Life on the front line in the south west Pacific
Wednesday, 02 June 2010 15:02

The swimming pigs in Tokelau Islands
The Swimming pigs in Tokelau Islands

Despite being one of the least carbon-producing regions in the world, the southwest Pacific has been one of the first to suffer the consequences of global warming. In January 2000 the low-lying boomerang-shaped atoll nation of Tuvalu was one of the first to witness the dawn of the new millennium, and news reports all over the world carried iconic footage of a conch-blower heralding the new era on an island that will not exist by the end of the next century, let alone the next millennium.

Rising sea levels throughout the region are exacerbating the impact of tropical storms, which now occur with increasing frequency and intensity. Floods are contaminating the water table, food, and feed supplies, while salt from storm surges and "king tides" - as well as percolation up through porous coral atolls - is affecting arable land and fresh water supplies. Already, the government in Papua New Guinea has evacuated inhabitants of some of the country's smaller, low-lying islands to the mainland, and residents of Tuvalu - only 4.5m above sea level at its highest point - now erect their homes on stilts, where ten years ago they built on dry ground.

When islands are at risk, so are resident animals. "If the sea levels rise higher, some of these countries will be underwater. Where will the people and livestock go?" asks Nichol Nonga, animal production officer for the Secretariat for the Pacific Community (SPC), based in Fiji. It seems the Pacific islands are in the firing line of global warming and their uniquely-adapted animal life is at risk of becoming collateral damage.

Pigs might swim

The islands of the southwest Pacific have a high degree of animal endemism, with human and natural selection taking place in very distinct and geographically limited areas. As a result, there are thought to be numerous undocumented breeds well-adapted to life on the islands. "The main problem at the moment is that we don't know what there is," Nonga admits. "We have a pilot project running that should end this year, which will produce an inventory on pigs and poultry breeds in four countries - Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Niue - but only four." The fact that the southwest Pacific comprises 22 island nations and territories spread across 180 million sq km of ocean gives an idea of the scale of what is certainly a daunting task.

The Samoan chicken is well-suited to the tropical climate and village life.

Independent studies have already uncovered breeds with unique characteristics, for example, the "swimming pigs" of the Tokelau Islands, near Samoa. These unusual free-range indigenous swine have adapted to taking a daily dip in the ocean and scavenging for food on the reefs at low tide. They can even drink seawater. There are also millions of robust free-range poultry across the Pacific islands - like the Samoan chicken ("Moa Samoa") found throughout Samoa, which has remarkable resilience to the tropical climate and village conditions. Attempts to introduce exotic breeds such as Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds and Black Australorps to improve egg production have failed as the introduced birds were unable to survive. But climate change requires even faster adaptation, putting great pressure on otherwise hardy breeds. As Nonga sees it, "The question is, will climate change give breeds enough time to adapt to the new conditions?"

Small beginnings

Like the "swimming pigs" of Tokelau and the Moa Samoa, many animals in the region are either feral or free-range. While this is a great strength when it comes to their ability to adapt, it is also a great weakness when it becomes very difficult for research teams to carry out the inventories needed in order to establish official conservation programmes. It also makes it hard to contain disease outbreaks and, as well as his concerns over climate change, Nonga is worried that a devastating pandemic like avian flu, for example, could wipe out an island's entire poultry population in one fell swoop.

At the heart of the issue is money. Characterisation studies are time consuming and therefore expensive, but without them there is no way to protect the animals. "The pressure is on," continues Nonga. "Funding is a big problem for us - we need to extend the inventory and characterisation work to other countries, conserve breeds and establish institutions to do this." While some financial support for the current pilot project has come from Australia and FAO, Nonga feels that national governments in the region are not giving conservation of animal genetic resources enough attention. "We need to make it a priority, and we need to do this urgently because, if we lose these breeds, we will lose them forever."

(Original article Neil Palmer)