Rimatara Lorikeet (‘Ura) Reintroduction Programme

By Gerald McCormack
1 March 2007
and edited into past tense by Atiu Villas.

Rimatara Red Lorikeet released on Atiu in 2007On 24th April 2007 the endangered Rimatara Lorikeet (‘Ura, Vini kuhlii) was reintroduced to Ātiu in the Cook Islands from Rimatara in French Polynesia to establish a reserve population. The programme was implemented by four organisations: the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust (CINHT), an agency of the Cook Islands government; Te Ipukarea Society (TIS), the Cook Islands affiliate of BirdLife International; the Ornithological Society of Polynesia (MANU), the French Polynesia affiliate of BirdLife International; and the Zoological Society of San Diego (ZSSD).

The programme had the support of the governments of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands; and the support of the elders, City Council and people of Rimatara and the traditional leaders, Island Council and people of Ātiu. Most of the funding is provided by the 2006 British Birdwatching Fair through BirdLife International, with co-funding from Fonds Français pour le Pacifique, San Diego Zoo, Air Rarotonga, and the Pacific Development and Conservation Trust.

The transfer of this endangered species required CITES approval to move it between countries, along with special support from aviation control, immigration, customs and quarantine to enable the direct Rimatara-Ātiu flights for birds and personnel.

Biogeographic and cultural setting

The Southern Group of the Cook Islands and the Austral Archipelago of French Polynesia are an island chain 2000 km long. Although the chain mainly formed as the Pacific Plate passed over the Macdonald Hotspot at the southeast end, there are several anomalies and the chain has been described as a Maverick among hotspot island-chains. The islands have a closely linked biodiversity, and share several unique species.

The eight islands of the Southern Group form a cluster about 300km across, while the nearest peopled-islands of the Australs are Rimatara and Rurutu, about 400km to the southeast. Although Polynesians might have first settled some of these islands around 700 AD, most of the present inhabitants are Eastern Polynesians from the Society Islands who arrived periodically from around 1,000 AD. Cultural links between the Southern Cooks and Australs continued after the arrival of first European settlers in the 1820s, and it was not until the 1930s that the political boundary, established in the 1880s, asserted itself as a discouragement to Cook Islands – Austral travel and communication.

Former and present distribution

Historical distribution of the Red LorikeetThe fossil record and oral traditions show that the Rimatara Lorikeet (‘Ura) was formerly a native bird on most of the Southern Cook Islands, where it was known as the Kura. It was much prized for its small red feathers, which were used for chiefly adornment, and for decorating ceremonial headdresses [see the Ātiu headdress in the photograph]. The chiefs of Tahiti and the Societies also anciently made extensive use of red feathers, especially on the famous red loincloth (‘ura maro). Most of the red feathers probably came from the Kura of the Cook Islands and Rimatara. Local oral tradition recounts that the last feather harvest in the Cook Islands was by a team from Aitutaki to Manuae around the time of Captain Cook’s visit in the 1770s. The lorikeet was not recorded in the Cook Islands by any European visitors, and probably became extinct in the Cook Islands before the Missionaries arrived in the 1820s. The archaeological record and early-recorded traditions indicate that the lorikeet provided red feathers in ancient times on Rimatara, while there are no indications that it was anciently on Rurutu or Tubuai.

Until today, the Rimatara Lorikeet survived only on Rimatara, within its former natural range. There are two populations in the northern Line Islands of Kiribati, where it was introduced in historical times. This lorikeet is listed on the IUCN Red List as "Endangered", because of its small population and limited distribution. It is protected from international trade by being on Appendix II of CITES, which means it needs a CITES export permit to be moved to another country. In French Polynesia it is a Category A species (Arrete n° 296 CM), which means it cannot be caught or transported without approval from the Ministry of the Environment. The other two lorikeets of French Polynesia, the Blue Lorikeet (Vini peruviana, also on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands) and the Ultramarine Lorikeet (Vini ultramarina), are also on the Red List and protected in the same way as the Rimatara Lorikeet. On Rimatara the lorikeet is still protected by a tapu placed on it by Queen Tamaeva about a hundred years ago.

