Removing Rats and Rabbits: An Interview with Ray Pierce

The Phoenix Islands, due to their isolation, have significant bird numbers, with five of the eight islands being listed by Birdlife International as Important Bird Areas (IBAs).

Due to ongoing habitat loss, small population size, predation by invasive species, and human exploitation, the Phoenix petrel (Pterodroma alba) is evaluated as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Dr. Ray Pierce of EcoOceania Pty Ltd (Australia) is leading the charge on restoration of terrestrial ecosystems of the Phoenix Islands in partnership with Kiribati Conservation and Fisheries Divisions. This includes reinforcing biosecurity and eradicating of non-native, invasive mammalian pests. While on Tarawa, I sat down with Ray to learn a little bit more about this crucial conservation work. (all photos courtesy of Ray Pierce)

Dr. Ray Pierce meeting with the government caretakers of the Phoenix Islands on Kanton. 

Dr. Pierce, can you tell us a little about your work?

From the point of view of an ecologist, and a New Zealander, the scale of the problem of non-native, invasive species is huge and is normally the first issue to be addressed in ecological restoration. Eradications come naturally to New Zealanders as scores of islands have been restored by removing invasive species, especially alien mammals. Eradications programs are actually easier to carry out in New Zealand that in other places in the world (e.g. Australia) since there are fewer non-target mammal species. The only indigenous land mammals in New Zealand are bats. There are no land snakes either. So there is a long history of Kiwis managing invasives dating back to the early 20th century. Our PIPA operational manager Derek Brown for example, has notched up at least 20 major rat eradications around the world. In New Zealand one doesn’t have to worry about harming the native rats or mice for example when you target non-natives because there are no native rats, mice, marsupials, squirrels, etc. that might eat the bait you set out. I started my career as a conservation biologist focused in this way on restoring habitat for the endangered birds of New Zealand, including shorebirds and seabirds, and then gradually moved into endangered birds in the Pacific Islands. 

Great frigatebirds, Te Etei Are E Bubura in the Kiribati language, are one of the 19 species of seabirds that nest in huge numbers in the Phoenix islands. Rawaki is the one island that has never had rats, and therefore may provide a "source" population of birds who may spread to the other islands now that the ecosystems are being restored. 

The Phoenix Islands are 1,000 miles from anywhere. What brought you to work on eradicating non-native species from these islands?

By coincidence really, although others would argue it was a natural progression.  I guess the story gathered momentum when I was surveying birds in the Tuamotu Archipelago, and this included the endangered Tuamotu sandpiper. At this time we discussed how depauperate those islands were of seabirds due to impacts from humans and invasive species. My colleagues and I began talking about our knowledge of surveys done in the 1960s in the Phoenix Islands by the Smithsonian in the US and how the Phoenix Islands were globally important. Since the Phoenix Islands are virtually uninhabited, and we were aware of this potential protected area being created at the time, which is now PIPA of course, we figured we should start looking at Kiribati for possible restoration sites for populations of globally important Pacific seabird species and ecosystems generally. Given their isolation, any ongoing threats from invasives ought to be readily managed at the PIPA. Kiribati was a good bet for this type of seabird conservation work, because there was support and interest from the government. With Kiribati so focused on conservation, I applied for funding and as a consultant position to do the surveys for Kiribati and here we are today with two islands (possibly four) of the eight islands with invasives removed and bird populations already starting to increase. 

Korean fishing vessel the MV Chance shipwrecked on McKean in the early 2000s and is the probable source of Asian black rats on the island, which were successfully eradicated in 2008. 

What are the invasive species in PIPA, how did they get there, and how do mammal pests impact the bird species on these remote islands? (each of the 8 islands are indicated by number below)

Rats are the most widespread invasive species on the PIPA islands and until recently there were three species present. Cats are also present on three islands and formerly rabbits on one.

Asian black rats (Rattus tanezumi) were brought to McKean (1) we believe when a Korean fishing boat wrecked on the shore at the end of 2001 or early 2002. Within a few years the birds had been obliterated from McKean and this was the first island to be addressed in 2008 when NZAID funded the rat eradication of McKean which was proven successful in late 2009.

Black rats (Rattus rattus) are present on Kanton (2) and Manra (3), both of which also have the Pacific rat and cats, and so the smaller bird species are confined mainly to rat-free islets.

