New Atiu nature reserve a huge gift to the future

Monday January 09, 2017 Written by Published in Weekend

AS A momentous gift to the future, the landowners of a huge near-pristine stretch of forest have established a nature reserve to protect Atiu’s most remarkable leeward coastal forest.


This is the only significant, almost undisturbed, leeward coastal forest left in the Cook Islands and one of the best in the South Pacific.

The reserve was established by the signing of an agreement by landowner’s representatives in the Atiu Tourist Authority office on Friday, December 2. The landowners and supporters then travelled to the coast to unveil the two signs marking the boundaries of the Moko‘ero Nui Nature Reserve, followed by a barbecue at Taungaroro Beach.

Representatives of the six landowner families agreed to work together to preserve the forest in the reserve in its present state for the enjoyment of residents and visitors. The representatives for the eight sections were Ngamaru Ariki (two sections), Teura Jnr Kea (two sections), Teremoana Mingi, Teipo Akava, Ritua Paparonga and Vaine Paretoa.

Why Moko‘ero? In ancient times Atiu was divided into seven groups each under a chief or mata‘iapo. Around 1760 the Moko‘ero group on the western side elevated their mata‘iapo to a paramount chief as Ngamaru Ariki and the group became known as Ngatiarua. Other groups were unhappy with this development and they elevated a mata‘iapo as Rongomatane Ariki, and somewhat later the third Ariki title, Paura Ariki was established. The nature reserve is within Ngatiarua lands.

The reserve is planned to protect the most vulnerable part of the leeward forest, the part containing the coastal road. The reserve reaches from the coastal cliff landward to 300 metres inland of the road giving it an average width of 350 metres.

The reserve is 3.3km long, starting in the north at Orovaru or Cook Landing and finishing at Via Piake in the south, with the beautiful Taungaroro Beach near the centre. This beach is described by David Stanley in his South Pacific Handbook as “the best beach on Atiu and one of the finest in the Cook Islands”.

In area, the reserve is about 120ha, making it the same size as the Takūtea Wildlife Sanctuary, which has the most significant seabird colonies in the Southern Cooks. Takūtea is owned and protected as a sanctuary by all the landowners on Atiu.

The Moko‘ero Nui Nature Reserve, on the wet side of the island, supports many large coastal trees such as Barringtonia (Fish-poison Tree, ‘Utu), Coastal Lantern Trees (Puka Tāvōvō), Mountain Lantern Trees (Puka Tūrina), Polynesian Elaeocarpus (Kuāna/Rare), South Seas Schleinitzia (Tororire), Pandanus (‘Ara-tai) and Ironwood (Toa). Very common on the forest floor are large bird’s-nest ferns (Kōta‘a), and these are also commonly perched on the trunks of the larger trees. The only significant invasive alien plants are the Red-bead tree (Pitipiti‘o) and the vine Red Passionfruit (Pōkutekute).

Bird life in the forest is mainly Chattering Kingfishers (Ngōtare) and Pacific Pigeons (Rupe), with the occasional Pacific Reef-heron (Kōtuku) hunting for skinks and insects along the sides of the road.

The landowners of the eight blocks of land: George Mateariki chairman of the Atiu Tourism Industry Council, and Gerald McCormack of the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust were the driving forces behind the project. Maara Tairi chaired the landowner meetings. Special thanks to our sponsors: Conservation International, Air Rarotonga, Atiu Villas, Atiu Tourism Industry Council and the Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust.

In addition to the biodiversity importance in the nature reserve, the northern border is a notable historical site: Orovaru, the landing site of Captain Cook.

In 1777 Captain Cook’s third Pacific expedition was sailing from New Zealand to Tahiti when he became the European discoverer of Mangaia, Atiu and Takutea. On April 2, the two ships standing off Orovaru were visited by warriors in canoes trading food and artefacts for cloth, beads, nails and axes. The warriors were unarmed and friendly. They had beards and long hair either loose or in a top-knot. They were heavily tattooed on their legs below the knee. They wore loin cloths of bark-cloth or pandanus matting and protected their feet with fibre sandals. They greeted by rubbing noses.

Next morning the usual trading continued, although one group would not trade for anything except a dog. They were eventually given one of Omai’s English dogs, which was much prized by Ngati Kuri, a section of the Ngatiarua people.

Around 10am three armed longboats approached the reef and Lieutenants Gore and Burney, surgeon/naturalist Anderson, and Omai, the Raiatea translator, were taken over the reef in Atiu canoes with their knives and bayonets, having left their firearms on the boats.

Ashore there were many armed warriors who often controlled the movements of the visitors,

keeping them within 100 metres of the reception area about 30 metres inland and not allowing them to return to the beach. There were about 2,000 people in the area, including three chiefs who were distinguished by the red Kura feathers in the holes in their earlobes and tattoos, mainly on the upper body sides and back.

The visitors spent much time demanding the return of their repeatedly-stolen knives and bayonets. In the afternoon warriors started preparing an earthoven or umu. Omai was suspicious and asked if they were cannibals. The ambiguous answer inspired Omai to entertain with a Tahitian war dance along with demonstrations with gunpowder while explaining how musket balls could kill at a distance and how the ships could destroy the island. Eventually a pig arrived and was put in the earth oven, and Omai relaxed. Around 5pm the food was ready but the anxious visitors ate little. They were eventually taken over the reef to their boats at about 6pm.

Having being confined near the landing site, the visitors saw no dwellings and learnt little about the island and its people, although they did record some dancing entertainment. They were entertained by about 20 female dancers with red feather adornments, wearing bark-cloth skirts from upper belly to mid-thigh. The dance involved mainly the movement of the hands while the women sang and slowly swayed, similar to dancing previously seen in Tonga.

The people of Atiu apparently had no knowledge of Europeans as the canoe-wrecked Tahitians who Omai talked to on the island had left Tahiti before Europeans arrived in 1765.

And Captain Cook had no knowledge of the Moko‘ero Nui Nature Reserve as he left 250 years before it was established!

-Gerald McCormack, Director, Cook Islands Natural Heritage Trust


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