Wildlife Survey Reveals Precarious State of New Caledonia’s Ecosystems

Earlier this month, Conservation International’s Trond Larsen reported the discovery of 60 new species — and near-pristine ecosystems — on a survey of southeastern Suriname with the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP). Today, François Tron shares new findings from a survey half a world away in New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific.

I recently led a team of scientists on an expedition up Mount Panié — the tallest mountain in New Caledonia — with the goal of documenting the species we came across, the pressures they are facing and how this natural system benefits people. What we found reveals much about the state of the environment on this remote island: extraordinary native plants and animals, invasive species that are threatening to crowd them out, and other issues raising concern for the future of local communities.

Slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey, New Caledonia is one of the world’s smallest and richest biodiversity hotspots — a place with a high concentration of extremely threatened species found nowhere else on the planet.

New Caledonia’s forests, which are among the world’s 10 most threatened forest hotspots, are critical for the livelihoods of local people. About 40% of the country’s population live in rural areas and depend on the forest for drinking water, wild game, medicinal plants and other resources.

These forests also supply fresh water for downstream communities. Their presence is essential to prevent soil from eroding into the rivers, which empty out into the world’s largest lagoon (a UNESCO World Heritage site). The lagoon, in turn, provides community benefits including artisanal fishing, ecotourism and coastal protection.

Mount Panié has been heralded to have extremely high species richness; however, an in-depth biodiversity survey had never before been conducted. Thus far, conservation efforts in New Caledonia have been limited to a few projects and protected areas without strong management practices in place. This RAP survey offered a great opportunity to merge our scientific expertise with traditional knowledge of past and present forest issues in order to assess conservation challenges and form recommendations for conservation management.

Over several weeks, about 50 researchers and local guides assessed four sites around the lush Mount Panié, which summits at 1,629 meters (5,344 feet) above sea level. The bird team woke up earliest in the morning and finished late at night in order to look and listen for birds. Botanists set up plots in which they recorded each individual tree, while the reptile team searched for skinks during the warm daylight hours and for geckos at night.

Given this hard-to-reach location and the tough physical work involved each day, we relied heavily on the local guides most familiar with the area. They were experts at quickly setting up comfortable campsites that provided refuge for our teams after hard days in the jungle.

This support didn’t stop with the RAP either. Since the survey, I’m happy to say that the two indigenous women who served as cooks at the campsites are now local conservation leaders who are working with their communities to implement conservation management.

Thanks to financial support from the Province Nord government, we were able to reach the summit by helicopter. This not only avoided wasting time and energy getting to and from the sites, but also provided everybody with amazing views of the area and a greater perspective and understanding of the site. We flew over the coral reef barrier that surrounds New Caledonia and measures some 1,600 kilometers (almost 1,000 miles) long. We also looked down on lush, tropical evergreen forests and the highest waterfall in the country.

During the RAP we documented 16 species that are potentially new to science — including two lizards. We also confirmed the first sighting of the crow honeyeater in decades. Prior to this, the bird was rumoured to be extinct in Province Nord.

In addition to new species, the RAP team documented the presence of 25 species considered threatened by the IUCN Red List. We also saw many rare or threatened species not previously known to occur here. The team also found a large breeding colony of the Tahiti petrel, a species classified as “Near Threatened” by IUCN.

Unfortunately, we also saw firsthand the threats this ecosystem is facing: degradation from invasive species, climate change and bushfire-related deforestation. I saw dense evergreen and moist forests turned into dry and biologically poor savanna. The rich dark soil had been washed out to sea, severely affecting coral reef health.

When the forest is in its natural state, it’s possible to walk with bare feet on the soft leaf litter under the cool shade of the trees, as there are no dangerous animals or thorny plants. But when the place is sacked by invasive species or burned away, the savanna takes over and thorny invasive plants and wasps thrive under the hot sun. Many local indigenous people say that the forest’s “spirit power” is diminishing.

Seeing this rapid devastation in places where tall trees have stood for thousands of years is very distressing for us all. However, it’s also a strong reminder of just how important our work is.

Our observations on the RAP survey have already led to a pilot program — requested by the Province Nord government and led by Conservation International — to conduct further studies of these issues,

We have found that invasive pigs and rusa deer have caused massive biodiversity and soil loss — a conclusion supported by Kanak traditional knowledge, which indicates that before the presence of invasive species, this forest was in a much better state. The study also found that the pigs have caused a 10–40% loss of the Kanaks’ subsistence crops, endangering their food security and leading people to migrate to urban areas. Altogether, the study estimated that invasive pigs and deer are causing around US$ 20 million in damage each year.

This RAP was a unique opportunity for a diverse group of people to meet and share a vision of what conservation is really about: marrying science with traditional knowledge and having mutual consideration and respect for each other’s understanding and skills. Our findings have been an eye-opener for New Caledonia that have since shaped the Province Nord government’s strategy for environmental management.

We hope to build on this work with GREEN, Conservation International-New Caledonia’s overarching project. This initiative aims to demonstrate to the country’s decision-makers that preserving the island’s natural capital (the resources and benefits that nature provides) can diversify the economy — currently based on intensive nickel mining — by bringing more sustainable growth.

By conserving the ecosystems that people depend on the most, we can sustain and improve local living conditions and ensure that communities can thrive on this unique island for generations to come.

François Tron is the team leader of Conservation International-New Caledonia’s Province Nord project.