The Society Islands



One of the finest islands in the whole of the Pacific must be Moorea. The steepness of its jagged volcanic peaks, sometimes swathed in layers of mist, is a masterpiece of natural sculpture. Twice as old as Tahiti (quite visible twenty kilometres to the south-east), its semi-circle of peaks is all that remains of a large volcano that once stood 3,000 metres high. Moorea is triangular, about twelve kilometres across, and surrounded by a barrier reef which is broken by twelve passes, these correspond to the twelve valleys of the island. Lagoons of aquamarine encircle the island inside the reef, tinged with white as surf breaks on to the corals. On the north coast there are two beautiful bays; one of them is named after Captain Cook, who sailed into it while surveying the Society Islands, as they have come to be known. The bays are offset by sharp ridges covered in contrasting patches of pastel Pteris fernland, pineapple groves and dark tropical vegetation, which rise to an amphitheatre of mountain pinnacles. 

To enter Cook's Bay in a boat dwarfed by the high mountains is breathtaking. Tall coconut-palm groves cover the coastal strip behind a few sandy beaches, and the sun plays on the red corrugated roofs of small neo-Polynesian villas between them, which are a memory of the colonial vanilla trade. At the far end of the bay Mouaputa soars to 800 metres, its summit pierced with a curious hole through which the sky can be seen. Tahitian legend has it that Pai, the favoured child of the gods, fired an arrow through the mountain from Tahiti to prevent its being towed away by Hiro, the god of thieves. the arrow woke all the sleeping cockerels who set up such a noise that Hiro took fright and fled. the pace of life has quickened on Tahiti since the 1950s, but Moorea has remained a more peaceful place. there are still numerous palm-thatched huts along the shoreline, outrigger canoes lie dragged up on the beaches; fishing nets hanging on frames in the sun play with the drying wind. A small road winds around the island with tracks leading off it; these are lined with pale green riri leaves backed with banana palms, to act as property boundaries. everywhere there is the smell of frangipani bushes, the splash of enormous pink hibiscus; yellow creepers vie with deep red poinsettias. Girls stroll by, their flowing dark hair decorated with bands of white tiare flowers and green leaves.

But Paradise is in demand and changing fast. flights from Tahiti arrive in Moorea every fifteen minutes. Mooreans commute the short hop by air to Papeete to work in the hotels and offices of the capital, returning home again at night. Large numbers of luxury hotels have sprung up all around Moorea's coast, and the tranquility of the coastal road has been shattered by mopeds and minibuses.

Early explorers wee disppoint4ed to find the Pacific without silver or gold, spices or silks, but in china they found a market for one product the islands had in abundance: sandalwood. this rather unimpressive shrub has a fragrance quite irresistible to Chinese nostrils. Joss sticks, aromatic tapers and incense were all fashioned from it, and its oils were made into medicines and perfumes. European traders sailed mainly from Australia to new Caledonia, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), "Fiji and Hawaii, where the trees grew abundantly. In 1800 the castaway Olive Slater marshalled the natives under his power in Fiji at what is still called Sandalwood Bay. Paying with axes, whales' teeth, powder and weapons, he stripped the islands of their precious timber within fifteen years. He was slain soon afterwards, the victim of intertribal jealousies. Ten more years saw the end of sandalwood in the New Hebrides, and in Hawaii all the available trees were felled by 1825. Now the slow-growing tree has vanished from all but the least accessible parts of the islands.

The behaviour of sandalwood traders was often reprehensible and coloured the islanders' opinion of white people for ever after. Cecil Foiljambe, aboard HMS Curacao in 1874, had this to say:

I find the sandalwood traders have much to answer for. they and indeed most of the white men in the Islands are the very scum of England and the Americas. they are afraid to show their faces in civilized places and make the poor natives what they are. they try to cheat them, practising greater cruelties than the cannibals themselves are capable of. For instance, one captain of a sandalwood schooner the other day boasted that, having taken his cargo of sandalwood, and as he was sailing along the coast he shot down unoffensive natives as they stood on the beach for the charitable purpose of spoiling the trade for the next comers ... Can you wonder after this that they detest white men and would kill and eat them when a chance occurs:

