Indigenous Knowledge Could Help Rescue New Caledonia’s ‘Millennium Trees’

In the southwest Pacific Ocean, on the archipelago of New Caledonia, atop the highest mountain of the main island, lives an ancient tree species that embodies the spirits of the island’s indigenous ancestors.

Commonly called the Mount Panié kauri (Agathis montana), this huge, magnificent conifer lives well over 1,000 years; local indigenous Kanak people call it dayu biik after its capacity to resist cyclones and other natural disasters.

But recent observation and studies indicates that these unique trees are disappearing, posing a major threat to the ecosystems and culture tied to them. Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated the tree’s status on its Red List of Threatened Species from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered — the last stage before extinction.

In 2009, indigenous people reported that the big trees were dying. As part of the management plan, CI has supported Dayu Biik, the local conservation organization in charge of managing the Mount Panié wilderness reserve, in establishing a monitoring system of its namesake tree. Various international experts have been involved, including some from New Zealand; that country hosts another kauri species that has also suffered significant dieback.

One important aspect of this monitoring that CI is undertaking is that we are combining indigenous traditional knowledge with science. On Mount Panié, local indigenous people monitor tree health using their own awareness of the trees’ fitness and wider ecosystem condition. Modern science provided by us and our partners enhances these observations with lab technology, remote sensing and statistics.

Between October 2012 and February 2014, 5 percent of the monitored kauri trees died — a rate about 50 times higher than the natural mortality rate for such long-living trees. Twenty percent of the mature trees are already dead, and our data suggest an additional population reduction of 80 percent will occur within 21 years.

Several potential threats and their combined effect have been identified as probable causes for the kauri decline:

  • Climate change: Shifting environmental conditions alter cloud cover and cause water stress.
  • Invasive feral pigs: These animals alter soil and damage kauri roots, causing further water and nutrient stresses.
  • Phytophthora sp.: This fungus-like soil-borne pathogen, well-known to cause dieback among New Zealand kauri trees, has been detected on a sick Mount Panié tree. This type of fungus is known to be spread by feral pigs.

Dayu Biik President, Jonas Tein, says: “If these trees continue to die, the entire Kanak people would disappear too — not in a physical sense, but as a people with a distinct culture.”

Being in charge of the Mount Panié wilderness reserve, Dayu Biik is making this concern a top priority. CI’s role is to support them in this process.

Now that the scientific community and local government are convinced of the seriousness of the issue, the reserve management plan will be strengthened with a focus on this species, including the extension of the Mount Panié reserve so that the entire population of this micro-endemic tree is effectively conserved.

It is very important for CI that the reports of local people are getting attention from scientists and public authorities. In return, we hope the indigenous communities will receive appropriate tools that will help them better understand, monitor and sustainably manage their heritage: the land that shapes their identity.

Working to protect these kauri trees is tough. Not only because the kauris grow in remote and difficult terrain, but also because I feel a heavy moral responsibility to fight against the sudden death of these giants that have a spiritual meaning for our local partners. In a way, New Caledonia is a microcosm of many critical conservation and cultural issues the world is currently facing: climate change, invasive species, soil erosion, reef decline, unsustainable development and threats to indigenous cultures.

However, it’s also rewarding work. New Caledonia is a beautiful, unique place; the trees are exceptional, the view of the lagoon below is spectacular.

And most importantly, we’ve been able to integrate traditional indigenous knowledge with modern science to bring evidence on a very challenging conservation issue. The fate of these trees may lie in the balance, but without this combination of knowledge, the tree’s disappearance may have gone completely undetected or ignored.

François Tron is the team leader of CI-New Caledonia’s Province Nord program.