Pity the Pitta, an avian ambassador for threatened Solomons biodiversity

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The Island Sun, Gnulahage, Solomon Islands

A chance encounter with a mystery bird has brought into sharp focus the dilemma posed when economic development destroys the biodiversity we ultimately depend on.

The Black-faced Pitta caught and photographed in January

I was on a trip back to my home village of Gnulahage on Isabel Province early in 2017 when I came across a colourful bird I had never seen before. It was about 15 cm long, with a bright green back, and a flash of sky-blue feathers near the top of each wing. Its underparts were buff-yellow, its crown chestnut-orange. It had a black mask that hid its eyes and circled the rear of its head.

My brother Adrian and his friends had caught the bird the night before while hunting for bats, which are a local delicacy. They kept the bird alive because it was the first time they had seen it. The bird survived a sling attack and they were going to domesticate it as it was not meat enough to roast. They knew nothing of its importance and uniqueness.

Fortunately I arrived the next day and being just as curious as they were, I photographed it and advised them to keep it alive and let it go when its injured wing had healed. I emailed the photo to Dr Chris Filardi, an expert in Melanesian birds of the then American Museum of Natural History. What he revealed intensified my curiosity and pushed me into this personal journey to document this bird and ensure the area where it was found is conserved and protected.

MYSTERY SOLVED

Filardi told me the bird was a Black-faced Pitta (Pitta anerythra), sometimes called Solomons Pitta. He explained that the bird was an uncommon, ground-dwelling resident of deep forest. It is endemic to Isabel and Choiseul islands in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. “They have a low, hollow whistle call that is one of the eeriest and most beautiful sounds of the forests of home,” he said.

Black-faced Pitta fits into my nephew Damien’s palm

According to the 2016 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the Black-faced Pitta was once reasonably common, at least on Bougainville. Forty specimens were collected there before 1938. But since then it was not recorded until 1994 when three birds were heard calling at Tirotonga on Santa Isabel. Searches and interviews on Choiseul and Bougainville were unsuccessful until it was recorded on Choiseul in 2014.

In its latest assessment, IUCN stated that the conservation status of this species is not well understood: It is categorised as ‘Vulnerable’ on the basis of its very small known population, but if research shows its population is falling, this would warrant the bird being reclassified in a higher threat category.

THREATS TO BLACK FACED PITTA

Dr Patrick Pikacha, co-founder of local non-governmental organisation Ecological Solution Solomon Islands (ESSI), says the presence of the Black-faced Pitta is a good indicator of intact rainforest habitat, as on Choiseul Island they only occur within good habitats. “Any disturbance to these habitats through logging, or even extensive damage caused by gardening, will essentially remove important habitats for the bird and increase the likeliness of invasive species like cats and rats that may prey on these shy birds.”

The bird is called ‘Thoitoi’ in Isabel

David Boseto, another co-founder of ESSI, says that while threats to the Black-faced Pitta include habitat loss caused by expansion of villages and gardens, the major threat is logging. However, as logging is the main source of revenue in the Solomon Islands, this threat is set to intensify.

Already two-thirds of Isabel province has been logged. The area around Gnulahage Village where my brother and his friends found the bird is among the last areas of rainforest that remains unlogged, but there is a logging camp just a few kilometres away.

NATIONAL CONSERVATION EFFORTS

The government has various measures for protecting rare and endemic species such as the Black-faced Pitta, explains Joseph Hurutaru of the Environment and Conservation Division in the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology.

Tirotonga Village is the hub of bird watching on Isabel

Under the Protected Areas Act 2010, the ministry supports research to identify important habitats so they can be conserved, while the 2017 amendment of the Wildlife Protection and Management Act will prohibit trade or export of endemic birds.

Hurutaru added that the ministry has recently strengthened its GIS capacity on baseline information to assist when granting development consents to developers under the Environment Act 1998. “As such, the Ministry has ensured the developments such as logging and mining is restricted outside important flora and fauna areas.”

He says the Ministry is engaging landowner in such areas and supporting communities interested in sustainably managing their local resources and preventing unsustainable or destructive development like logging or mining.

WHERE BEST TO PROTECT?

The Solomon Islands Government also has international obligations to conserve its wild species. It has committed to protecting 17% of its terrestrial habitat under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets. “It is expected to focus in the areas protected on sites that are considered to be particularly good for wildlife,” says Mark O’Brien of BirdLife International’s regional office in Fiji.

Roger Manehage Accommodation for birders

O’Brien says the ‘Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas’ (IBAs) and ‘Key Biodiversity Areas’ (KBAs) that BirdLife International identifies would be good candidates for protection. However, he adds that the IBA programme has “rather sadly, failed to identify any sites on Santa Isabel — which is rather odd because Isabel is the best known location, at Tirotonga, for Black-faced Pitta and a number of other rare species — Solomons Frogmouth, Fearful Owl, Imitator Goshawk and Sanford’s Sea-eagle.”