1992 research and recommendations

In 1992 Tom and Ellen Winser of England made their yacht Ardevora available to take the two Cook Islands Natural Heritage staff to Rimatara to assess the population status and habitat requirements of the Rimatara Lorikeet. The population was estimated at 900 birds and, surprisingly, most were living in the horticultural zone of the island, which was dominated by recently introduced trees and shrubs. A preliminary survey found Pacific Rat (Rattus exulans), Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus), but no Ship Rat (Rattus rattus).

Since around 1900 the other two lorikeets of French Polynesia, the Blue Lorikeet and the Ultramarine Lorikeet, have both undergone a drastic decline in numbers and have been lost from several islands. There was considerable circumstantial evidence that the primary problem was the Ship Rat, which probably started spreading throughout the islands sometime after the 1850s. With the other two species of rat already present on Rimatara, the eventual arrival of Ship Rat seemed certain, and this would have inevitably lead to the extinction of the lorikeet in its last bastion within its natural range.

The Natural Heritage report was presented in November 1993 at the Seminaire Manu in Tahiti, and recommended two actions to reduce the chance of extinction within the South Pacific: (1) increase quarantine procedures and awareness on Rimatara; and (2) establish a reserve population on a Ship Rat-free island within its former natural range, namely in the Southern Cooks. Because the late Queen Tamaeva of Rimatara protected the bird we also recommended that this be honoured by changing the usual English name from Kuhl’s Lorikeet to Rimatara Lorikeet.

Suitability of Ātiu

Relative sizes of Atiu and RimataraFieldwork undertaken by several people soon made it clear that of the peopled-islands in the Southern Group, only Ātiu and Aitutaki did not have Ship Rat, and were therefore the only candidates for establishing a reserve population. Aitutaki was ruled out because it has the Blue Lorikeet, locally called Kurāmo‘o, which would compete with the reintroduced lorikeet for food and nest sites. Ātiu was therefore the only peopled-island suitable for a reintroduction programme.

Ātiu and Rimatara are very similar. Geologically they are both raised-islands, consisting of central volcanic hills, surrounded by a discontinuous swampland, which is inside a rampart of ancient reefal-limestone (makatea) – continuous on Ātiu and discontinuous on Rimatara. Ātiu, at 6km diameter, is twice as wide and more than three times the area of Rimatara: 29 km² to 9 km². On both islands native forest continues to thrive on the rugged makatea; the infertile inland hills are covered with native ferns and exotic forests; and the fertile lower slopes and valleys have been transformed into complex zone of horticulture. The native plants and the introduced plants of the two islands are very similar.

The only factor on Ātiu that might prevent a successful reintroduction is the presence of the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis), which was introduced in 1915 to control the Coconut Stick-insect (Graeffea crouanii). However, the Blue Lorikeet, which was introduced to Aitutaki sometime before 1899, has continued to flourish in the presence of mynas, which were introduced in 1916. There is therefore good reason to predict that the presence of mynas will not prevent a successful reintroduction of the Rimatara Lorikeet to Ātiu. [For further details see: McCormack, G. & Künzle, J. The ‘Ura or Rimatara Lorikeet Vini kuhlii: its former range, present status, and conservation priorities. Bird Conservation International (1996) 6:325-334.]

The long road to agreement

In 2000, the World Wide Fund for Nature sponsored a follow-up expedition to Rimatara to reassess that status of the ‘Ura and the Ship Rat. The lorikeet population was estimated at 750 birds, and the absence of Ship Rat was confirmed, while it was noted that Pacific Rat was very abundant in the Horticultural Zone. The Ātiu Queen, Rongomatane Ariki was a member of the expedition and the City Council agreed in principle to give her up to twenty birds to re-establish the lorikeet on Ātiu.