With the collapse of the sandalwood trade, the islands were looted for beches-de-mer, again for the Chinese market; these would be traded for silk, tea, jewels and precious woods. though trading continued in Fiji until 1850, the sea slugs proved resilient and are still to be found in abundance on Pacific reefs. The emergence of sugar plantations in Fiji and Queensland in the nineteenth century created a new traffic, this time in the natives themselves. the notorious Blackbirders sailed the Pacific looking for easy pickings, filling their ships with islanders at gunpoint and carrying them to a life of slavery on plantations far from their homelands. Pearls and turtle-shells were also plundered to be traded through Canton. then the whalers came. America dominated commercial whaling through the latter part of the nineteenth century, suing the Bay of Islands in new Zealand's North Island as a base from which to scour the South Seas, and Hawaii to search the north. The oil of the cachalot was held supreme and so the sperm whale began its precipitous decline in the Pacific. Today the great whaling fleets have vanished, but despite a worldwide moratorium, limited numbers of whales may still be hunted illegally each year by unscrupulous fishing companies.

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Meanwhile, Victorian missionaries quickly spread the word through the Pacific that traditional practices such as singing and dancing, wearing clothes made from leaves and worshipping ancient values were wrong. Numerous timbered white churches and full-length Mother Hubbard dresses still worn in Vanuatu are relics of those austere times, after which the islands were never the same again. for the missionaries to have brought cannibalism to an end in many of the islands was a magnificent achievement, but by destroying the islanders' spiritual link to the land around them they destroyed their system of tapu, the taboos which regulated their dealings with each other and their use of the natural world. Once the power of the chiefs and spiritual leaders had been undermined, the exploitation of the land around them could proceed apace. To Pacific peoples, land cannot be bought or sold, only used. Unoccupied land is used as hunting ground, and so supports the occupied land. Europeans brought the concept of land ownership, and having instilled it used their power to wrest land from the natives' grasp.   

The first contact with the outside world began an inexorable slide into doom, for even as the colonial powers grappled with the spoils and annexed one island group after another, the islanders themselves were dying. tuberculosis, smallpox and venereal disease, measles and whooping cough swept through the islands and decimated their populations. when cook arrived in Tahiti, he estimated that there were 150,000 people inhabiting the green valleys and coasts. Just thirty years later the figure had dropped to 15,000, and by 1815 a census recorded a mere 8,000. In the Marquesas the population fell from 50,000 at the time of early European contact to just 2,094 by 1916. Elsewhere the story was the same. Without resistance to imported diseases, the Polynesian culture began to disintegrate. The very name of the Tahitian royal family, Pomare (po meaning night, and mare meaning cough), referred to the tuberculosis it suffered. In 1888 the last of the Pomare kings signed away his kingdom for a pension, and it had remained 'la Polynesie Francaise; ever since.

to the wildlife of the Pacific Islands these new developments initially made little difference. the Polynesians had wrought many changes to the landscape resulting in numerous extinctions, but the effects of European influence were to be greater. One of the most important of these was the conveersion of the island's forests to agriculture on a massive and unprecedented scale. Huge copra plantations provided a trade in coconut oil which now feeds the western world with margarine. Almost a quarter of the world's copra originates in the islands. Native forests in the lowlands gave way to vast tracts of sugar-cane, pineapple, coffee and cocoa. the rainforests were felled to make way for farmland, and cattle graze where ohi'a and koa trees once stood on Hawaii. With their habitat destroyed and introduced disease weakening their bodies, many of the native wild species of the islands began to disappear as rapidly as the islanders themselves. This was also partly due to the other animals which were introduced to make sailors and traders feel more at home, or to be hunted as game animals, or to combat the increasingly troublesome pests which in the absence of the normal pollinators were beginning to ravage the plantations. Alien ants now creep over Hawaii's lava fields, attacking the bees which nest in them and so endangering the potential pollinators of plants. Wasps (Vespula pennsylvanica) are a new sight too and are causing havoc chasing and devouring native insects which have never seen them before. More than 800 exotic plants have now established themselves on Hawaii, in particular the strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum), various fire-prone grasses and a passion-flower vine which often grows vigorously, choking native trees and shrubs.

The sheer number of introduced birds is staggering. Hawaii had received 162, more than all of North America. New Zealand now has 133 invaders from abroad, Australia 96, Tahiti and Fiji rank next with 56 and 25 apiece. many introduced birds have become serious agricultural pests.

