Hidden Colony Doubles Known Numbers of Rare South Pacific Bird

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Dekker said: "The malau once lived throughout the Tongan archipelago. But it's been exterminated by Polynesians on all these islands except Niuafo'ou, where a small population managed to survive."

But a study in the early 1990s concluded the Niuafo'ou population was also threatened by human predation. Researchers found that 50 percent of all eggs were taken by islanders, for whom the malau is a traditional food source. Introduced dogs and cats also accounted for significant numbers of birds.

Although it's illegal to collect megapode eggs in Tonga, the central government is 370 miles (600 kilometers) away and the law hard to enforce.

So in 1993, Dieter Rinke, from the Brehm Fund for International Bird Conservation in Germany, decided to ship almost 70 malau eggs and ten chicks to Fonualei.

Dekker said: "This island had to be without men, dogs, cats and rats. Fonualei is also volcanically active, which the birds need for incubating their eggs."

Volcano Threat

But until Watling's visit nobody knew whether the experiment had worked. Now that it has, Fonualei should ensure the malau doesn't disappear in a spectacular explosion.

"Having all the eggs in one basket was a bit dangerous," added Dekker. "Niuafo'ou had its last volcanic eruption about 50 years ago. A major one could easily have wiped out the entire population."

Watling, who represents conservation charity BirdLife International in the region, also believes the new colony should help secure the malau's future.

"There is very little or nothing that needs to be done on Fonualei in terms of development," he said. "In fact, it would be a wonderful bird reserve since it also has the largest colony of sooty terns in Tonga, and perhaps Polynesia-Melanesia as well."

Other birds on the island include boobies, fairy terns, frigate birds, and a good-sized population of friendly ground doves, a species classed as internationally vulnerable. Watling added: "This is a wonderful success story for conservation in a region where conservation is only beginning to emerge from the era of rhetoric and paper parks."

And the success story may not end there. Watling has a new voyage to make—to Late. This is another uninhabited island where malau eggs were left almost a decade ago. As yet, ornithologists aren't sure how the malau eggs have fared.

Watling hopes to find out next year, but Dekker warns: "Landing by boat on Late is very difficult and can only be done in a few parts of the year when the seas are calm."

Maybe things are looking up for the malau, but they're threatening to make Robinson Crusoes of those who go in search of them.

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