Rabbits were brought to the Phoenix Islands by guano collectors in the 1870s. I think this was more opportunistic versus really planned as they food options are extensive and as the populations of rabbits on Rawaki (4) increased they become scrawny and you really couldn’t get much meat off of them. The rabbits were damaging the Rawaki ecosystem by over-browsing the plant life, they compete for shade with seabirds, and destroy the bird eggs and young. We successfully eradicated all the rabbits from Rawaki in 2008.

To the left is McKean virtually devoid of birds;  the image at right is the Asian black rats on McKean, both prior to the 2008 eradication effort. 

Spreading bait for rats on McKean, 2008

Rabbit browse on Rawaki in April 2006 prior to the 2008 eradication program.

Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) were on most of the PIPA islands of Kanton, Nikumaroro (5), Enderbury (6), Orona (7), Manra, and Birnie (8). In 2011 we targeted Enderbury and Birnie rats, but we won’t know the success of this operation until late 2012. Pacific rats are indigenous (native) to Southeast Asia. They cannot swim over long distances, so are therefore considered to be a significant marker of the human migrations across the Pacific, as the ancient voyagers accidentally or deliberately introduced them to the islands that they visited. Geneticists have been able to show the movements of humans throughout the pacific over the past 3000 years and the PIPA specimens have helped map these movements.  Some people have wondered if the birds have adapted to living with Pacific rats since they have been there for so long, but you have to understand, rat impacts can be immediate and total.  Once rats come, you will not have blue noddies or white-throated storm-petrels nesting on that island. So a couple years is not enough time for an adaption to come about. Only when rats are removed again would nesting by these smaller species be possible. We are fortunate that one of the PIPA islands (Rawaki) has never been invaded by rats and so populations of storm-petrels, blue noddies and other species have found sanctuary there.

On Orona, our 2006 survey failed to detect rats. However it really seemed too good to be true and sure enough, in 2009 we found Pacific rat around nearly all of the island. Also in 2009 we found more than 20 cats. Perhaps the 2001-2004 settlement that was there had undertook fairly effective poisoning of rats on the island to protect coconuts, but without actually eliminating them.

The July 2011 eradication of rats on the PIPA islands of Enderbury and Birnie used helicopters to spread bait evenly over the entire area. This team of experts that went to PIPA were part of a global first: a four island, three country collaboration that also went to Henderson Island (UK) and Palmyra Atoll (USA). 

Meanwhile cats have eliminated many seabird species from the large islands elsewhere as they directly prey on birds and chicks and in the past dogs and pigs would have added to the carnage. Cats are now found on Kanton, Manra and Orona.

Norway rats, yellow crazy ants and other invasives are present in Apia, Samoa and other seaports and so could easily hitch-hike go to PIPA which would be disastrous for PIPA ecosystems and birds, so strict adherence to PIPA’s Biosecurity program is needed by all vessels that go to the MPA. 

Enderbury from the air during the July 2011 eradication of Pacific rats from this island. 

A lot of what we talk about in the Phoenix Islands is the phenomenal underwater fauna. You are not a diver and have been to the Phoenix Islands at least four times. What is your favorite part of visiting the Phoenix Islands?

Yes, being a landlubber, pulling up near Rawaki in the evening when the birds are coming back to the islands in spectacular numbers would be my favorite. It is so noisy!! I suspect the birds do not use just sight, but maybe combinations of sight, smell or hearing to navigate home. Also, I really enjoy looking for and finding sensitive and endangered birds amongst those returning masses, and seeing how they are responding to pest removal, e.g. the spread of blue noddies across Rawaki in response to vegetation recovery. Also to see subtle behavior such as the masked boobies pause as they return to the island. They look for frigatebirds who might steal the food they are bringing back for their chicks or mates as frigatebirds are kleptoparasites--the pirates of the atolls! “Man-o-war bird” is the old name for them. Then, after looking, the boobies all fold their wings and dive down at once, in unison, a magical sight! Despite my bias towards the terrestrial world, I am one of the first to acknowledge the interconnectedness of all the PIPA and the dependence of seabirds on a healthy marine ecosystem that the PIPA is trying to protect; meanwhile the birds return the favor via nutrients to the reef system. 


Their world is anything but tiny

New England Aquarium President and CEO Bud Ris recently attended a meeting of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) Trust in Tarawa, Kiribati. He was accompanied by Conservation Projects Coordinator Regen Jamieson. In this post, she shares her personal thoughts on some conservation issues in the Pacific.