Isabel does however have four KBAs: North-west Isabel, Mufu Point, San Jorge Island and Mount Sasare Catchments (which incorporates Tirotonga). Further hope that Tirotonga’s Black-faced Pittas will gain some measure of protection comes from the value these birds brings to local communities that host bird watchers from Europe, America, Australia and elsewhere.

BIRDS BRING TOURISTS

The Tirotonga bird-watching business is thriving. Gerard Kidia has run Bubuli Bird Watching since 2015, while Roger Manehage’s Mae Holo Bird Watching has been in business for more than 20 years. Both men employ fellow villagers from their small establishments. Two more ventures are set to launch soon.

The Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau has recognised that the nation’s rich bird biodiversity, with many endemic species, is a major draw for the international bird watching community, according to its Chief Executive Officer Mr Josefa Tuamoto. The Black-faced Pitta is one of those drawcards, say both Manehage and Kidia.

Manehage says the Tirotonga community are in the process of declaring their forest as conservation areas to stop loggers intruding and protect their birding business. They are already in contact with The Nature Conservancy of Solomon Islands to map the area earmarked for conservation.

Manehage says that when his late dad set up the business in 1994, the endemic birds were more elusive. It took hours or even days before birders finally saw the species they sought. “Today, it seems birds are flocking into the forests around Tirotonga and their populations are increasing compared to previous years,” he says. “I believe this is a result of the unsustainable logging around Isabel and these birds are seeking sanctuary in the nearby forests that are still intact and free from logging.”

Tropical forests few kilometres west of Gnulahage Village been cleared by loggers for road access to deeper into the forest

Mark O’Brien of BirdLife International agrees that the significant recent forest loss just to the north of Tirotonga maybe affecting the areas that the birds use. “That is very worrying,” he says. “Clearly the money coming in from bird-watching tourists will rapidly dry up if the birds are no longer present or easily-findable around Tirotonga.”

IN LOGS WE TRUST

A welcoming piece of news was the announcement by the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Forestry in early 2017 that it has stopped issuing licenses to new logging companies. In a move to control the industry, Permanent Secretary of Forestry Vaeno Vigulu said they would implement the moratorium under the Forest Resources and Timber Utilisation Regulation of 2007 to restrict non-members of the Solomon Forest Association (SFA), and new logging companies, from pursuing logging activities in the country.

Local or international logging companies must be SFA members before they can operate legally. But according to Dr Vigulu only 77 of the 100-plus logging companies operating in the country were members of the SFA. “We will also notice and also ask non-SFA members to wind up as well,” he said. “It is open for them to challenge the Government but we will implement what has been endorsed by the Cabinet in 2007.”

Despite this, logging will still be encouraged as it is the biggest income earner for the Solomon Islands, contributing about 60% of the annual export revenue and foreign reserves and 30% of the gross domestic product. 2016 saw a record harvest and SBD500 million in revenue, says Dr Vigulu. As such there is a continual tension between supporting logging as the main revenue earner for Solomon Islands and trying to stop it from destroying the habitat of the Black-faced Pitta or other endemic flora and fauna.

A BALANCING ACT

The Black-faced Pitta epitomises millions of species whose interactions keep our ecosystems and our planet in balance. This biodiversity provides the clean air we breathe and the food we eat, as well as a wide variety of other goods and services that enable us to thrive. However this bird and perhaps many more species of plants and animals endemic to Isabel Province are threatened by destructive human activities such as logging.

Logs at Hobaba Camp

In my quest to learn more about this bird, I realised that neither I nor my relatives who caught it knew anything about it, not even its local name. I later found out that it is called ‘Thoitoi’ and older generation of the Cheke Holo speaking people of Isabel Province called it ‘Khotureo’ according to Gerard Kidia.

It’s a shame that birds endemic to Solomon Islands are known to overseas scientists, bird-watchers and interested local conservation groups but not to most Solomon Islanders. It seems few politicians or citizens care about the unique and rare birds that exist only in these islands. All we care about is the revenue from logging and how we are going to feed our families daily.

Our challenge is to be concerned about both the economy and the environment, for each affects the other. As Mark O’Brien of BirdLife International says, it would be great if Solomon Islanders could capture new issues and information in a way that shows the particular threats at a given site, and what kind of responses individuals and local communities can make to benefit both people and wildlife.

 

SOLOMON ISLANDS BIODIVERSITY

The region is one of the world’s hotspots of threatened biodiversity. Regular birders refer to the central Solomons where Isabel Province is as the richest ‘Endemic Bird Area’ in the world. Not just birds. The country’s biodiversity includes:

  • Approximately 80 species of reptiles, with over one third endemic and five identified as threatened species.
  • At least 51 native mammal species, with nearly 20 being endemic and 20 of which identified as threatened.
  • 173 species of land birds, 65 of which are found nowhere else.
  • At least 130 species of butterflies, 34 of which are endemic.