Sheltered Shores: Penrhyn Community in Paradise Protects Coastline & Turtles

Oct 26, 2017

Te Moa a Rongonui School students conducting nest inventories. Photo credit: SRIC_CC/M.White/2017

“We live on a small island in a vast ocean and we are forever linked and connected through it. It is important that we remain resilient caretakers of our islands, our community, faunas, flora, marine life and work together to rebuild from the impacts of climate change.” Thomas Taime, local focal point for the Strengthening the Resilience of the Cook Islands to Climate Change Programme.

At the frontlines of sea level rise and experiencing more intense tropical storms, the Cook Islands is focused on strengthening resilience to the impacts of climate change.

Under a programme with support from the Adaptation Fund and UNDP, a student-led project is bringing together community members to protect a threatened species close to the hearts of Cook Islanders: sea turtles.

Known locally as honu, sea turtles are an ancient species woven into the culture and traditions of the South Pacific. Their importance is reflected in their widespread depiction in art, weavings, legends, song and dance, and tattoos.

Unfortunately honu face a number of threats from climate change, including disappearing beaches – on which turtles lay their eggs – and an increase in nesting beach temperatures.

Cook Islands youth are taking action. Designed and led by the students of Te Moa a Rongonui School – with support from marine zoologist Dr. Michael White from the Hakono Hararanga partner organization – the ‘Te Pitaka’ project has been working to protect turtle nesting sites on Penrhyn atoll, while also raising community awareness of the impacts of climate change on coastal areas.

Penrhyn is one of the very few turtle nesting sites left in the Cook Islands and according to Dr. White, one of the most important turtle habitats in the central South Pacific, with year-round juvenile development for both green and hawksbill turtles, regular mating, and year-round nesting.

Several years ago Penrhyn’s most important nesting sector lost all the trees behind the beach, due to a combination of climate-driven king tides, tidal surges and tropical storms factors.

The loss was significant – trees protect the coastline and turtle nesting sites.

In order to reforest these degraded coastal habitats, youth and communities are being encouraged to plant 10,000 native trees.

“The replanting of native trees – like Tamanu, Tou, Miro and Coconut – is an important measure to prevent erosion and boost the stability of surrounding land,” said SRIC-CC Program Manager William Tuivaga.

While the work continues, efforts to date are starting to bear fruit. “We started replanting in 2015 and now we have the first shadow in places,” said Dr. White.

“At Penrhyn the turtle population is undisturbed– left alone to nest in peace & quiet. This is a rarity in the 21st Century” – Dr. Michael White

Education about turtles and their habitat is a key component of the Te Pitaka project. Students learn about the honu life cycle (te orohanga) and that honu live a very long time, are slow-growing, and can migrate from place to place.

“Students learn in the field and some have had the opportunity to conduct nest inventories, in which they count hatched and unhatched eggs. They are also taught how to determine the sex of the turtle by nest incubation temperature: more females come from warmer eggs, more males come from cooler ones. Global warming means many nesting sites are now only producing females, so this is one more extinction pressure on these animals, ” Dr White said.

Now in its final phase, students and community members will monitor the trees and turtle nesting sites from a new observatory building, ‘Te Hare Natura’.

A new nursery will grow additional native plant seedlings for replanting on the four project sites at Motu (Islet), Ava Rima, Tini Manu, Motu Kasi and Tevete.

“This initiative shows the positive contribution students are making towards the protection of their home and coast,” SRIC-CC Program Manager William Tuivaga said.

Activities under the project will continue under the guidance of Hakono Hararanga, Te Moa a Rongonui School and the community.


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Story by Melina Tuiravakai and Kate Jean Smith.

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