Most obvious of the avian interlopers is the noisy Indian mynah. Everywhere in the Pacific these small black birds with bright-orange beaks and legs seemed to flutter among the villages and farmland of the coastal fringe. both the common mynah and the jungle mynah, which looks similar but has a tuft of bristles at the base of its beak, were introduced to the Pacific in an attempt to combat a plague of insect pests, particularly of stick insects. The birds themselves have now almost reached plague proportions, gathering in vast flocks on buildings at night to roost, squawking and chortling like hordes of hungry starlings. Resident bird-lovers will often say that introductions such as these have driven the native birds to take sanctuary in the mountains, and that that is why virtually none of the numerous attractive pigeons and songbirds which live on the forest of the Pacific's high islands are to be seen on the coats today. A more likely reason is the conversion of the coastal plains from forest to modern agriculture and urban development. The native birds which had evolved on the islands were quite incapable of adap0ting to this alien habitat, but the introduced birds, many of which were imported because of their familiarity with homes and gardens - such as Fiji's bulbuls, which were brought in by indentured Indians - were ideally suited to the newly created coastal zone. The sad fact is that without regular sightings of their native birds and without a use for them in their culture, most islanders have now forgotten their names and few care that they exist. Persuading governments to take measures to save those that remain is therefore all the harder.  

In the coastal coconut groves of Moorea there hardly any native birds left at all. there were not many to begin with. From Tahiti a scatter of atolls known as the Tuamotu Archipelago fills a vast area of ocean to the north and east. there are few other high islands beyond the Tuamotus save the Marquesas, the desolate rock of Pitcairn 2,000 kilometres east. There are few other high islands beyond the Tuamotus save the Marquesas, the desolate rock of Pitcairn 2,000 kilometres east, and Easter Island 1,900 kilometres further on. No doubt when the Polynesians first arrived thee were bird species inhabiting Moorea which are now extinct and whose bones remain undiscovered. since European times, the Polynesian ground dove with its purple-black back and white breast has vanished, as has the dark-blue lorikeet which once played among the palms of the coast.

From Cook's Bay one can drive round to Opunohu Bay and take the small road that led up into the mountains. On high islands in the Pacific basin thee is a group of bean-sized tree snails which are not found anywhere else in the world. Their ancestors possibly reached the islands stuck to birds' feet many thousands of years ago, but since then they have evolved into numerous remarkable forms, each decorated with intricate lined patterns. Those of Moorea belong to the genus known as Partula snails. thee are seven species of them, originally separated by the valleys and ridges which dissect the island. For those not obsessed by tree snails, Partula is fascinating, because it is a key to understanding the origin of species. These small snails are hermaphrodites, give birth to live young, have a relatively short generation time, do not escape enormous distances into the forest, and are easy to breed in a plastic lunch-box. Genetically, they are extraordinarily variable, a fact made clear by the patterns on their shells and even by their internal chemistry. When H.E. Crampton, the great collector of molluscs in the Pacific, made his classic study of Partula snails on Moorea in 1932, he was delighted. here at last was the perfect place to get at the heart of the evolutionary process , nature had run an experiment in speciation on an isolated island. His hopes were not to be fulfilled, for today, after many thousands of years of harmless isolation, Partula has been eradicated from the wild as though it had never been.  

The original reason for this decline was the predilection of the Governor of Reunion's mistress for Madagascan snail soup. In 1803, he imported some very large snails from that island which then escaped from his garden and became a pest, devouring the island's crops. The giant African land snail, as Achatina is now known, reached India in 1847 and by the 1930s began appearing in the south Pacific where it was introduced into French Polynesia in the belief that the Polynesians would like 'l'escargot'. They did not, but the snails adored their fruit plantations and spread ankle-deep. It became imperative to find some means of controlling them. Biological control is practised widely on islands. The idea is either to import a specific predatory animal or disease to destroy a pest, or to attract females to mate with an introduced sterile male of the same species rendering eggs infertile. In many cases this has worked well. Introduced parasitic insects have effectively controlled many pests in the Pacific. The rhinoceros beetle which plagues palms in Fiji was eventually controlled by an introduced virus after efforts with other beetles and assassin bugs and failed. Occasionally, however, the introduced predator or parasite behaves unexpectedly, and like a rogue missile targets creatures which it is not supposed to attack at all. that is precisely what happened with Partula.

