The race to save the last of the monarchs from extinction

The race to save the last of the monarchs from extinction

There are only four breeding pairs of Fatu Hiva Monarchs left on earth – the tragic victims of invasive species. Our French Polynesian Partner SOP Manu knows exactly what to do, having brought a similar bird, the Tahiti Monarch, back from the brink of extinction. But they urgently need your help.

How many families live on your street? Ten? Twenty? More? Imagine if there were only four – and that they constituted the last human beings on the entire planet. Would you act to save humanity?

It sounds like the premise of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie, but this is harsh reality for the Fatu Hiva Monarch Pomarea whitneyi – a large, glossy flycatcher native to French Polynesia. Tragically, there are fewer than twenty individuals left on earth, including just four breeding pairs. Locally known as ‘Oma’o ke’eke’e, the species was formerly widespread across the island of Fatu Hiva – but the minute non-native rats jumped from commercial ships in the 1980s, the ecosystem was flung into turmoil, with the ravenous rodents devouring both eggs and chicks.

Compared to some birds, however, it is lucky to survive into the 21st century. Five other species of Polynesian monarch went extinct in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Fatu Hiva Monarch is now one of just six remaining species in the Pomarea genus.

Today, conservationists have managed to bring the rats under a satisfactory degree of control using various methods, including fitting metal bands around the trunks of coconut palms to stop rats climbing up. But feral cats – which also prowl the island in large numbers – now constitute the biggest threat to the survival of the species. Tragically, these invasive predators capture most of the young birds just after they fledge, preventing the population from growing and recovering. This unique bird, found nowhere else on earth, is teetering on the very brink of extinction.

Since 2008, SOP Manu (BirdLife in French Polynesia) has been very active in helping the Fatu Hiva Monarch along the road to recovery. Their recent work has focused on controlling feral cats, working with farmers to protect coconut groves from rats, and placing camera traps around the island to get crucial information on where youngsters go after fledging.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit their operations hard. Travel restrictions prevented the conservation team from accessing the island for much of 2020, and many of their usual donors have been unable to allocate funds to this essential work. Catastrophically, in 2020 only two chicks survived more than two months after fledging the nest.

It’s clear that the future of the species is in crisis – but hope is at hand. Thanks to their extensive experience, the SOP Manu team know exactly what to do to save this species. All they need is the funding to help them do it.

Over the past few years, the organisation has had great success bringing a similar species, the Tahiti Monarch Pomarea nigra, back from just a population of just twelve individuals. This year, the flute-like song of more than a hundred Tahiti Monarchs echoed throughout the canopy – a modern record. To achieve this fantastic success, conservationists abseiled down cliffs, deployed drone technology and worked with local landowners and community members to remove invasive species from every corner of the last valleys holding the bird. With enough support, these important learnings could be applied to Fatu Hiva island, too.

But even the Tahiti Monarch isn’t out of the woods yet – ongoing funding is still needed to stop it slipping back into oblivion. So if we want the last of the monarchs to reign supreme once again, we need to act now.

This article by Jessica Law was first published by BirdLife International on 16 July 2021. Lead Image: Clinging to existence – one of the few remaining adult Fatu Hiva monarchs © Benjamin Ignace.

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