It takes a few days for me to track down Ian Karika. Each time I call, he’s out in the bush, on the southeastern slopes of the volcanic cone of Rarotonga, the largest landmass in the Cook Islands.
And even though I can clearly locate on my map the Takitimu Conservation Area (TCA) where he works, I can’t figure out how to get there: there are no street addresses but rather a myriad of unnamed dirt tracks snaking inland from the single tarseal road that rings the island. My phone is refusing to go online, so Google Maps isn’t an option either.
Fortunately, on this speck of land that spans only 67 square kilometers and is often left off the edges of world maps, no one stays lost for long. Two days before I’m due to fly back to New Zealand, Karika comes down the mountain on a battered electric-blue scooter to meet me outside the House of the Queen’s Representative in Titikaveka on the sandy southern coast.
Ian is short, wiry and quick, with a spring in his step belying his 67 years of age and a deep passion for the flora and fauna of his family’s land, which stretches up the steep side of the volcano, beyond the fields and bright-painted houses of the flatlands on the coast.
“Follow me,” he says, and I drive behind him in my rental car up a bumpy gravel side-road. We pull in beside a modest cabin opposite a lush yellow-green taro (Colocasia esculenta) swamp, where a single sign, carefully hand-painted with the TCA logo, leans against a coconut palm. I definitely would not have found this spot on my own.
ONE OF THE WORLD’S RAREST BIRDS
In the 1980s, visiting scientists from New Zealand realized that this area was home to the last 29 specimens of the kākerōri, or Rarotonga flycatcher (Pomarea dimidiata), which is endemic to the island and remains one of the world’s rarest birds. Kākerōri are unassuming creatures that begin life with orange plumage, which gradually changes to gray as they mature.
Once common throughout Rarotonga, their population plummeted following British colonization. They were particularly affected by the introduction of ship rats (Rattus rattus), who are skilled climbers and can easily reach and raid kākerōris’ nests in the forks of trees.
In 1987, the Cook Islands’ National Environment Service and New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) established the Kākerōri Recovery Project to attempt to bring the birds back from the brink of extinction, and two years later, the team began an intensive rat poisoning and nest protection program. By 1995, the population had risen to 153.
The following year, Ian’s family – alongside their neighboring Kainuku and Manavaroa families – established the TCA over 155 hectares of land to continue the project, with the help of legions of volunteers and periodic support from New Zealand scientists and DoC workers.
In 2001, DoC convinced the landowners to establish a ‘backup’ population of kākerōri on the nearby island of Atiu. There are no ship rats on Atiu, so protection is easier, and it makes sense to have another population just in case the Takitimu birds are lost, says Karika.
A PRIVATE TOUR OF RAROTONGA
Today, there are nearly 600 kākerōri, including 40 on Atiu. But as long as rats remain on Rarotonga, Karika’s work – baiting and checking the trap lines that snake through the forest – continues. On the day I visit him, he has a volunteer from DoC from New Zealand helping out for a few weeks.
The two of them load blue-dyed bait into a leather satchel as Karika tells me about the fledgling ecotourism side of the operation. “People just started asking for tours of the place,” he says, a little incredulously. “They love it! And the good thing is that the money pays for the bait and traps.” He hopes to develop this side of the operation further by turning the building into an information center and getting support to publicize the place more effectively.
When the preparation is done, Karika jumps on the scooter, and I follow again in my car, going farther inland, past a crumbling shack covered in what locals call ‘mile-a-minute’ (Mikania micrantha), an invasive creeper that smothers and chokes native plants. We’re climbing now, passing through mandarin orchards with wizened trunks and large, sweet fruit that keep their dark-green hue even when ripe.
We park at the edge of the forest and begin walking along a wide path that cuts into the flank of a steep ridge. Karika stops periodically to check and reload his bait stations, which are sawn-off pieces of PVC piping with poison inside (the tubes stop the island’s ubiquitous feral chickens from taking the bait instead).
As we walk, he points out some of his favorite trees. He shows me a tall, ancient tamanu (Calophyllum inophyllum), which is native to many parts of the Pacific and Southeast Asia and used locally to make drums, ship masts and medicine. The fragrant, deep-brown oil of the tree’s nuts has also found contemporary popularity in skincare products – and as a potentially sustainable source of biofuel.
Further on, there’s an immense rubber tree (Ficus elastica) with a collection of buttresses and aerial roots with a trunk of at least six meters in circumference. As the track narrows and rises, we look down over muscular, sprawling king ferns (Angiopteris evecta) and endemic Cook Islands Homalium (Homalium acuminatum) trees surrounding a small stream: ideal kākerōri habitat, Karika tells me.
A SURPRISE DISCOVERY
Many of the trees have carved wooden signs in front of them, bearing their names. I soon realize this is as much for Karika as for visitors like me: while his knowledge of the biodiversity in this patch of bush is unrivaled, a stroke two years ago has left him struggling to call forth the names of his beloved plants and animals.
It doesn’t seem to have affected his agility, though. We start climbing steeply up a narrow track braided with tree roots, and I struggle to keep up with his energetic stride. Looking down to ensure my footing, I notice the ground is strewn with the large scarlet flowers of the hibiscus tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus).
We emerge into a sunny clearing and sit on a wooden seat to catch our breath. Gazing seaward, I admire the abrupt color change from the turquoise lagoon water to the deep blue of the open ocean beyond the reef. Karika points out a large tree that is hung with hundreds of folded black figures: a day-sleeping community of Pacific fruit bats (Pteropus tonganus).
This is as far as Karika will take me, and I’ve already made peace with the fact that we haven’t spotted any kākerōri this time: they’re still very rare, after all. But as we say our farewells, a raucous call erupts: “TCHEE-KAKEROR!”
Karika smiles, and confirms my hunch: it’s the namesake call of the male kākerōri. We hug goodbye, and he turns and follows his trap line further into the forest.