The title of this book puzzled me at first. Its subject is the effort to restore seriously disturbed ecosystems on some of the world’s remotest islands. But the fact is that these farthest-flung islands of the North and Central Pacific have been far from forgotten: they have been possessed and repossessed many times over in national struggles for commercial and political power in Oceania.
Few readers are likely to be familiar with Rose Atoll, Kiritimati, Jarvis, Howland, Baker, Palmyra, Johnston, and Wake. But Mark Rauzon is referring to a different type of “amnesia”: the ignorance or shortsightedness that has allowed humans to wreak havoc on island ecosystems. In Rauzon’s words, “the accidental or purposeful release of animals and plants” is “unraveling the fabric of life” on islands that are arks of irreplaceable species.
Isles of Amnesia is an intimate portrait of islands that have served as way stations for an amazing range of human use and abuse, from guano mining to feather poaching to weapons testing, and Rauzon has dug up some fascinating history. This patchwork tale of colorful characters and skullduggery is knit together by the author’s in-the-trenches account of what it’s like to be a conservation biologist ridding damaged islands of their most damaging invasives. (At the top of the list are rats and cats.) As Rauzon puts it, with typically wry humor, his book is “the confession of an ‘island rat’ using lethal force to correct ecological problems in paradise.”
Rauzon, who also confesses to being a cat lover, fell into this line of work after getting a job doing rodent control soon after leaving college with a biology degree. An Alaskan boat trip and his first sighting of an albatross pointed him toward a lifelong study of Pacific seabirds and their island habitats. Little did he know these two vectors would coalesce in a career as an “eradication expert” who has been working in the Pacific islands for the last 30 years.
As a dedicated seabird biologist, Rauzon has had to learn to shift focus from individual species to the fabric of an entire island; in his words, he had to learn to “kill with compassion for the sake of the ecosystem.”
He launched his career as an eradicator in 1982 on Jarvis Island, an uninhabited American possession that is part of the Line Island archipelago. (With the exception of America Samoa’s Rose Atoll, Guam, and Kiritimati, all the islands Rauzon writes about are now part of the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.) Its 1,100 acres, which lie nearly on the equator, once supported “one of the largest [seabird] colonies in the tropical ocean.”
Rauzon estimated that “the Jarvis population of about 115 cats could eat approximately twenty-five thousand birds a year and had already exterminated six species of seabirds from the island.” Doing the job required a certain amount of talking himself into it: “ The only real way to restore the balance of nature,” he reasoned, “was to kill all the cats – if possible.” To accomplish this Rauzon, along with biologist David Woodside, had to become “crepuscular,” baiting live traps and stalking with flashlight and shotgun. By the end of their month on Jarvis, a few cats still eluded them.
Over the next two decades the last cats were hunted down and seabird numbers exploded, with the six species that had disappeared from the island establishing new colonies. Jarvis became once again what any bird biologist worth his salt will endure extreme heat and no shade to witness: something akin to the original vital ecosystem, in all its odorous, gloriously winged life. In Rauzonʻs words, “The primal nature of a full seabird colony, replete with all its species, has an old-growth feel, a … wholeness, integrity to it.”
Unfortunately, few eradication challenges are as straightforward as ridding tiny, treeless Jarvis of cats. Rats have invaded 90 percent of the worldʻs islands, taking a huge toll on land and seabirds. Poisoning them is at this point the only effective method. Rauzon notes that “New Zealanders were pioneering aerial broadcast applications of bait (most commonly an anti-coagulant called brodifacoum)” that were “lethal at one feeding.” Kiwi efforts proved that if you could afford helicopters and all else that goes with a campaign of military proportions, large temperate islands could be made safe for some of the country’s rarest birds. (Aotearoa has now tackled some of its largest uninhabited islands, including Campbell, which, at 27,000 acres, is almost as large as Kaho`olawe.)
