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At approximately 25,000 breeding pairs, the Red-Footed Booby population on North Keeling Island is the largest in the Indian Ocean, perhaps the world. Sadly, these birds are now under threat from illegal poaching in the park.
Photo: Courtesy of Parks Australia Cocos (Keeling) Islands

June 4, 2002
The Threats to Pulu Keeling National Park
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Log Transcript

The proclamation of 'Pulu' Keeling National Park in 1995 under the National Parks and Wildlife Act (1975), was a significant event. It is intended to ensure the longterm conservation of the island's unique biodiversity, safeguarding it for both the local and international community. However, as Wendy Murray explained to us today, simply designating an area as a National Park is not always enough to protect the habitat or it's wildlife. Today 'Pulu' Keeling National Park faces many threats from the natural elements and from humans who seek to exploit it's wealth.

Wendy Murray - Government Conservator - Pulu Keeling National Park, Cocos (Keeling) Islands:

North Keeling Island is protected as a National Park, it's called 'Pulu' Keeling National Park. It's a Federal Government managed park, but we lease the land from the local community.

You wouldn't call he bird population on North Keeling unique, it's probably typical of oceanic islands. Although there is one species that is endemic to North Keeling and that is the Cocos Buff-banded Rail and we also have the Round Island Petrel, which is critically endangered in Australia. So there are two species here of extreme conservation significance. The Red-footed Booby population is also arguably one of the largest in the world, this means it is important to preserve it in its current state.

We have Green and Hawksbill turtles, although only the Greens are nesting in the park. Most of the turtle activity is actually down here around this atoll - (South Keeling), it's an incredibly important feeding area. We do have nesting turtles, but probably less than 100 nests a year, but we have thousands of feeding turtles. This is the spot that they come to when they're too big to just float around on the ocean where they're not getting enough food. They need to go somewhere where they can really pig-out and put on the weight to allow them to grow to maturity and we now have 350 turtles tagged, both Greens and Hawksbills. The turtles here are feeding on algae, sponges and sea-grass.

The Cocos Banded-buff Rail is the only endemic bird on the island of North Keeling.
Photo: Courtesy of Parks Australia Cocos (Keeling) Islands

We go up to North Keeling as often as we can, it's wonderful to get back to our proper habitat. However because of the cost of getting a vessel up there in our normal swell season - we usually have a 3-4 meter swell, that restricts the number of times we are able to go. It is usually 2 or 3 times a month in the swell season. We also have our own 8-meter patrol vessel and in calm weather we are able to go up there, sometimes 3 times a day.

There are a lot of external threats to the park, even us going there is potentially introducing pests or diseases so we are very thorough when we check our gear. We scrub the souls of our boots to make sure that none of the bacteria in the soil down here, that we're not taking that with us. But visitors, it's important to check them, that they don't carry seeds in their socks or their pants, also that their boots are clean. So tourism is actually monitored and visitors must go with either tour operators or ourselves so we can keep that in check.

One of the other threats is from people who are going ashore illegally, they are a threat and they don't realize it. This is where it comes down to education as well as enforcement. Another threat the park faces is from illegal foreign fishing vessels. Three times now we have had people from Sri Lanka come out and do a lot of fishing in the park and then they have come ashore and stolen all of our field equipment, including our field station. This makes it expansive to replace and get all the gear back there, it also interrupts our research work when you cannot continue without basic camping equipment and this has an effect on our data collection. Even more importantly, when people from other countries are going ashore, they haven't been through customs and quarantine checks, they take ashore things such as pieces of bamboo which could have all sorts of pests and diseases in them. This is definitely one of our biggest threats, the accidental introduction of tropical species from other places. Because our island is remote and always has been, it probably has less resistance to introduced species, this is one of our greatest concerns.

One of the other threats to North Keeling is the poaching of seabirds. This has arisen as a result of the fact that when this community was brought here to operate the coconut plantation, they ate the seabirds to support their diet. Now this is no longer required as we have vessels bringing in supplies all the time and food is not an issue, but it has become a tradition. It has become an issue now where it is very hard to convince people that " NO, you really do not want to eat Booby birds any more." We must work within what is legally allowable, and when it is been done illegally within the park, we must prosecute and make people aware that we are serious about protecting the birds, this is really the only way we can do it.

Green Turtles mate and nest in the national park.
Photo: Courtesy of Parks Australia Cocos (Keeling) Islands

The question on how we protect these remaining areas has to be area specific. In the case of North Keeling 'Pulu' National Park, we have to look at managing the tourism and working with the community. This includes doing a lot of education work to get people to become so proud of this wonderful resource that they have, and that has the ability to earn them money trough low-key eco-tourism, and to get people to enjoy it while having as little impact as possible.

Genevieve Johnson:

The Odyssey crew are exceptionally fortunate to be able to visit remote and relatively unspoiled wilderness areas such as 'Pulu' Keeling National Park. Yet even though protected by law and patrolled by vigilant and determined Rangers, many of these last wildlife havens, remain vulnerable to human disturbance. We must continue to set aside these natural places, to conserve ecosytems and species. We are currently in the midst of a surge of extinctions - one that is believed to be taking some 27,000 species a year from our planet, many before we have had the opportunity to discover them. We need to restore and maintain our equilibrium with the natural environment - indeed our very survival depends on it.

Log by Genevieve Johnson

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