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Meet The Island-Hopping Emergency Team That Saved Polynesia’s Birds From Extinction

One species dropped to 200 birds. Another fell to just 12. It took a conservation supergroup to bring them back.

Tutururu on the rebound. Photo via Island Conservation/Flickr.


Four of the world’s rarest bird species are once again growing in number thanks to Pacific Island conservation efforts.

If you’re an endangered flightless bird living in the South Pacific, 2018 is already shaping up to be your year. This is, in no small way, thanks to an unprecedented collaborative effort among groups ranging from environmental organizations to successful app game developers.

In what’s regarded as one of the standout conservation achievements of the last year, Alopecoenas erythropterus the Polynesian ground dove — has been rescued from extinction at the hands of invasive mammalian predators (read: rats) introduced over time by waves of human visitors.

The dove, known locally by the euphonious moniker “ tutururu,” had bottomed out at under 200 remaining, hitting the critically endangered list in 2013. And it wasn’t the only imperiled bird in Polynesia. Along with the Tuamotu sandpiper, aka Prosobonia cancellata, the tutururu now enjoys twice the stable habitat it did before the restoration team tackled the crisis.

Victory didn’t come easy. The massive operation to bring the birds back from the brink required the combined efforts of NGOs like BirdLife International and Island Conservation, corporations like Bell Labs and Tomcat, and public and private stakeholders ranging from island property owners to the French Polynesian government. The logistical and financial scope of the project even attracted the help of Rovio, the company behind the popular game Angry Birds.

While beating back the rat population, the conservation team had to focus on flora as well as fauna. In one especially troublesome instance, the inhospitable lantana plant was strangling environments once supported by island forests, which expanding coconut plantations had spent years clearing away.

Impressively, the achievement wasn’t Polynesia’s first successful wildlife rescue. 20 years ago, another rare bird, the Tahiti monarch, had dwindled to a recorded population of just 12. In addition to the ubiquitous rat menace, the group also had to keep in check cats, harriers, myna birds, and fire ants — all threats to the species. Last year, however, BirdLife was able to get the number of Tahiti monarchs up to 70 and rising.

While nature can sometimes seem cruel in its indifference to biodiversity and its outsized rewards for large-scale predators, it’s the human introduction of outside species that most reliably triggers disastrous changes in competition over habitat. But if Polynesia’s native birds have human intervention to blame for their near-extinction, they have humans to thank for their remarkable restoration too.

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