By Pucci, Kelly
E Magazine , Vol. 15, No. 4
Imagine a South Pacific paradise, steeped in the 18th century history of Captain James Cook and William Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. You can almost smell fragrant frangipani blossoms, taste sweet papayas and feel cool breezes. Now add to that vision: blue starfish, a sparrow-size-bird threatened by extinction and a tree-climbing senior citizen.
Welcome to the Cook Islands, 15 small atolls in the South Pacific spread over an area the size of India with a population of just 14,000, where Maori traditions and international programs seamlessly protect and nurture the environment. This small nation has no fast-food chains, no large resorts and fewer tourists than neighboring Tahiti and Fiji.
A healthy coral reef surrounding Rarotonga, the principal island, harbors a clean lagoon rich in marine life, including curiously bright blue starfish. Under a centuries-old conservation system, traditional leaders protect the marine environment and "allow it to replenish by declaring a "ra'ui," a sort of time out, as needed. Swimming and snorkeling are permitted during a ra'ui, but take care not to disturb the delicate plant and animal life.
With assistance from the governments of New Zealand and Switzerland, and the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the Cook islands Natural Heritage Project researched more than 1,000 reef invertebrates in the Rarotonga lagoon. Some are edible, others are used for medicinal purposes and some, like the Christmas tree worm (which looks like two tiny yellow Christmas trees), are just interesting to watch.
While the reefs remain healthy so far, there is rising concern in the Cooks about global warming. Like the Marshall Islands (whose Majuro Island has lost 20 percent of its beachfront to rising waters), the Cook Islands are only a few yards above sea level. The South Pacific Forum has met on the Cook Islands, where delegations from several island nations protested Australia's opposition to the Kyoto Treaty.
The Bird Sanctuary
Ian Karika of the locally well-known Karika family leads nature walks through the Takitumu Conservation Area on Tuesdays and Thursdays, proudly identifying flora and fauna, explaining traditional use of plants, offering chunks of bush marshmallows (the spongy flesh of a sprouted coconut), and perhaps a glimpse of a rare bird. Thought to be extinct by the early 20th century, the kakerori, or Rarotonga fly-catcher, began to recover in 1996 with the establishment of the conservation area. In 2003, the population was 239.
The Takitumu Conservation Area, a hilly, 380-acre tropical forest, is home to tree hibiscus, which has heart-shaped leaves and large red flowers that turn yellow at night, candlenut trees (appropriately named for the oily nuts traditionally burned for light) and the Polynesian Chestnut, which provides the main ingredient of a national dish. …