A great deal has been achieved in the three years since the AM and Solomon Island Kwaio community embarked on a collaborative journey to classify and conserve the ecological richness of this extraordinary environment
The Solomon Islands Archipelago consists of 1000 islands, with the equatorial chain spreading east of Papua New Guinea. The unique and endemic biodiversity of wildlife found in these islands is phenomenal. The islands are close to the mainland to allow for mammal dispersal, yet secluded enough for remarkable species to evolve, including monkey faced bats and giant rats.
Malaita is the most densely populated island in the Solomon Islands Archipelago and is home to the Kwaio people, a community of several thousand. The Kwaio people retain strong pre-European customs and religions, and wear kapolato (traditional attire). The trek up to the east Kwaio mountains is arduous to say the least, an eight-hour ascent from the nearest airstrip into the densely forested heart of the island. After a day’s steep climb, through often swollen rivers, treacherous muddy trails and shaky log bridges, one is greeted by local members of the remote community.
The cultural and biological significance of the region is arguably unsurpassed and recent expeditions to the area have highlighted the importance of conservation as a collaborative force. For a number of years the AM and the Kwaio community have collaborated on several conservation and community projects. With the help of the Australian Museum Foundation (AMF) and the Fondation Segré, both a community school and the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre were established. The Cultural Centre is a place to congregate and exchange knowledge, as well as to learn and maintain valuable cultural practices. Local rangers are also supported to patrol for illegal activities as well as to collect and describe fauna using GPS mapping, camera traps and nets.
To further strengthen ties a workshop was held in 2016 at the AM with attendees from the Solomon Islands and Bougainville. The aim was to share information on current scientific methods for surveying, community participation and traditional local knowledge. Workshop attendees returned home with a swathe of equipment, including camera traps, surveying kits and DNA sampling devices, ready to carry out expeditions in their local communities.
In 2016, the first of the AM lead research expeditions to Malaita was headed by Dr Tyrone Lavery. Dr Lavery worked with the local community, including Chief Esau Kekeubata, and focused on surveys of the island’s mammals. The team were looking to find undescribed monkey-faced bats, as well as track down the elusive and possibly extinct giant rat kwete.
A significant reconciliation expedition took place in July 2018. This was particularly important as for the past 100 years tensions in the region had resulted in minimal faunal surveys being undertaken. The unease was largely due to a massacre of Kwaio people in 1927 by foreign armed forces and local police. The reconciliation, headed by Chief Esau and Dr Tim Flannery, paved the way for a valuable united conservation effort.
The latest scientific expedition occurred on October 2018 and was ornithological trip delving into the bird life of the area. Two AM researchers, Corey Callaghan and Richard Major, worked with Chief Esau Kekeubata, Tommy Esau and the Kawinaa’isi Cultural Centre to conduct surveys with local community members. Using mist nets, as well as bow and arrow and hand collection, over 70 species were observed, including the Malaita fantail, a culturally significant bird to the people of Kwaio. Following several days of concerted surveying Corey and Richard keenly participated in the weekly cultural day where local communities converge to teach, practice and learn.
This month an insect and malacology (molluscs) expedition will take place. Dr Frank Koehler will be focusing on gastropods and Dr Andrew Mitchell butterflies and moths. Dr Koehler aims to find undescribed species from the poorly studied region, as well as to use species distributions to elucidate biogeographic connections between Australia, the Solomon Islands and the surrounding region. Dr Mitchell will be hard at work each night collecting a plethora of moths, and during the day pinning and categorising each specimen. He hopes to be lucky enough to collect the magnificent Phyllode imperialiis, or the pink underwing moth, and to ascertain its relationship to Phyllode imperialisis found in Australia.
With only two collaborative conservation focused expeditions under our belt we have merely scratched the surface uncovering the extensive ecology of Malaita, and with future expeditions there is a high possibility of the discovery of undescribed species in all realms of life.
Most importantly, these recent collaborations herald a new era of local Kwaio-led education, cultural rejuvenation and environmental protection. Chief Esau and Tommy Esau of the Kawinaa’isi Cultural Centre are determined conservation focused community leaders and it is with their resolve that the unique ecology and culture of Malaita will be preserved by local conservation organisations for generations to come.
Emma Flannery (Science Communication AMRI)