The world population of the critically endangered Fatu Hiva monarch has risen to 20 birds following the successful rescue and hand-rearing of a now five-week-old chick by conservation partners the Polynesian Ornithological Society (SOP Manu) and Auckland Zoo.

On 2 February, as part of a SOP Manu/Auckland Zoo emergency conservation partnership to help save the endemic bird on French Polynesia’s Fatu Hiva Island, a five-day-old (14 gram) chick was removed from a precariously tilting tree nest to prevent it from falling.

The vital intervention for the wild chick and this most endangered of species (its population has just five breeding pairs!) is a first. It follows 10 unsuccessful breeding attempts by four Fatu Hiva pairs during 2023, and the partnership’s first ex-situ (outside of the wild) efforts to rear chicks from incubated eggs hatched in its purpose-built intensive management facility on the island.

“This chick - promisingly from one of the youngest breeding females (four years), is a small but very exciting step in our race to save one of the world’s rarest bird species from extinction,” says SOP Manu Fatu Hiva monarch programme coordinator Ben Ignace.

“It’s been a titanic and exacting task, and the result of great teamwork,” says SOP Manu biologist Chiara Ciardiello, who with the help of volunteer Stella Jorgensen has been responsible for hand-rearing the chick.

“In its first weeks, to ensure the chick received its required daily food intake - the equivalent of half its body weight – we were feeding it every 30 minutes from 5am to 10pm! It now weighs almost 40 grams (nearing an adult weight) and is close to fledging, but we still have a long way to go.  With the support and expertise of Auckland Zoo, we’ll be continuing with the same rigorous approach we’ve been taking to give this young bird every chance to flourish, and we hope, reach adulthood and be able to contribute to its species’ future,” says Chiara.

Auckland Zoo curator of birds Dr Juan Cornejo, who is leading the partnership’s ex-situ intensive management project, says this latest achievement – a first for this genus of flycatchers - is a promising breakthrough after an incredible amount of work by the team over the past year.

“Having malaria confirmed as a new risk to the species, our approach has been to collect eggs from wild nests for incubating to safeguard newly hatched chicks from malaria-carrying mosquitos and give them the best possible start to life. We’ve had three chicks successfully hatch at between just 3.6 grams to 4.8 grams that unfortunately survived only a few days. We’re now waiting on pathology results from these birds which will contribute to helping us decide our next and best steps going forward.

“With our SOP Manu colleagues, we’re constantly assessing and reviewing our methods and actions. The stakes are always going to be especially high when dealing with exquisitely tiny newly hatched chicks, but this recent success with a five-day-old bird gives us great confidence that we’re on the right track,” explains Juan.

“For Auckland Zoo, it’s a real privilege to be involved in this SOP Manu project and working with such a passionate and dedicated group of individuals to try and turn things around for the Fatu Hiva, whose wild population has remained perilously small and static.”

Once fledged, this newest addition to the Fatu Hiva population will be moved from its brooder to an outdoor aviary on the island, screened to protect it from mosquitos, and therefore malaria.

Fatu Hiva conservation efforts screening on Wild Heroes (Series 2)

The television wildlife documentary ‘Wild Heroes’ (on three and - all about Auckland Zoo - including the conservation mahi its staff do with conservation partners throughout Aotearoa and beyond, features a Fatu Hiva story on Sunday 16 March (7pm). 

Fast Facts

Fatu Hiva Island and the Fatu Hiva monarch

  • Fatu Hiva Island (8,400ha/85km2), only accessible by boat (population 600), is the southernmost island in The Marquesas Islands/French Polynesia (1100km north of Tahiti).
  • Critically Endangered: The Fatu Hiva monarch or flycatcher (Pomarea whitneyi), a tree nester and highly territorial insectivore, is endemic to Fatu Hiva Island and classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature/IUCN (Red List). Due to introduced invasive mammalian predators (ship rats and cats), there has been a 97 percent decrease in its population over the last 21 years. It is now also threatened by avian malaria. Population: 20 birds
  • Fatu Hiva’s range: Once common throughout Fatu Hiva Island (and other Marquesas islands) it is now restricted to just 29ha in Tai‘u’ valley on Fatu Hiva, in the core 600ha predator management area. Ship rat arrived in the 80’s on the island and spread over the island in less of 20 years.
  • Longevity and breeding: The Fatu Hiva monarch is thought to be long-lived, between 20 and 30 years. However, it has a very slow breeding biology, as insular species. It does start reproducing between 2 and 3 years old, only lays a single-egg clutch and both parents care for their juvenile for 4 – 6 months.
  • Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie: (The Polynesian Ornithological Society), also called SOP Manu (Manu means bird in polynesian), was founded in 1990, and is the local representative of BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations. It established a conservation programme for the Fatu Hiva in 2008.
  • Auckland Zoo/SOP Manu partnership: through its Conservation Fund (which raises funds to support conservation projects for threatened wildlife throughout Aotearoa and overseas), Auckland Zoo has supported SOP Manu’s efforts for the Fatu Hiva since 2014. The current ex-situ (out of the wild) conservation programme on the island involving specialist Auckland Zoo staff is part of a larger 3-year $NZ90k project being funded by the Zoo for the Fatu Hiva that also includes predator control, monitoring, and avian malaria mitigation programmes.

SOP Manu partners

This ex-situ project has been made possible thanks to the financial support of French organisations (FONDS VERT, Beauval Nature, Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, UNIVET Nature), Zoos Victoria and Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund. The French Polynesia government also allocated funding and gave the authorisation for the captive management of the species. A number of international organisations helped the team to define the strategy and increase local capacity (BirdLife International, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), Marlow Bird Park, Pendl Lab, Pacific Bird Conservation, Australian Society of Zoo Keeping, Keauhou Bird Conservation Center, Copenhagen Zoo). Other local organisation providing support include AIR TAHITI, NautiSport Industries, EDT Engie, ILM, IRD, Institut de France, and Fatu Hiva Council.