Why Conserve Pitcairn?

by ZSL on

Pitcairn Island is a very small, very rocky piece of land in the middle of the ocean, a long way from anything else. Its biggest claim to fame is undoubtedly the connection to the Bounty mutineers, however it is the wildlife of Pitcairn and its (very distantly) neighbouring islands which is receiving increasing attention. Despite their tiny size, study of the Pitcairn Islands has revealed wildlife of global significance, both on the land and in the sea. As with many oceanic islands, the isolation of the Pitcairns has led to the evolution of endemic species found nowhere else on earth.

Pitcairn itself, being the only inhabited island in the group, has undergone a substantial transformation from human activity. Much of the land area has been colonised by non-native plants, introduced either for cultivation or accidentally by Polynesian settlers, the Bounty descendants and other visitors. Despite these changes to the landscape, 9 endemic plant species still survive, including the Arlihau which is recognised as one of the world’s rarest plants. Cultivation and planting work to preserve these species is ongoing in the island community. There is also a bird species found only on this single island, the small but very charismatic Pitcairn Reed Warbler.

Pitcairn Island
Pitcairn Island

A number of rare species also exist in Pitcairn’s marine habitats, such as Smith’s Butterflyfish and the Pitcairn Angelfish. Globally threatened species such as Green Turtles, Humpback Whales and Grey Reef Sharks are also seen around the island. Large fish communities flourish in the shallow offshore waters, containing species which have somehow ‘hopped’ the great distance to Pitcairn from other Pacific islands. Perhaps most surprisingly, the deepest known tropical coral reef on earth was found in 2012 on a 75 metre deep seamount near Pitcairn.            

The other three islands (Henderson, Ducie and Oeno) have undergone little or no human impact, thus representing one of the last places on earth where ‘pristine’ ecosystems unaffected by man might still be found. Henderson supports a number of unique species, including colourful birds such as the Henderson Fruit Dove and Stephen’s Lorikeet. Many marine top predators live on Ducie, Oeno and Henderson’s coral reefs, with Ducie supporting an especially large population of sharks. I would jump at the opportunity to visit these other three islands on my trip, but sadly they are too far away from Pitcairn to be easily accessed. Another time perhaps.          

I hope this brief overview has given you some idea of the diversity and value of the wildlife on these four specks in the Pacific Ocean. You may never have heard of Pitcairn Island, let alone Henderson, Ducie or Oeno, but the ecosystems and species found here are globally valuable and irreplaceable. Further research and protection is surely needed, and many of the incredible discoveries in the islands’ marine habitats have only been made in the last few years. The remoteness of the Pitcairn Islands has preserved them so far, but without future action this may not be the case forever.

Henry Duffy

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