Guest Author - Ann Carroll Burgess
The tiny atoll of Christmas Island in the Republic of Kiribati is a mere 124 square miles of coral reef just slightly north of the equator and miles from any major settlement. But it is a metropolis for a wide variety of seabirds that come to nest and breed on this island.
Christmas Island or Kirimati as it is written in Gilbertese, the local language, has not always been populated. Indications are that this island was a temporary replenishing station for Polynesian voyages venturing to the Hawaiian Islands, perhaps as early as 400 AD. When most Polynesian voyaging came to end in the in the mid 1200’s AD, Kirimati would have once again been without a resident population.
Not until the arrival of Captain Cook in 1777 would Christmas Island appear on any map. It was named Christmas Island as Cook discovered it on Christmas Eve of that year.
Over the years since its rediscovery by Western powers Christmas Island has served as a coconut plantation, guano mining area, a landing and refuelling stop for the Allied forces in World War II and as a nuclear testing area during the Cold War.
In the past few years Christmas Island appears to be making a modest comeback as an eco-tourism destination, particularly for bird watchers and fishermen.
More than 35 species of birds have been recorded on this atoll including shearwaters, petrels, albatross, frigate birds, terns and red-tailed tropic birds. So important is this area that it has been declared a wildlife bird sanctuary since May 1975.
Unfortunately changing global climate has begun to make life very difficult for the birds in this area. The island has suffered greatly from the effects of the El Nino phenomena, particularly the meteorological event of 1982/83. So little rain fell on the island that up to 90% of the resident bird populations died and no breeding at all took place during those seasons. Migrating bird populations also suffered great losses and such species as the Eastern red-tailed tropic bird have never regained their pre-El Nino populations.
On a recent cruise ship stop we called at the Island of Kirimati (Christmas Island) and the experience was somewhat sad. Evidence of the worst bits of “civilization” is making inroads on this small bit of real estate. Trash, in particular aluminium cans, litters the beach areas – a classic case of no way to recycle. Ships bring in the goods but this tiny island does not have the money to pay for the trash to be shipped away from the island. For the small amount of roads there were cars, trucks and even a few motorcycles in evidence.
Air Pacific currently connects Christmas Island with the outside world by a once a week flight to Honolulu and Nadi, Fiji. Most of the atoll’s food supplies have to be imported and potable water is in very short supply. The island’s population has been increasing within the last decade from only 2,000 to some 5,000 people, most of whom work in the copra production. As well goods such as aquarium fish and seaweed are exported.
But it does beg the question – should life be such a struggle on this island, or would it be best to return the island to the birds?