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GREENWATCH New Caledonia: threats to biodiversity

by France Bequette

Oro Bay on the Isle of Pines [© France Bequette, Paris]

New Caledonia is a French Territoire d’outre mer (overseas territory forming part of the French Republic) in the southern part of Melanesia, half-way between Australia and New Zealand. Unlike its neighbours Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Fiji, the island is not of volcanic origin but became separate from the great landmass of Gondwana 80 million years ago, whereas the 1,600-km barrier reef surrounding it and the three Loyalty Islands of MarLifou and Ouvwere formed much more recently. A range of mountains runs down the centre of New Caledonia, which is nicknamed “le Caillou” (the Rock).

With an area of about 19,000 sq. km., the main island of Grande Terre is slightly smaller than Wales but has only 165,000 inhabitants, of whom 65,000 live in the capital, Noumea. It is a place of diversity in every respect, starting with population, since Kanaks, Wallis Islanders, Indonesians, Ni-Vanuatu, Arabs and Europeans live there side by side. It is ranked fourth in the world for its biological diversity and second for the extent of its coral reefs and atolls. It has 3,250 species of flowering plants (76% of them endemic to the island), 4,500 invertebrates, 148 birds and many species of reptiles such as turtles, lizards and geckos. But unfortunately this haven of wildlife is being gravely threatened by human activities.

The landscape is very varied. While the south and west of the island are relatively dry (1 to 1.5 metres of rainfall a year), average annual rainfall in the east is between 1.5 and 3.5 metres (and as much as 8 metres on the island’s highest mountain, Mont Pani, and it is in that part of the island that the lush tropical vegetation, the thousands of streams, the famous colonial pines (of the Araucaria family), tree ferns and orchids are found.


According to the American non-governmental organization Conservation International, research carried out by botanists Norman Myers and Russ Mittermayer, the organization’s President, show that New Caledonia is one of the richest places in the world in terms of biodiversity, and one of the places where biodiversity is most threatened.

The fauna of New Caledonia is typical of a remote island. There are many endemic species. Out of 116 species of nesting birds, 18 are endemic. The most extraordinary of them, the big grey woodland bird known as the kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) is the country’s emblem. Like the extinct Mauritian dodo, it is flightless and thus an easy prey for wild dogs and cats. Today, like the Hawaiian goose (Branta sandvicensis), it survives only because it is carefully protected, having been made the subject of an active conservation policy in 1990. Luckily for the bird, it is not a gastronomic delicacy and is not hunted, unlike the notu (Duculia goliath), the world’s largest pigeon. The island is also home to the largest known gecko, the Rhacodactylus leachianus. As regards insects, 4,000 species have so far been recorded but no-one can tell whether this represents half or even a fifth of those actually living in New Caledonia. No thorough study of the island’s fungi has yet been carried out.

The most serious threat to the island’s vegetation is that affecting the dry (sclerophyllous) forest on the eastern side, of which only 2% remains, in isolated clumps. Its disappearance is due to the combined effects of forest fires, encroachment by grazing lands and urbanization, and introduced species such as the Timor deer (Cervus timorensis), the population of which has grown since the end of the last century to nearly 110,000 and which trample or eat the saplings, preventing any regeneration of the forest cover. The rainforest and scrub which cover 20% and 24% respectively of the territory represent the principal habitat of the endemic plant species (88% and 81% respectively). Some of these species are now only represented by a few specimens, while others have disappeared altogether. Conversely, a new species of wild rice (Oryza neocaledonica) was identified in 1994 near Pouembout, which goes to show that much remains to be done before a complete inventory is made.

Research is also being conducted to determine on an objective basis the therapeutic value of plants used in traditional medicine. The Kanak have, for instance, treated the tropical food poisoning known as ciguatera (see box) for centuries with an infusion of the leaves of the false tobacco plant (Argusia argentea) or a maceration of the false pepper tree (Schinus terebenthifolius). Although the toxins causing this illness have been isolated, no Western medical treatment is capable of curing it, let alone preventing it.


A drive through the country will show whether the pessimism expressed by Conservation International over the state of nature conservation in New Caledonia is justified. The road from Noumea to Koumac runs along the west coast of the main island. Bare hillsides with occasional patches of vivid green forest dominate the savannah from which emerge the white trunks of the niaoulis (Melaleuca quinquenervia), close relatives of the eucalyptus, and large trees grow in profusion along the river banks, but the countryside has been ravaged by fire. Plumes of smoke and the scars left by previous conflagrations are a constant reminder that fire is an ever-present danger (it rages through more than 50,000 hectares every year). Its main causes are carelessness, slash-and-burn cultivation, the setting of fires to flush out game animals or exterminate rats and other vermin, the burning of rubbish, and arson, and its results are impoverishment of the soil, the acceleration of erosion, shrinkage of natural forests, the disappearance of unique plants and the destruction of the nests of rare birds and insects. Everything burns, even the sheerest mountain sides. “Fire paints the mountain black,” say the Kanak. Only the tropical rainforest areas manage to resist.

