Building homes for birds on Simbo
They scratch deep into the soft dry soil, burying their eggs up to a metre down. After 60 days incubation, the chicks hatch and struggle to the surface.
Lape eggs are highly nutritious, being 70 per cent yolk, and thus they contribute a significant amount to the villagers protein intake. Every year, from around May to December, Simbo islanders harvest the eggs. Those which aren't eaten, are sold or traded for other goods.
According to a research report commissioned by the conservation organization WWF, in 1998 approximately 140,000 eggs were harvested - accounting for 60 per cent of the islanders' annual earnings.
For several generations, Simbo islanders have built small leaf houses for the birds to nest under. They say the birds prefer the coolness of the "Lape houses" and it also 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 all the eggs on the island.
Now, with the increasing human population on the island, the need for defined areas for the birds has grown. People treat the birds like pets and between July and September, there is a "closed season" to allow the birds to nest and lay eggs. During this time, no-one is allowed to go near the Lape houses.
Despite this increased respect, the community has become more and more concerned at the noticeable decline in numbers of the Lape bird. In 1996, they approached WWF for assistance. First, WWF established a partnership with the community and provided a technical person and field officers to help make a survey, and set up management plans and monitoring systems. The outcome of this was the formation of the Simbo Megapode Management Committee (SMMC) and the introduction of a provincial by-law, the Megapode Ordinance.
In 1997, the WWF Solomon Islands Office and the SMMC formed a partnership to help the committee develop skills and information to better manage the Lape. The committee was concerned that despite the ordinance, the Lape was still declining.
On behalf of WWF, New Zealand biologist Ross Sinclair went to Simbo in 1997 and again in 1998 to record how often the Lape laid its 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 it takes eggs to hatch, how many eggs the harvesters leave behind, and if hatcheries would work as a management option.
Sinclair concluded that a proper system of management for the Lape was essential to the bird's survival since the annual harvest and scavenging by the island's dog and cat populations were having a dramatic effect on the number of surviving chicks. Following his research, the SMMC has proposed extending the closed season and introducing hatcheries to boost the number of chicks surviving the harvest.
With mounting evidence that the people were not following the rules of the Megapode Ordinance, last year WWF recommended several amendments including giving the Simbo Megapode Management Committee the power to prosecute whoever is found breaching the by-laws.
In November 2000, the first prosecution took place in the Gizo magistrate court. Seven people were charged with entering the field and taking eggs during the closed season. The case was dismissed on the basis that the SMMC were not clear on the procedures to follow. The SMMC appealed and was successful. At the trial, four of the offenders plead guilty and received a combined fine of SBD700 (USD135) which was to be paid to the SMMC. If the offenders fail to pay up, the magistrate may issue a writ to seize properties from the offenders to the value of the fine. The other three offenders, who first pleaded not guilty, were also subsequently found guilty.
For the WWF Solomon Islands Community Resource Conservation and Development Project, this story is a measure of the success for their efforts to assist communities to take their natural resource management into their own hands - and win.
* Lorima Tuke, Elisabeth Mealey, Peter Solness and Bernadette Masianini work with the WWF South Pacific Programme. For more info on WWF's work in the South Pacific, visit their website.