The reintroduction proposal then moved into limbo because of frequent political change in French Polynesia, and in the Cook Islands. In January 2005, a leading ornithologist in French Polynesia, Jean-Claude Thibault prepared a report for the Government of French Polynesia on the birds of Rimatara. In the report he recommended as a matter of urgency the establishment of a reserve population of the Rimatara Lorikeet in the Cook Islands. This was followed in March by a letter from the Natural Heritage Trust to the new President of French Polynesia, Oscar Temaru. Prime Minister, the Hon. Jim Marurai, presented the letter to the President, and subsequently the President requested an assessment of the proposal by the Ornithological Society of Polynesia (MANU). MANU, which had supported the proposal since the mid-1990s, became the French Polynesia partner in the reintroduction programme.

In July 2005 BirdLife International included the project as part of their Pacific Parrot Programme, which has been accepted for funding by the August 2006 British Birdwatching Fair. In November 2005 the Cook Islands Government approved the reintroduction and establish a Taskforce. In March 2006 San Diego Zoo agreed to assist with implementation by providing staff experienced in handling lorikeets and a pathologist/veterinarian to implement a rigorous disease management regime. And, in April 2006, the last physical obstacle was overcome – the new Rimatara Airport opened for commercial traffic. In July 2006, the French Polynesia Ministre de l'Environment organised a meeting in Tahiti of most relevant government agencies and they showed positive support for the proposal. As expected the most critical issue was the adequacy of disease control, and an emergent idea was the need for a government-to-government MOU. In January 2007 a delegation representing the Cook Islands and MANU held a public meeting on Rimatara at which, after a vigorous debate, the elders, City Council and people agreed to give up to 27 birds to Rongomatane Ariki to establish a reserve population on Ātiu. MANU organised a meeting of all relevant government agencies to further discuss procedures and approvals - again there was strong support for the programme.

CBD commitments

The Cook Islands is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which has as a fundamental goal, the equitable sharing of the benefits of biodiversity. In the case of the Rimatara Lorikeet reintroduction, the people of Rimatara are showing great conservational awareness in allowing a reserve population to be established on an island in another country, and great generosity in allowing Ātiu to regain a bird of cultural significance, and a bird that will be important for Ātiu ecotourism. In the spirit of the CBD, there will be a community-to-community Memorandum of Understanding in which Ātiu people acknowledge themselves as custodians of the lorikeet, that the people of Rimatara remain the sole owners of the bird, and that any future export of lorikeets from Ātiu will require the approval of Rimatara and a sharing of benefits. While the community-to-community MOU captures the spirit of the CBD for the communities it would not stand in international law, which is why the International Relations Department at the July meeting proposed the need for a government-to-government MOU. In addition, it was agreed after the public meeting on Rimatara in January to arrange for a plaque to be erected on Rimatara and Ātiu to commemorate the agreement to reintroduce the ‘Ura to Ātiu..

The transfer

A team from San Diego Zoo, with support personnel from the Cook Islands and Tahiti, captured and transfered the lorikeets on Air Rarotonga. The government officials in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands made special immigration and quarantine arrangements, allowing the reintroduction of the lorikeet in April 2007. Although there are no known serious bird diseases in French Polynesia or the Cook Islands, the San Diego vet/pathologist implemented a rigorous disease protocol.

Post-transfer monitoring

Kura on Atiu in Kaika tree (Mountain apple)The transferred birds have been banded and during the first four years CINHT and TIS are working with the Ātiu residents, especially the senior college students, Birdman George and Dr Roger Malcolm to map the location of all transferred birds and their offspring, which will not be banded. If breeding success is unreasonably low an intensive investigation will be undertaken during the breeding season to identify problems and develop solutions.

Gerald McCormack
Director, Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust
(682) 20 959 gerald@nature.gov.ck


Atiu now sings to the shrill cry of kura flying overhead. The 27 birds on Atiu make up for their small number by calling as they fly and are often seen in flocks up to 16 traversing the island. As of 27 October 2007 no fledglings have been sighted. There is a $200 prize for the first fledling sighted, confirmed and photographed by Birdman George. Breeding season is expected August to December.

First Annual Report

Download the first annual report on the reintroduction of the Rimatara lorikeet to Atiu (620 kBytes).