But tropical islands are a different kettle of fish: witness Palmyra Atoll, a lush, emerald-lagooned paradise with hellish conditions for rat-baiting. Rauzon, who combines a biologist’s acute eye with that of an artist (his wonderful drawings and photographs illustrate Isles of Amnesia), contrasts the atollʻs inshore beauty – “beryl green waters,” “Persian rug coral reefs” – with the steamy tangles of its rat-infested interior.
Rauzonʻs first trip to the atoll was to assess results of an earlier attempt by pioneer federal pest controller Jim Murphy at eradicating rats through a nightmarish task of laying out 1,198 bait stations along 36 miles of transects, bushwacking through sharp screwpines and fallen palm fronds, “while stumbling on rusty metal spikes and unexploded ordnance left over from World War II was also a possibility.” The huge effort was a failure, Rauzon relates:
“Some rats nested in the tops of the palms and didn’t come down to eat. … In the pervasive wetness, bait would mold, melt, or simply disappear before rats had a bite to eat. “
A decade later, a well-funded effort that included two helicopters and a work crew of 40 blanketed both ground and tree-tops. In the thick forest, a “dope on a rope” suspended from a hovering chopper dropped packets of bait directly into the palm crowns.
This time, success. Palmyra, Rauzon writes, “is now ready to be the ark of the Pacific,” capable of harboring endemic birds that are elsewhere barely hanging on in their home islands.
Some of those home islands are beyond hope of restoration, at least with current methods and levels of funding and indifference from officialdom. For Rauzon, Wake Island, Johnston Atoll and Guam are studies in hope and heartbreak. On Wake, Rauzonʻs team worked to rid the island of cats in the midst of a military base whose personnel responded to the effort with indifference or, as it turns out, justifiable anxiety about the rats taking over.
Had the funding been available, the rats would have been tackled at the same time.A decade later, in 2012, Rauzon was back on the island to help with “the most ambitious eradication in Department of Defense experience.” This effort, the biologist claims, would be “the largest commensal (meaning among people) rodent eradication in history, and it had to succeed to prove that rat eradication in a peopled situation could be done.”
Midway Atoll’s Sand Island – admittedly not as large as Wake – was rid of rats in the midst of an ongoing base closure operation in 1996. But at Midway, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Navy staff committed to the task over a period of time, whereas at Wake the rat team was given a narrow window to fly in and do the job, with no encouragement or funds to follow up. Perhaps for those reasons, the Wake eradication failed.
As Rauzon makes clear, the damage rats do to island birds is only a part of their destructiveness. The endemic palm forests of Rapa Nui, as well as those of Hawai`i, were devastated by introduced rats and mice eating the seeds. Isles of Amnesia focuses on the dangers to island birds, but in fact most islands are burdened by multiple invasives – plants, insects, animals, even microbes – and removal of one pest species can cause unforeseen consequences. At Wake, the severe culling of rats meant the seedlings of invasive ironwoods flourished uneaten, and the forest is rapidly taking over seabird nesting habitat.
Island conservation under the best of conditions can seem like an advanced game of “whack-a-mole,” and Rauzonʻs quick overview of the situations on Kiritimati and Guam suggests that under the worst it can be near-impossible. Kiritimati, home to the highly endangered bokikokiko (Christmas Island warbler) as well as feral cats and rats, is part of a tiny island nation hampered by lack of funds and a population outstripping its meager resources.
I would have liked to see Rauzon explore more rigorously the reasons conservation is losing ground on islands such as Wake and Guam that are under the jurisdiction of a wealthy nation (the United States). In Guam’s case, where military bases now occupy 29 percent of the main island and the build-up continues, efforts to restore the environment and stop the spread of invasives appear to have been woefully inadequate.
In Rauzonʻs too-brief snapshot of a place afflicted with the brown tree snake, one of the Pacific’s worst invasives, I was left not knowing whether to hope or despair for the few endemic plants and animals that remain.
Rauzon is a terrific storyteller and he is mining a rich vein in portraying these islands, but the supremely important work he has played a part in deserves a fuller treatment.
— Pamela Frierson
Frierson is author of The Burning Island and The Last Atoll: Exploring Hawai`i’s Endangered Ecosystems. She lives on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island.
Volume 27, Number 2 August 2016