A flooded forest in the artificial lake behind Yatam. [© France Bequette, Paris]


Ciguatera, the tropical food poisoning commonly known as “‘la gratte” or “the itch” because of the pruritis it often causes, affects all the tropical regions, from the Caribbean to the islands of the Indian Ocean, but is particularly widespread in the south Pacific. In 1993 it was estimated that in Noumea and the adjacent area alone nearly 20,000 people - 25% of the population - had contracted it at least once.

The illness is caused by eating reef-dwelling tropical fish contaminated by the microalgae (Gambierdiscus toxicus) which proliferate when coral reefs are disturbed by natural causes such as cyclones or earthquakes or by human activity such as coastal land-use development, the building of sea walls and marinas or the extraction of sand from the lagoons.

As the toxins accumulate in the food chain, consumers have also to be wary of large carnivorous fish like barracuda, loach, moray eel or shark, and, in badly infested areas, offish at the bottom end of the chain, parrotfish and surgeonfish. The food poisoning in itself is usually mild, but the digestive, neurological and cardio-vascular disorders it brings on can, in serious cases, cause paralysis, coma and even death.


Respect also needs to be shown for New Caledonia’s soil, which is extremely rich in nickel, chromium, cobalt, manganese and lead - all of them usually toxic for plants. Nickel (probably the world’s biggest deposit), discovered here in 1864, is so abundant that the country is one of the world’s largest producers, and stocks are nowhere near exhausted. When ore was found on the tops and slopes of the mountains, the early mine-owners did not hesitate to strip them bare. From far off. the access roads look like great steps cut into an orange pyramid.

Plants grown in this nursery will bring greenery to slopes disfigured by mining. [© France Bequette, Paris]

These niaouli trees, have survived a fire. [© France Bequette, Paris]

Until the 1970s, spoil from the mines was unceremoniously shoved down the mountain sides, taking with it the thin layer of fertile humus. Planting of the spoil-heaps is now being carried out by private companies, in collaboration with ORSTOM (the French government agency for overseas scientific and technical research) and CIRAD (France’s International Co-operation Centre of Agricultural Research for Development), using local species specially chosen for their capacity to tolerate heavy metals and fix nitrogen, but the task is a mammoth one. Furthermore, the alumina and iron oxide leached out by the rains pollute first the rivers then the coral lagoons.


Another problem is erosion: the rate in New Caledonia is one of the highest in the world, since the effects of mining are combined with those of deforestation. Sandalwood, rosewood and the tall kauri trees (Agathis lanceolata) have all but disappeared. There is still a single giant kauri, the sole surviving witness to a bygone age, in Rivi Bleue Park, south of Noumea. Some 800 years old, 40 metres tall and with a trunk nearly three metres in diameter, it has become a visitor attraction. The Park, which forms part of the 15,900-hectare Haute Yatildlife reserve, covers 9,045 hectares. In one spot, a forest has been engulfed by the Yateservoir, from whose bright blue waters emerge tree-trunks seemingly carved out of ivory. In another, the botanical reserve of the Chutes de la Madeleine, the local authorities have, to the fury of ecologists, laid out a recreation area with shelters, barbecues and toilets. Even worse, Neocallitropsis araucarioides trees belonging to a rare species with a distinctive twisted shape, which were probably a thousand years old, once grew near to the river but have been felled for their perfumed essential oils.

A mining site on the east coast near Poindimi[© France Bequette, Paris]

Fires, mining and poaching are wreaking slow but sure destruction upon natural sites of exceptional value in New Caledonia. Small areas and pockets have, it is true, been declared land-based or marine reserves, but do they really provide protection? The delisting, in 1980, of the Oro peninsula nature reserve on the Ile des Pins shows just how unreliable such protection is. A hotel complex will soon occupy this exceptionally beautiful site, once a sacred Kanak burial-ground - prompting Russ Mittermayer to remark that, in New Caledonia, the protection of the environment is not a priority.

The extension of grazing land for cattle farming, above, is one of the many causes of deforestation. [© France Bequette, Paris]


In defence of New Caledonia

The Association for the Protection of Nature in New Caledonia (ASNNC), which was founded in 1971, is one of many local organizations that act to protect the environment on Grande Terre. It has 4,000 members, and publishes and distributes free of charge a news magazine (Le Journal vert) and educational material. It also carries out a range of field activities, including a recent operation on the islets to the north of Grande Terre to tag loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), which are eaten during traditional ceremonies and hunted by poachers. ASNNC has taken steps to have these islets classified as a reserve, but the declassification of the Oro Peninsula in 1980 for the construction of a hotel complex (scheduled for completion in 1998) raises the spectre that similar kinds of declassification could happen again, especially since legislation does not oblige promoters to carry out impact studies on the coastline. ASNNC hopes that a Biosphere Reserve will one day be established in Kouakouassif in the southeastern part of the island. This would be tangible evidence that New Caledonia is taking part in the world-wide movement for the conservation and sustainable development of natural resources.

