Reconnecting with Natural and Cultural Heritage: Flora and Fauna of the Marshall Islands

Project Contributor: Nancy Vander Velde with Jorelik Tibon

In the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, as is occurring in many other areas of the world, traditional lifestyles are being replaced by urbanized ones. This transformation, compounded by the occurrence of invasive species and other non-native species, is resulting in disconnection from local biodiverse surroundings. Much of the traditional environmental knowledge is lost, along with Marshallese languages, especially among the younger generations, who no longer know the names and uses of the local flora and fauna.

Through the project “A Review of the Birds and Plants of Bikini Atoll, Trees of the Marshall Islands and Fish of Micronesia”, efforts were made to preserve some aspects of the biodiversity of the Marshalls. One result was the book “Seashells and Other Molluscs of the Marshall Islands” produced through the Republic of the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office and the United States National Park Service. The book presented known species of gastropods and chitons, with Marshallese names, along with traditional stories and usage. This will hopefully be followed by a similar presentation on the bivalves and cephalopods. Producing such guides to the local flora and fauna, to be made widely accessible locally, is seen as a contribution to fostering language and knowledge transmission.

Efforts have also been recently made to preserve one of the most important traditional food and general-use plant species, Pandanus tectorius. In much of its range, this tree is only found in a wild form, but in times past the early inhabitants of the Marshall Islands developed numerous edible cultivars. So far, through the Republic of the Marshall Islands Agriculture Division and the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, over 200 names have been documented for these cultivars, and ongoing efforts are being made to locate and preserve as many of these as possible. However, some of the cultivars may have gone extinct and local knowledge of and interest in the subject seem to have been lost over recent decades. Many members of the younger generation appear to only know the names of three or four cultivars.

The people of Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands face an even greater challenge to maintain knowledge of their ancestral home. They evacuated their atoll during the nuclear testing in the 1940s and 50s, and until now the land remains too radioactive for permanent habitation. In October 2003, the Kili-Bikini-Ejit Local Government sponsored the project leaders to visit Bikini to document the birds and plants of the atoll. The intent is to produce scientific papers and possibly popular books on these topics.

Other projects include the preservation of the only remaining indigenous land bird in the Marshall Islands, the Micronesian Pigeon or mule in Marshallese (Ducula oceanica), particularly the subspecies ratakensis that is found only in the eastern chain of atolls in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands Conservation Society has been overseeing this project, which has attracted the attention of international birders. So far, work has concentrated on the birds found on Majuro Atoll, but efforts are underway to expand to other atolls where the subspecies is reported to still be found – or reported to be found in the past – with hopes of protection and even reintroduction. DNA testing is being done to assess the genetic status of the existing birds.

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