence on the next generation than the educational program the WCU offers.

Kiritimati Island is the perfect venue for those who have lamented the mass extinctions of birds throughout Polynesia to save the species that are still left.  However, the help from the international community has been mediocre.  Specialists and consultants have gone to Kiritimati sporadically over the past few decades, but their snapshots of the decline of Kiritimati’s avifauna are not useful for the WCU, nor are they really addressing the issues at hand (ECF 1999).  While the WCU needs long-term visits and training from specialists to implement continuous monitoring of Kiritimati’s birds, attention needs to be focused on the people of Kiritimati.  The monitoring and legislation can be instituted, but if birds are a reliable food source on a near-desert island surrounded by hundreds of miles of open water, people will continue to eat birds.  If the avifaunal community of Kiritimati Island is to be spared extinction or extirpation, there is far more work to be done for the human community.  Overcrowding in Tarawa keeps a constant stream of people moving to Kiritimati Island. Both agricultural opportunities and access to freshwater are severely low. On all accounts, the human population of Kiritimati is moving towards a dangerous brink where the island’s animal populations and water supplies will not be able to support a growing population.  The direness of global overpopulation is magnified on Kiritimati Island.

Perhaps there is a reason that the island was near uninhabited only sixty or so years ago.  The landscape is incredibly unforgiving to terrestrial life, and it is clear that without technology to pump water out of a freshwater lens, there would not be enough water to go around.  Kiritimati Island and its people have options: to wait until the crunch when the population’s needs exceed what the island can provide; to hope that technology will always be able to provide the population’s needs; or to decrease the population of the island and return it to a number that is healthier for the biotic communities sharing the island.

The decision is up to the nation of Kiribati and its people.  None of them seem like good choices, but there will inevitably come a time when the viability of human life on Kiritimati (in the way in which it is currently manifested) will need to be questioned seriously. The remaining birds on Kiritimati Island can be seen as a food resource, or as something inherently worth protecting, but those perspectives must come from inside the island.  The Wildlife Conservation Unit is making progress in fostering respect and appreciation from the younger generation for the unique bird colonies in their home. They may create a community of islanders that protect the birds and conserve their habitat.  But up against them are sobering questions: Can wildlife conservation be successful in a society with so few food resources?  Or does the survival of a few thousand people necessitate the loss of millions of birds?  Time will tell.

Erickson Smith, College of the Atlantic

Works Cited

Alfred W. Crosby. "Animals." Ecological Imperialism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 171-194. Print.

David W. Steadman. "Extinctions of Polynesian Birds: Reciprocal Impacts of Birds and People." Historical Ecology in the Pacific Islands. New Haven: Yale University, 1997. 51-79. Print.

David W. Steadman. “Prehistoric Extinctions of Pacific Island Birds: Biodiversity Meets Zooarchaeology.” Science 267.5201 (1995): 1123-1131. Web. 21 January, 2013.

Environment Consultants Fiji. “Review of the Status of Avifauna Conservation – Kirimati Atoll.” (1999). Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. PDF. 24 January, 2013.

Feathered temple, Vienna (203). 18th century. Leverian Museum, London, England. "Artificial Curiosities." By Adrienne L. Kaeppler. Honolulu, Hawaii: Bishop Museum press, 1978. Figure 60. 57. Print.

Jan Witting, Chief Scientist aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, Personal Interview. 1 March, 2013.

Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. “Report on the Kiribati 2010 Census of population and housing, Vol. 1: basic information and tables.” (2012) Kiribati National Statistics Office. PDF. 23 March, 2013.

Ornithological Society of Polynesia. "Birds of French Polynesia.” Ornithological Society of Polynesia "MANU." N.p., 29 Sept. 2011. Web. 23 January, 2013.

Stuart Pimm, et al. "Human impacts on the rates of recent, present, and future bird extinctions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103.29 (2006):10941-10946. PNAS. 21 January, 2013.

How to cite this page:
Erickson Smith. “Historical Extinctions and Contemporary Conservation: A Case Study of Kiritimati Island,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.  2013. Web. [Date accessed]  <html>