Moorea - Part 2
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.
In attempt to capture some of the few remaining Guam rails to breed in captivity, the US Fish and Wildlife Service took Koko on to the payroll. Koko was a tame rail which they wanted to release to lure wild rails from hiding in the last place they were known to exist, on Andersen Airforce Base. The bird immediately became entangled in red tape. Three old rusting bombers near to the rail habitat were to be blown up as part of the Salt II Treaty with Russia. The rails would have been frightened by this, so the planes were towed away to a safer spot. Then the US Military thought that the forest where the tails lived could become a potential terrorist enclave from which to attack B528 and wanted it to be burnt down, which would have destroyed the rails. Even Caspar Weinberger heard of the furore, and said the birds should not be harmed. Koko arrived at the base in the front seat of a departmental car. He hopped out and reconnoitred. In the forest, female rails were curious, and males were incensed at another on their territory. Both sexes emerged and were captured.
Now there are about seventy Guam rails and forty kingfishers in captivity, spread between Guam and zoos in America. Neither species is easy to breed. The kingfishers do not like eating zoo food, preferring wild lizards and grasshoppers, but there have been some spectacular breeding successes. Perhaps one day they can be returned to Guam, but not before Boiga has been exterminated. Thee is one fear in everyone's mind. With the increasing air and boat traffic from Guam, it may not be long before the deadly tree snake makes it to islands elsewhere in the Pacific.
In Tahiti, one can be awoken to the sound of Marseillaise. Bastille Day was approaching and French flags were fluttering in the streets of Papeete. Pavements opposite the yacht pontoons and harbour front of the Tahiti capital thronged with excited people as the two-week fete - dancing, feasting, bazaars, canoe races, contests - approached its climax. By eleven 'Le Bar' was filled to the brim, roadside stalls were doing a brisk trade in 'stek frite', noisy motorbikes dodged between colourful lorries converted into buses. The influence of France was everywhere. Shops lined the streets filled with elegant clothes and exotic perfumes that few Tahitians could afford. The fragrances of excellent fresh coffee, tartes aux pommes, croissants and pain au chocolat filled the air.
France will not give up its Pacific gems easily; on the contrary, unlike all other colonial powers in the Pacific, she has been tightening her grip. her possessions here include New Caledonia, the Society Islands, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas. The indigenous kanakas of New Caledonia become more restless each year. Outnumbered by immigrants, they see little hope of a greater say in running their own affairs, short of boycotting democracy and voting with a gun. to the south-east of Tahiti, the small island of Mururoa provides a site for France to test her nuclear weapons. Unlike Britain and America, which have released information on the appalling levels of contamination following tests on Christmas Island, Bikini and other sites in the Marshall Islands, France has kept a veil of secrecy over the radiation pollution that many experts believe must have accompanied their tests in French Polynesia. the USA, Britain and France have exploded about 250 nuclear bombs in the Pacific since the war. The fractured coral core of Mururoa, where the French underground tests take place, is heavily impregnated with plutonium, the deadliest substance known to man. this has a radioactive half-life of 24,000 years, so it seems almost certain that some of it will find its way into the Pacific, if it has not already done so. the island is soon to be abandoned in favour of the neighbouring atoll of Fatataufa.
Kwajalein, on the other side of the Pacific, is the largest atoll in the world. It is used by the US military as a target for intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from Vanlenberg Airforce Base in California. The Marshallese who once lived in solitary splendour on the atoll now inhabit the worst slums in the Pacific, on the tiny islet of Ebeye in the giant atoll's ring. the lagoon opposite the settlement, which has a higher concentration of buildings than Hong Kong, has a bacteria count 25,000 times higher than the US Public Health Service demands. Beer cans and 'disposable' nappies float in the bays. Most of the native population now lives on US welfare, before, they needed only to harvest the land and fish, skills now largely abandoned.
Anxious to win harts and minds, France pours considerable amounts of aid into the islands, most of which enters the pockets of French civil servants on high salaries. In many parts of the Pacific it is easy to see how aid can be as lethal as heroin. the sense of wellbeing young nations feel is soon replaced by a helpless addiction to the cash handouts on which their governments depend and complete subservience to the source of supply - something the suppliers know only too well. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the tiny state of Palau in the Western Caroline Islands, which has been subjected to intolerable pressure from the USA to accept giant military bases in preparation for the day when those in the Philippines become politically untenable. Despite repeated referendums among the 15,000 islanders, the proposals were rejected. America withdrew its aid, the Government collapsed and the Prime Minister committed suicide. The islanders live in a state of confusion, but remain adamant.
A gigantic new airstrip in he Marquesas, to which few at present fly, and a geo-stationary communications satellite which has been established in space above the islands - apparently so that the natives can make international telephone calls, something most rarely do - suggest that France has plans for her territories here. some suggest she is preparing to remove herself from the Society Islands and concentrate her weapons programme in the Marquesas, where the clamour from a mere 7,000 inhabitants will be easier to control. Each year the cry for a 'nuclear-free Pacific' grows louder as fledgling nations, led by Vanuatu and encouraged by New Zealand's powerful anti-nuclear stance, flex their political muscle, each year it become harder for France and America to test their weapons in someone else's Eden.
On the streets of Papeete during the fete, none of this was apparent. At nightfall the thrilling sight of Polynesian dancers swaying their hips at breathtaking speed and the sound of native drums pounding a deafening rhythm brought everyone out in smiles...
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