Auckland Zoo and Société d’Ornithologie de Polynésie (The Polynesian Ornithological Society/ SOP Manu) are partnering in an emergency conservation project to save the ‘Critically Endangered’ Fatu Hiva monarch, which is on the brink of extinction.

Endemic to the island within The Marquesas Islands it is named after, the Fatu Hiva monarch (a type of flycatcher) is French Polynesia’s most endangered bird and one of the world’s rarest species. Decimated over decades by invasive mammalian predators - ship rats (which arrived on Fatu Hiva in the 1980s) and feral cats, and now also threatened by avian malaria, its population today numbers just 19 birds with only five breeding pairs.

The emergency project between the Zoo and long-term conservation partner SOP Manu will attempt to establish an ex-situ (outside of the wild) breeding programme on Fatu Hiva Island, 1100km northeast of Tahiti – the first time this has been attempted with a monarch species.

Eggs laid in nests closely monitored by SOP Manu biologists in the 29ha area of the densely forested Tai’u’ valley where the birds now live, are being collected for incubating, hatching, and all going well, chick rearing - in new purpose-built facilities designed by Zoo staff and constructed by local builders. Auckland Zoo bird specialists, who have well-honed skills and experience in intensive wildlife management, are leading these husbandry aspects of the project. If successfully reared, the fledglings will be released into a predator/mosquito-proof aviary - buying time for this precious bird on the brink and enabling partners to plan their next conservation management steps to safeguard the species’ future.

In an encouraging development, earlier this month, one egg was retrieved from the nest, artificially incubated, and successfully hatched on 20 July/NZtime. From an older breeding pair, whose previous three clutches have failed to produce chicks from eggs incubated by them on the nest, this chick sadly died at two days old, on Saturday 22 July/NZ time. Two other breeding pairs, including a younger pair, are expected to lay any day, and their nests are being very closely monitored.

Auckland Zoo’s curator of birds Dr Juan Cornejo, and birds team leader Carl Ashworth are leading the Zoo’s efforts on the island. This in-the-field mahi is additional to NZ$90k of financial support by the Zoo over the next three years to maintain essential monitoring, predator control, and malaria mitigation programmes - made possible through funds raised for its Conservation Fund which supports projects for threatened wildlife locally and globally.

“Thanks to the fantastic work of SOP Manu implementing intensive predator control programmes over the past 15 years (supported by the Zoo since 2014), the fledgling survival rates of the Fatu Hiva monarch improved. However, the population hasn’t been able to grow fast enough and remains at a critically small size. In addition, three of the current five breeding females are now aged over 13 years - and possibly nearing the end of their reproductive lives,” explains Juan.

“All of this puts us in a race against time to save the Fatu Hiva from extinction. This first-ever ex-situ breeding programme for a monarch is both critical and challenging, and I think we all feel the pressure and responsibility of having in our hands the chance to turn around the fate of a species!”

“As aviculturists from Auckland Zoo, we feel very privileged and proud to be working alongside SOP Manu on such a relevant, and we hope, game changing project, that’s putting our intensive management skills into directly helping save a species.”

SOP Manu director Thomas Ghestemme, who has been leading conservation efforts for the the Fatu Hiva for the past 15 years says that it is the most challenging of conservation projects.

“In 2008 the situation for this precious monarch was perilous, with only two breeding pairs. Due to our intensive predator control and monitoring efforts, we had some vital successes and by 2015, this had grown to five breeding pairs, which we’ve maintained, but this is not enough to save it from extinction,” says Thomas.

“The Fatu Hiva is lucky to have Marquesan workers dedicated to the fieldwork every day, and all of our partners, including Auckland Zoo, involved. With the discovery of avian malaria in 2022, the last chance for this species is an ex-situ project that can protect the young and support the survival of the wild population. This project to build an ex-situ management centre has been, and continues to be, a huge logistical challenge as the island is so highly remote – only accessible by boat. But we are a passionate and dedicated team that will do absolutely everything we can to save the species.”

Fast Facts

Fatu Hiva Island & 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 (3 generations). It is now also threatened by avian malaria. Population: 19 birds (with 5 breeding pairs).
  • 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.
  • Longevity & breeding: The Fatu Hiva monarch is thought to be long-lived. However, it has a very slow breeding biology. 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.
  • Other zoo support: Zoos Victoria (Australia), another major supporter of SOP Manu, will send a specialist bird keeper to work with Auckland Zoo on the intensive management programme.

SOP Manu partners

This ex-situ project has been made possible thanks to the financial support of French organisations (Beauval Nature, Ligue pour la protection des oiseaux, UNIVET Nature) and Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund. The French Polynesia government gave the authorisation for the captive management aspect of the project. 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). Other local organisation providing support include AIR TAHITI, Nauti Sport Industries, ILM, IRD, Institut de France, and Fatu Hiva Council.