Christmas wishes for Christmas Island: under threat (again)

Christmas Island Red Crab (Photo: Chris Feare)

The Australian territory of Christmas Island lies in the eastern Indian Ocean, about 320 km south of the western end of Java, Indonesia. The 135 square km limestone island is home to many endemic and indigenous plants and animals, including the Red Crabs Gecarcoidea natalis that undertake a spectacular November migration from the forests to the coasts to breed. The island also supports some endemic land birds and large numbers of seabirds. The Christmas Island Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi is endemic and, on account of its small numbers, is regarded as critically endangered. The island’s White-tailed Tropicbirds Phaethon aethereus are in fact apricot-yellow and comprise an endemic subspecies. Abbott’s Booby Papasula abbotti breeds nowhere else although it was formerly more widely distributed but all other colonies are now extinct. It is classified as endangered.

Christmas Island Frigatebird (Photo: Chris Feare)
Christmas Island White-tailed Tropicbird (Photo: Chris Feare)
Abbott’s Booby (Photo: Chris Feare)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abbott’s Booby in flight, showing its very long and narrow wings (Photo: Chris Feare)

Abbott’s Booby is spectacular. It has remarkably long and narrow wings, giving it an albatross-like appearance in flight. It nests usually under the crowns of the tallest emergent trees in Christmas Island’s high-altitude rain forest, with nests generally built on thin horizontal outer side branches. From their nests they can launch themselves into the prevailing winds but if they fall into the trees, as can happen during fights, they have more difficulty taking off.

The wealth of seabirds has, over the millennia before man’s influences, deposited huge quantities of phosphatic droppings, which became the target of a mining industry in 1899. Guano mining is highly destructive, as witnessed on Assumption and St Pierre in Seychelles and Nauru and Banaba (Ocean Island) in the Pacific, from all of which virtually all vegetation was removed in order to access to the underlying phosphatic rock and soils. These were removed, leaving essentially sterile islands with no capacity for regeneration. The world’s only surviving colony of Abbott’s Boobies was thus threatened by the destruction of its specialised nesting habitat and Bryan Nelson, who studied the species in detail in the late 1960s, highlighted the threat posed by the guano industry. This led eventually to constraints being placed on guano mining, to the extent that currently only spoils of lower grade phosphate, remaining from mining in the past, can be exported. In conjunction with this, the main nesting areas of Abbott’s Booby are now designated as national park.

Low grade guano awaiting export, and being loaded on to a ship (Photo: Chris Feare)

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However, the mining company, Christmas Island Phosphates, still exists and has applied again for permission to recommence mining, despite several refusals by the Australian government in the recent past. Birdlife Australia and BirdLife International are lobbying the Australian government to refuse the recent application, arguing that mining would threaten important components of the island’s unique biodiversity for little and only temporary financial gain, whereas maintenance of biodiversity and encouragement of ecotourism would safeguard the island and provide much greater and longer-lasting income. The full BirdLife case can be read at http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/dont-ruin-christmas-mining-threatens-wildlife-haven-christmas-island?utm_source=BirdLife+International+News+Notifications&utm_campaign=8f0c907c40-Summary_news_notification&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_4122f13b8a-8f0c907c40-131689189&goal=0_4122f13b8a-8f0c907c40-131689189&mc_cid=8f0c907c40&mc_eid=3526357306

Please sign the “Don’t ruin Christmas” petition to the Australian government at:

https://www.change.org/p/pm-turnbullmalcolm-don-t-destroy-pristine-rainforest-for-the-sake-of-a-mine-dontruinchristmas

Christmas Island and its wildlife need our help – please give it the Christmas present that it needs!


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