Marquesan dancers venerate the Ultramarine Lorikeet

April 25th, 2021 | by David Waugh
Marquesan dancers venerate the Ultramarine Lorikeet
Conservation projects

Arguably the most remote archipelago in the world, the Marquesas Islands, or Henua Enana – the “Land of Men” – in the Marquesan language, are a part of French Polynesia. There are 15 named islands in the archipelago, of which six are recognised as the main islands, and their isolation has resulted in the evolution of many unique life-forms, of which the endemic and exquisite Ultramarine Lorikeet (Vini ultramarina) is one.

A pair of Ultramarine Lorikeets mutual preening.

Although the Marquesas are easily imagined as paradise islands, human-induced changes have created such threats to the lorikeet, locally known as the Pitihi, that is now listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as ‘Critically Endangered’. All the islands have suffered from very high levels of grazing and fire, with much of the original forest converted to grassland. However, it is most probable that the introduced Black rat (Rattus rattus), which eats eggs and nestlings, is the main cause of the lorikeet’s decline. Of the original six islands where the Ultramarine Lorikeet occurred, Black rats have been present on three since about 1915, on Ua Pou Island likely since 1980, and confirmed on Fatu Hiva since February 2000 The lorikeet is now extinct on all of these islands.

Habitat for Ultramarine Lorikeets on Ua Huka island.

This leaves only one small place, Ua Huka Island, where the Pitihi still exists, with a total population estimated between 1,000 and 2,500 individuals. Scientists predict that if Black rats colonise the lorikeet would most likely decline to extinction, or almost so, within 20 years. Other invasive species established on Ua Huka that might also pose a threat include bird species that may transmit diseases, an increasing number of feral cats, and aggressive ants.

Preparing a ceremonial dance costume of poultry feathers dyed in the colours of the Ultramarine Lorikeet.

Given the situation, the Loro Parque Fundación has been providing technical and US$46,709 of financial support to a project of the Polynesian Ornithological Society (Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie – SOP/MANU), led by land-bird biologist Dr. Caroline Blanvillain, to achieve the long-term survival of the lorikeet through protection on Ua Huka and the establishment of at least one additional viable population on another island.

Ua Huka native wearing a ceremonial headdress.

Activities of the project include checking for diseases in birds introduced to Ua Huka, a biosecurity programme against Black rats, and a social awareness programme with local islanders to empower them to help. One prominent way to involve the local community is by using traditional dance to underline to the Marquesan population the natural heritage importance of the lorikeet.

Ua Huka dancers venerate the Ultramarine Lorikeet in the Marquesas festival.

Thus, the project is working with the Vaiku’a Association, a local conservation and community organisation, to promote the Pitihi in the traditional ‘bird dance’ performances of the Ua Huka Island dancing troupe, using poultry feathers dyed blue in the dance costumes to symbolise the lorikeet. A magnificent platform to pass on this message is the ‘Matavaa’, a Marquesan cultural festival which takes place every four years and attracts large delegations from all six inhabited islands as well as artists and travellers from all over the Polynesian Triangle.

The sun sets behind Ua Pou island.

The most recent ‘Matavaa’ took place in December 2019 in Ua Pou, an island striking for its huge basaltic columns, holding the names of the legendary warriors Poutetaunui and Poumaka, and in local folklore symbolizing the entrance pillars to God’s house. At the festival 150 inhabitants of Ua Huka danced in veneration of the Pihiti, explaining with attendant song how this species was spared extinction thanks to its reintroduction to Ua Huka, starting with a single pair in 1941.

Poster warning of the threats posed by introduced Black rats.

Ua Pou is an island targeted for the eradication of the Black rat, and to this end a comprehensive rat-trapping campaign is ongoing. In Ua Huka, vigilance and actions to maintain the island free of rats are also continuing, including the use of the specially trained rat-detector dog called Dora to inspect merchandise arriving at ports of entry. In tandem there is a monthly campaign with 30 trapping stations on the island’s wharves and five stations at the airport.

In the colours of the Ultramarine Lorikeet, a helicopter makes a drop of rat control supplies.

Over the last four years no black rat has been trapped, and Dora last detected and killed a rat in 2016, but there is no room for complacency. In July 2020 there was an alert when a young rat jumped off a barge bringing goods into the docks of Vaipaee, the most populous settlement. Only a few years ago, this event would probably have gone unnoticed but now, with much more awareness, the sailors of a local passenger freighter “neutralized” the rat while it was swimming towards the shore.

Evidence of the rat trapping efforts on the island of Ua Pou.

While Dora and her handlers continue with the marine cargo inspection, the communication campaign continues and is having positive results, not least with the continuing commitment of the shipping companies, and the airport and autonomous port authorities. The latter has strengthened the biosecurity of the docks against rats and has made lookouts mandatory. A poster has been circulated which not only highlights the threats that rats pose to the Ultramarine Lorikeet and other native species, but also that they can spread harmful diseases to humans and cause substantial economic damage, not least to the coconuts which form the basis of copra production, a vital industry in Ua Huka.

Dora the rat-detector dog sniffing through incoming merchandise at harbour in Ua Huka.

Above all, the traditional dancing, so deeply ingrained in Marquesan culture, will continue to exalt the Pitihi and add to the ground-swell of support for its conservation.

The on-site conservation team.

Author: David Waugh

Title photo: SOP/MANU, other photos: 1,3,4,6,7,9 – C. Blanvillain; 2 – Tahiti Nui; 5 – L. Grant/G. Verdon; 8,10,11 – SOP/MANU


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