Samoa’s threatened feathered beauty

By Vatapuia Maiava For Conservation International 20 January 2019, 12:00AM

Have you ever sat back on a beautiful day near a forest in Samoa and just admired the beautifully coloured birds flying from tree to tree? How about strolling/hiking silently through the forest and just listening to the different cries of our unique feathered friends?

Samoa is home to several endemic birds, which not only complement our forest-covered areas with their beauty, but also help Samoa’s ecosystems thrive as “natural gardeners” in their ability to distribute seeds.

One such bird, the Manumea (or the tooth-billed pigeon), is a particular species of interest as their unique characteristics set them aside from the rest.

Even with seed dispersal, the Manumea is known to be extremely important. Unlike other animals and birds, which have smallmouths/beaks, the Manumea’s large toothed beak allows it to break open and swallow both small and large native tree seeds whole and spread them to maintain the native forest – this small passive act is of great importance to Samoa’s forest ecosystems.

According to research done by the Samoa Conservation Society (SCS), not only is the Manumea the national bird of Samoa but it is also the only living relative of the Dodo – which became extinct almost 3,000 years ago. It is the last surviving species of its genus in the world and is only found in Samoa!

But here is the bad news – due to a number of reasons, the Manumea has been added into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Red List of threatened species and is listed as “Critically Endangered”.

“There are three threats to the manumea,” explains a New Zealand Biologist and Conservationist, Rebecca Stirnemann, who spent a number years working in Samoa researching the nearly extinct bird, in an interview with the UK newspaper, the Guardian.

“Destruction of forest on the island, invasive mammals (especially cats), and pigeon hunting. As to the latter, it’s not that  Samoans are hunting the little dodo itself, but are shooting the Pacific imperial and other pigeon species and sometimes kill the little dodo as ‘bycatch’.”

Although Samoa’s government and NGOs like Conservation International (CI) and SCS, have been working hard to discourage pigeon hunting within villages, much more needs to be done if the national bird is to be saved.

The President of SCS, James Atherton, in an interview with Radio NZ explains that the extinction of the Manumea will be devastating to Samoa’s forests.

“Like all animals in the forest, they [Manumea] have an important role to play,” he said.

“The Manumea spreads fruits and seeds of many of our native trees, along with other pigeons.  So it’s iconic, it’s the national bird of Samoa, and very unique, but  also very important for our forest and without the Manumea we could  lose some of our native trees.

“It would be an absolute tragedy (if the Manumea was to go extinct) and we think we can avoid that, but we do need to step up our efforts.”

So, what exactly is Samoa doing to save our beautiful feathered national icon?

Through the efforts of various conservation offices, ministries and groups; such as through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE), the Rufford Foundation, the Falease’ela Environment Protection Society, SCS, the Auckland Zoo, the Darwin Initiative, CI and others – efforts to recover the Manumea’s population to a significant number has seen some great strides over the years – but there remains a mutual understanding between the groups that much more needs to be done.

Aside from the mentioned discussions between NGOs, MNRE and villages to discourage pigeon hunting, workshops have also been conducted which aim to develop strategies to reduce the impact of hunting Samoa’s wildlife birds.

The workshops uncovered that villages, such as Uafato in Fagaloa, understand the impact of bird/pigeon hunting and are currently enforcing village laws against illegal hunting of any flying species with a fine of SAT1,000 imposed on those who do not comply.

Also in the native and mature forest far away from residential areas, that are hard to manage and look after, some people go on with the hunting games and shooting of wildlife for fun. This type of activity from such irresponsible people contributes to decreasing value of our native wildlife especially birds in their habitats.

MNRE’s Division of Environment and Conservation (DEC) team and SCS are also carrying out a rat (rodent) management programme at the Malololelei Reserve Park to control the invasion of rats that threaten the existence of the native birds which dwell in the area – especially the Manumea and the Ma’oma’o.

Aside from the work already mentioned, there have also been quite a few awareness programmes conducted in Samoa such as: school visits by the government, the publishing of children’s books focused on the Manumea, images of the Manumea everywhere (Samoa’s SAT20 note, on the back of buses, etc), and the restoration of national parks which includes the training of villagers to understand its importance, and so on.

A national Manumea awareness campaign will also commence shortly to raise awareness of the threat of hunting to the Manumea. On the other hand, to strengthen strategic measures and ensure continuous efforts on the ground to protect our unique Manumea, the government is working on developing the new revised Manumea Recovery Plan 2019 to launch in the next few months.

“The government accepts the support of the public and all Samoans in the effort to protect our native wildlife – in particular those species endemic or found only in Samoa but are at high risk of extinction due to the increased human induced impacts such as forest clearance for new developments, hunting and spread of invasive species,” explains the Chief Executive Officer of MNRE, Ulu Bismarck Crawley.

“This year, MNRE will support tree planting activities by the public and schools in their village or any government protected areas to increase ecosystem resilience to climate change and improve habitats for our native biodiversity.”

Well if you have reached this far into this article and found yourself wondering “why have I never seen the Manumea before?” then don’t be too down about it, you are not alone.

Due to it’s drastic drop in numbers, the Manumea is rarely spotted and this really needs to change. So next time you find yourself eating a pigeon during your usual Samoan feast then just stop and think for a minute; is that meal, which supports pigeon hunting, worth the loss of our national icon?

And what will you tell your children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, when they ask you where they can find/see the Manumea? because they hear about it everywhere but have never seen it.

Let’s work together to help revive the Manumea population so that we, and our future generations, may live on an island nation with our very unique and colourful little Dodo flying all around us.

If you hear or see anyone shooting birds in the forest, please call MNRE office on telephone 67200 or 28680 as soon as you can and give details on, vehicle number plate if known, detail of car use, name of person or group, village and location.

By Vatapuia Maiava For Conservation International 20 January 2019, 12:00AM

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