“We cannot continue to rely on others because autonomy is not gained through dependence.”
— Epeli Hau’ofa, We Are The Ocean, 2008

During my first trip to Tarawa in 2010, my colleague and friend Sue Taei at Conservation International's Pacific Islands Program loaned me a book and suggested I read a chapter. The book was We are the Ocean Selected Works by Epeli Hau’ofa and the chapter was The Glorious Pacific Way. Epeli Hau’ofa is Tongan, raised in Papua New Guinea, educated in Australia and Canada, and is the Founder and Director of the Oceania Center for Arts and Culture at the University of the South Pacific. 

I read the chapter and to be honest, thought it was very depressing. It was a satire on the culture of aid in the Pacific. My colleague responded to my reaction by assuring me it was supposed to be funny. However, I could not see it that way. What it said was that rather than the global community funding what the Pacific Island countries felt was important or worthwhile, the outside world was imposing from the outside where and when, and for how long, a project would be supported, creating a culture of dependence on foreign aid.

 The Pacific is not made up of "small island" nations. It is made up of Huge Oceanic countries. 
Sailing vessel, Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo by Regen Jamieson

I went home from that trip and bought the book for myself, and have only now in 2012 for this latest trip back to Tarawa picked it up again to read, starting this time from the beginning. And the first several chapters are much more  uplifting. Hau’ofa offers a view of developing Pacific Island countries that is optimistic, a growing change in  the mindset of Pacific Island nations and how they view themselves as the phase out of colonialist and into a state of independence. (For Kiribati Independence came in 1979, so still a relatively young country). There is now a transformation of thinking of Pacific countries from tiny nations, in terms of land — the "European" way of looking at these countries — towards viewing these nations as large oceanic countries, the traditional way that Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesian peoples truly saw themselves for thousands of years before colonization. The ocean was, and is, their home as much as the land. 

Getting around, Tarawa, Kiribati. Photo by Regen Jamieson

This reemerging way of Pacific countries like Kiribati is the foundation on which the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is built. Kiribati is a huge ocean nation with 3.5 million square kilometers of mostly ocean as their territory. As an ocean nation, they see themselves as caretakers of this vital resource. As Hau’ofa originally wrote in 1993, “No people on Earth are more suitable to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home.”
PIPA is Kiribati’s gift to humanity. They are now aiding us in a very profound way. We all need the oceans to live — for climate regulation, as a source of food and protein, for spiritual and aesthetic purposes. And, in my mind, each and every one of us owes Kiribati for keeping this vast ocean area intact for future generations to come.

- Regen


An excursion to Ouba

New England Aquarium President and CEO Bud Ris recently attended a meeting of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) Trust in Tarawa, Kiribati. He was accompanied by Conservation Projects Coordinator Regen Jamieson. In this post, she takes an excursion to an island nearby Tarawa after the conclusion of the PIPA meetings. 

Yesterday we went for the day to Ouba, a resort located two hours north of Tarawa run by Emil Schultz of Kiribati Horizons. The objective of the day was to allow the Conservation International film team who was traveling with us get some footage of President Tong with his grandsons fishing, and to get some underwater footage of Greg Stone. The rest of us tagged along and for me, this was the first time I had taken a day in Kiribati to see a bit of nature and go snorkeling.  

Ouba, Kiribati

We met at the Betio port at 7:30 am and were picked up by our transport, the Teeitei, which means "frigatebird" in the I-Kiribati language.

Our day was hosted and coordinated for us by PIPA's new friend and colleague Christine Greene. Christine is a fabulous jewelry designer based out of Los Angeles, whose styles are worn by Hollywood stars the likes of Cameron Diaz, Salma Hayek, Reese Witherspoon and even First Lady Michelle Obama. Christine grew up in Tarawa until independence in 1979. This was her first trip back to Kiribati since leaving, and it was a wonderful homecoming event. Her jewelry pieces are inspired by her upbringing in the Pacific and her love of the ocean. 


The first photo is LA jewelry designer Christine Greene and Aquarium Senior Vice President of Conservation and Exploration Dr. Greg Stone. Next is Aquarium President Bud Ris enjoying the ride from Tarawa to the islet of Ouba.