In 1992 breakaway members of ASNNC started a new association named Action Biosphere, whose activists alert the authorities and public opinion whenever they think a project is a threat to the environment. One of the cases they are dealing with at the moment arises from the presence of Australian Red Claw crayfish (Cherax quadricarinatus) which have been illegally introduced to the island. The introduction of new species to a biotope is usually detrimental to one or more indigenous species, especially when the new species is predatory. These crayfish are especially hardy and prolific and are dangerous to the local fauna. One threatened local species is a very rare fish (Nesogataxias neocaledonicus), a veritable living fossil that dates back 135 million years.

ASNNC, BP 1772,98 802 Noum
Tel. and fax: 00 687 28 32 75.
Action Biosph, BP 120, 98 810 Mont Dore,
New Caledonia. Tel. and fax: 00 687 4183 87.



World Resources 1996-97, A guide to the global environment, the 7th report in a series produced by the Washington-based World Resources Institute, devotes a special section to urban environmental problems in developed and developing countries, and analyses policies for addressing them. The second part of the report surveys trends in population growth, forests and land cover, food and agriculture, health, water and fisheries, atmosphere and climate. Core data is provided for 152 countries. This valuable tool for all concerned with environmental issues is available from the World Resources Institute, 1709 New York Ave. N.W., Washington, DC, 20006, U.S.A.


On 1 June 1997, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) commemorated the potato famine that raged in Ireland between 1846 and 1850, claiming the lives of over a million people and forcing at least as many to emigrate. During this period, a fungus known as “late blight” (Phytophthora infestans) devastated the potato crop, the main source of food in Ireland. FAO took this opportunity to recall the dangers of genetic uniformity, which leaves crops susceptible to attack by pests and diseases, and to underline the importance of protecting biological diversity for farming and food production.


In 1996, biologists counted a record 2,600 manatees off the Florida coast but also a record 415 carcasses. A large number of the aquatic mammals were killed by motorboats. In 1997, despite a mild winter and a smaller number of reported carcasses. the observed manatee population had dropped to 2,229. There are fears that the species is heading for extinction in the U.S.A. Enforcing motorboat speed limits would be one way to start protecting them, but is the manatee lobby strong enough?


With its turquoise lagoon, white sand beaches and forests dominated by 40-metre-high araucarias, the lie des Pins (Isle of Pines) is a well-known vacation paradise located south of New Caledonia. But tourists do not always keep it tidy, and their tendency to leave litter along the roadside and on beaches led islander Roland Kaatheu to start an association named “Destination Paradise, Clean Island”. A big black dog called Police has become an unlikely ally in his war on litter. When Police is riding on a litter-picking truck and spots a can on the ground, he jumps down, picks it up and adds it to the pile in the back of the vehicle. Roland trained Police to do this job because he thought it was wrong to get schoolchildren to collect the litter left by adults.


In many developing countries, unsafe use of pesticides of chemical origin is a serious threat to health and the environment. According to FAO, farm workers are in the front line because they often do not know enough about pesticides, cannot read instructions on handling, do not wear masks or protective clothing and use spraying equipment in poor condition. Groundwater pollution caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides is spreading in some countries. For many years, FAO has been recommending integrated pest management, especially through the introduction of insects. Until plant-based pesticides like pyrethrum are more extensively used, FAO is appealing for “good, standard quality equipment and operator training”.


Since the 1950s, Switzerland’s dry meadows have become increasingly endangered, Today an estimated 40% of their flora are threatened throughout the country and 70% on the Plateau or Moyen Pays. “About 13% of Swiss plants, representing over 350 species, are found on the dry meadows and grasslands”, says Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment, Forests and Landscape. “Since the average plant hosts over ten animal species, the diversity of the fauna in these areas is easy to limagine. About half the country’s butterfly species depend on this type of environment.” Contrary to a widely held belief, these meadows have to be grazed or cut every two or three years for their rich flora to survive.


Taxes, charges and auctioned permits are the main economic instruments used in environmental policy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published a report evaluating the effectiveness of these tools and how they work in its Member States. In Sweden, sulphur taxes introduced in 1991 have resulted in a 40% drop below legal norms of sulphur contents in oil-based fuels. In Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, the promotion of lead-free fuel and catalytic exhausts led to such a steep fall in the consumption of leaded fuel that the latter was pulled off the market. In several American cities, unit charging for household refuse disposal has reduced the volume of household waste.