Volcanic bird hopes to become a Phoenix



Posted on 29 May 2001  | 

The people of Simbo Island are blessed. Their soil is rich because of the volcanoes, their sea is brimming with fish, and they are the keepers of a mysterious bird they call the Lape (Melanesia megapode) which lays an abundance of large, edible eggs.

These are incubated in the warm soil on the side of the Simbo volcanoes at about a metre down. After 60 days, the chicks hatch and struggle to the surface. Lape eggs themselves are highly nutritious, being 70% yolk; while the bird's meat contributes to village protein intake. Every year, from around May to December, after the end of the closed season, Simbo islanders harvest the eggs which are then eaten, sold or traded for other goods. According to 1998 figures, the harvest for the island was approximately 140,000 eggs, with Islanders estimating that for every $100 they earn, over $60 comes from Lape eggs.

Such is the value of this bird, Simbo islanders have built small leaf houses for them to nest under. They say the birds prefer the coolness of the "Lape houses" and it helps the islanders set property boundaries around egg harvesting sites. Warden John Tione says before the Lape houses were built, everyone felt they had free access to 'wild' eggs. He says with the increasing human population on the island, the need for defined areas for the birds has grown, with people now treating the birds like pets and paying them much more respect.

Numbers Decreasing
Yet, despite this increased status, the community has become more and more concerned at the noticeable decline in the Lape population. As a direct consequence of these concerns, WWF established a partnership with the community, initiated a survey, and set up management plans and monitoring systems, resulting in the creation of the Simbo Megapode Management Committee (SMMC), and a special by-law protecting the birds.

WWF also called in a specialist, Ross Sinclair, to find out how often the Lape laid eggs, how many chicks and adults die each year and what kills them, the size of area they need to survive, the types of places they choose to live in, the time eggs take to hatch, how many eggs harvesters leave behind in the ground, and if hatcheries would work as a management option. His findings showed the annual harvest and the island's dog and cat populations were having a dramatic effect on the number of surviving chicks. In response, the SMMC proposed extending the closed season and introducing hatcheries to boost the chick survival rates, while a program to eradicate the cat pest has also been proposed.

Hope Increasing
The by law is also beginning to have an effect: in November 2000, the first prosecution took place in the Gizo magistrate court, where seven people were charged with entering the field and taking eggs during the closed season. Four of the offenders pleaded guilty and were fined. The three reaming offenders who pleaded not guilty, appeared in the criminal law courts and were subsequently found guilty.

For the local WWF office, this story is a measure of their success in assisting communities in sustainably managing and conserving their resources. Although the ordinance is still in its infancy in a country beleaguered with political instability and economic ruin, resource owners taking their natural resource management into their own hands and achieving results is irrefutable evidence that community resource conservation is, can, and will work.

Contact:
Bernadette Masianini
Email: bmasianini@wwfpacific.org.fj

More Information
Peter Solness - Photographer
WWF South Pacific Photogallery

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