By the early 1970s the Service Economique Rurale was desperate, Moorea farmers were being swamped by giant African land snails. Hearing the success elsewhere in the Pacific of a small predatory snail from the south-eastern United States called Euglandina rosea, they introduced it to Moorea in 1977. The effect has been dramatic. Euglandina is a formidable predator,. It sniffs out chemical scent trails left by its prey and follows them with the tenacity of a bloodhound at more than a snail's pace. Euglandina quickly discovered that the small Partula snails were an easier catch than the enormous African giants. Soon the defenceless Partula were being overrun as Euglandina spread through the forest at the rate of over a kilometre a year, devouring every small snail in its path. By 1983 the native mollusc had vanished from much of the island.

Wherever Euglandina was introduced to combat the African land snail, the pattern was the same. Colouful Achatinella snails endemic to Hawaii take six years to mature and only produce one or two young annually. Six hundred released Euglandina snails increased to 12,000 in just three years. Half of the forty-four species of Achatinella unique to Hawii have been extinguished already. Once the process starts it is hard to stop. the extraordinary thing is that governments continue to recommend the introduction of the American predator snail despite these disastrous consequences. Local farmers believe it works, and have no interest in the welfare of their native snails.

In desperate bid to save Moorea's Partula snails, scientists gathered specimens of as many species as they could find and posted them to breeding centres around the world. Alas, little snails fire few imaginations, but despite the lack of funds some were established in breeding colonies, and just in time. A full survey of the island in July 1987 revealed that all Moorea's Partula snails are now extinct in the wild. From the hills inland one could look across to massive Mount Rotui, which divides Cook's Bay from Opunohu. the view in the evening light was magnificent even though there was little left of the natural forest which had once clothed the island. Hibiscus bushes dotted the slopes now, between flanks of planted Casuarina trees and fields of pineapples. the mountain's jagged outline, like a giant's green castle, was lit with golden sun from the west, with water surrounding it on three sides. Quite suddenly it was almost dark, and hawk moths appeared like small fluttering ghosts among the flowers, seeking nectar with their fine long tongues. There were petrels, nocturnal seabirds, which nested in burrows high on mountaintops out of the reach of man and many of the savage stowaways he inadvertently brought with him.

From the first time that man journeyed into the Pacific he has been accompanied by animal stowaways, and some of these have waged war with the animals they found inhabiting the land. the Lapita people brought a small rat with them from south-east Asia. They did not do so intentionally, but archaeologists have found that wherever they went in their canoes, the rat went too. the Polynesians rat Rattus exulans fed mainly on their stored crops and appears to have had little effect on the native creatures with which it shared the island. Not so that black rat Rattus rattus, which began scurrying down the mooring lines of ships docking at new ports in the Pacific in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and has been doing so ever since. the black rat was an excellent climber and took to eating native lizards and eggs from birds' nests in the trees. It was already established on Galapagos prior to Darwin's visit in 1835, and dispatched five species of rat found only on those islands. Its introduction to some oceanic islands has resulted in ornithological catastrophe. On Lord Howe island off Australia's south-eastern coat, black rats destroyed 40 per cent of the indigenous species of forest birds within five years of their arrival in 1918. On Big South Cape Island, off the south-west coast of Stewart Island in New Zealand, the populations of eight species of landbird plummeted with three years.

For some reason this does not seem to have happened in the most tropical Pacific Islands, perhaps because the birds here were already well used to dealing with another predator of their eggs and chicks; land crabs. The enormous robber or coconut crab Birgus latro was once widespread on many atolls and islands of the Pacific. The Polynesian desire for them on the table has resulted in greatly reduced numbers but they can still be found creeping about in the forest far from the sea. The robber crab is a huge hermit crab - larger than a lobster - which has earned its name for its habit of climbing palm trees to snip down coconuts, which then breaks with monstrous pincers to feast on the white meat inside. These and other land crabs are fond of creeping into birds' nests to dismember chicks, particularly those of seabirds. It may be that the danger of such a hideous end has made seabirds which share their islands with such crabs wary of all small furry creatures with designs on their young. Rats of Ile du Lys in the western Indian Ocean launched a mass attack on thousands of sleeping noddy terns roosting in shrubs on the atoll's shore. Shortly after dark the rats began creeping up the branches, then leapt at the terns' throats, wrestling them to the ground and fighting them to the death. the slaughter continued until midnight, when the sated rats appeared to retire for the night, as did the two ornithologists who had chanced upon the event. the rats then started to harass them, nipping limbs and stealing food until the observers were forced to flee the island.