When we arrived at Ouba, it was raining slightly, which was not so bad as it was cooler and the sun was not bearing down on us as we transported our belongings onto the island. Since the tide was low, we had to jump out of the boat and wade in to shore.

The location was just spectacular. Emil has a really nice operation with sleeping accommodations for eight people and even, a pleasant and unexpected surprise — flush toilets.

Settling into Ouba for the day

Our hosts provided us each with fresh, young coconuts to drink and two large platters of freshly made donuts!

All over the island were hundred of nesting noddies.

Conservation International's Pacific Island Marine Program Director Sue Taei and I took a walk around the islet next to Ouba, and then for a quick snorkel before lunch. The shallow waters were full of incredible marine life. Having never been to the Phoenix Islands, I started to understand what a magical event it must be to go there and to snorkel or dive there. The sun came out, and it turned into a gorgeous day.


First: CI's Sue Taei and I walked around the islet before going for a swim.  Second: Giant clam in shallow water. Ouba, Kiribati. 

Christine, Emil, and Emil's sister Debbie coordinated an incredible traditional feast for us at lunch. It was by far the best food I have had in Kiribati, incredible seafood including lobster, raw tuna in coconut milk and citrus (yum! ), roasted fishes, clams with lime juice… And of course, a Kiribati stable for feasts, the roasted pig. Fruits included breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), taro, and pandanas.

This was my first real introduction to pandanas, locally called the 'walking tree' and also sometimes called the 'screw-pine.' It is a tropical tree that grows a huge fruit comprised of a bunch of 'nodes' that you can pull off and chew. The juice tastes like a mixture of sugar cane and mango and is very fibrous. We also had a very traditional dessert made from boiled pandanus which is then strained and dried in the sun until it turns into a natural “fruit roll-up.” You then serve with coconut syrup. We used traditional style plates made from coconut palm leaves.

Plates made from coconut palm leaves.

After lunch some went for a quick dive, others back for a swim or snorkel. As the sun set, most of us reluctantly packed up to head back to Tarawa. Some, including President Tong, Minister Kwong, and Conservation International's film crew that were with us, decided to stay the evening.

Sunset over Ouba, Kiribati


A reception on Tarawa!

New England Aquarium President and CEO Bud Ris recently attended a meeting of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) Trust in Tarawa, Kiribati. He was accompanied by Conservation Projects Coordinator Regen Jamieson. In this post, she explains what happens at these important meetings, and she shares pictures and stories about a special reception in honor of this gathering.

The Trust meeting went from lunchtime until dinnertime on Thursday. The board was given presentation to inform them on the state of PIPA and the management activities that are going on, including recent invasive eradication programs and the workplan for 2012 under the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Project. Day two was a closed session with just the directors present. 

While the PIPA Trust is not the management entity, it is important that the directors know what it is they are working to protect and what progress has been made and what work still needs to be done. The GEF funding provides implementation management funding for the first three years of management activities, until PIPA Trust conservation endowment is fully capitalized and revenues are realized. 

To formally close the PIPA Trust meeting, Minister Kwong invited the board members, me, members of the Conservation International team and various government officials to a reception hosted at the Kiribati Parliament House. It was a wonderful evening of good food and entertainment.

Kiribati Parliament House, Tarawa. Kiribati's national motto is Te Mauri Te Raoi ao Te Tabomoa meaning Health, Peace and Prosperity

PIPA Trust board members Minister Kwong (left), Bud Ris (second to left), and Greg Stone (far right) spoke at length with President of Kiribati, the Honourable Anote Tong at the reception.

During the formal part of the evening, Minister Kwong gave a short speech, and then Greg was invited up to say a few words. Next on the program was a huge surprise for all of us — they played for us a Kiribati modern song, written by Betarim Rimon who helped develop the PIPA Logo. It was a particularly noteworthy song because it was actually about the protected area called, "PIPA you are my gift to humanity."

A young I-Kiribati troupe performed traditional dance for us. They were fantastic, and this was by far my favorite part of the evening. I learned that the movements of the I-Kiribati dance are to resemble the flight and movement of the frigatebird, the bird found on the Kiribati flag, and the hip movements are imitations of the movements of the ocean.

Towards the end of the traditional dancing, the dancers hand our flower headpieces to everyone in attendance.  In this photo of me you can see one table of the banquet that we had, which included two roasted pigs.