The brown rat which soon followed the black is less of a climber, so it had little effect on perching birds. Instead it invaded the new sugar plantations in such numbers that the natives refused to work them during harvest-time, when the cane was burnt and hordes of vicious rats ran amok attempting to avoid the flames. In an effort to control the rats, planters introduced one of the world's most efficient and ruthless killers to the Pacific Islands, the Indian mongoose. One of the best places to see it is the Thurston Botanical Gardens in Suva. There are always a few playing around the colourful borders, their inquisitive faces poking between the flowers, before they scurry on tiny legs like clockwork across the neatly mown lawns. the mongoose was brought to Fiji from Hawaii in 1873 and released on Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. The planters, having little knowledge of the natural world, had overlooked simple fact all too apparent to anyone sitting in the botanical garden: the mongoose hunts by day. it therefore rarely met the nocturnal rats, which continued to flourish. Instead it cast its expert eye on native birds in the bush and fell on them with relish. it has been responsible for the extinction of no less than seven species on the Fijian Islands alone, including the purple swamp-hen Porphyrio porphyrio and the banded rail Rallus philippensis. its effects on the ground-nesting birds of Hawaii and everywhere else it has been introduced have been similar.

Throughout the Pacific, animals introduced by man have had a devastating effect on bird life. Feral cats, originating as pets, have played havoc in seabird-nesting grounds such as those on Christmas Island. The introduction of the great horned owl Bubo virginianus may have been responsible for the disappearance of the beautiful red-moustached fruit dove Ptilinopus mercierii from the Marquesas. it is rare, however, that an introduced animal causes wholesale slaughter of numerous different kinds of bird, driving some of them to complete extinction. it is more unusual still for the culprit to remain undetected. In the 1970s something began to decimate the bird population on the island of Guam in Micronesia, but nobody knew what it was. The forests there are silent. the birds which once filled Guam with song have vanished within the last fifteen years. Once it was possible to take a stroll through marshes and woodlands and spot the handsome dark-blue head of Guam's unique flycatcher or hear the calls of the brindled white-eyes with their pale-green plumage and yellow breasts, busily foraging for insects. The rufous fantails no longer wiggle their pretty tails at passers-by; the kingfisher and the rail vanished from the wild. The rail was found nowhere else but on Guam. Only a few introduced species of bird now remain; the eighteen native birds have all but vanished. As recently as 1968 it was believed thee were as many as 80,000 rails on Guam. What could possibly have caused such a catastrophic decline so quickly?

The alarm bells started ringing in the late 1970s when a census revealed a precipitous drop in the number of every kind of bird on the island, even in areas where human development had not taken place. In 1979 Guam requested that ten of its birds be placed on the US endangered Species List, to obtain funds for their protection. No action was taken until 1984, by which time it was almost too late. By 1983 the only place where the ten native forest species could be found was a small strip of mature forest at the island's northern tip. then came the clue: native Guamanians said a snake was eating their birds.

There is one tiny snake, blind, which burrows in the soil. It is far too small to be a danger but thee is one other, a brown tree snake accidentally introduced to Guam after the war. It had to be Boiga irregularis. No snake had ever caused extinctions before but this snake had explosively increased its numbers over the same period as the birds had declined. These reptiles have now become so numerous that they climb up telegraph wires and short Guam's electricity supply. Snake carcasses hang from power lines beside roads, grisly reminders of the perils lurking in the grass. There may be as many as 6,000 per square mile in certain parts of the island, the total population must be counted in millions. the brown tree snake also occurs in coastal Australia, new guinea, and Sulawesi, but it seems larger and more voracious on Guam than anywhere else. The population seems to have got out of control, which is a classic result of an alien's introduction on to a tropical island without the biological brakes that held it in check in its home. the snakes are poisonous and efficiently seek out their prey by smell, engulfing roosting parents, chicks and eggs; their mouths are enormous, capable of swallowing a chicken. The birds of Guam, unused to such capable predators, do not build their nests on inaccessible branch tips, nor have a language of alarm calls to warn their neighbours, they have paid the price for their evolutionary naivety.  

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