26/05 2007

Old Warden Uniforms Worn Again

Jeanine and TDA Marine Monitors on the field station steps

Old Warden Uniforms Worn Again

By Mike and Jeanine D'Antonio

Parks Canada staff have been gradually changing over to a consistent and flattering new uniform. But what to do with all the old ones hanging in the closet? The wardens of Jasper, Waterton, Banff and Prince Albert have found a worthy cause half way around the world, in the Solomon Islands.

There, the staff of a fledgling community conservation organization called the Tetepare Descendants' Association is proudly sporting the khaki and green uniform of a Parks Canada warden. Granted the shoulder flashes are off and the pants have been cut into shorts, but the rangers, guides and marine monitors of TDA wear them well.

The staff and surrounding communities are working to protect the resources of Tetepare Island, the largest uninhabited tropical island in the world. Just northeast of Australia, it is 120-square-kilometres of verdant jungle with aquamarine lagoons and fringing reefs, where populations of dugong, leatherback turtles and estuarine crocodiles reside. The rangers monitor populations of coconut crabs, sea cucumbers and lobsters, protect sea turtles nesting sites, contact hunters and fishermen and keep track of harvest details. In their new uniforms, they present a professional image to villagers to whom conservation has sometimes been a hard sell.

The D'Antonio family, Mike, Jeanine and three year old Camas, are CUSO volunteers, on leave from Parks Canada, advising TDA's program. That position description covers everything from writing management plans, making mud stoves and installing solar systems to relocating leatherback turtle nests above the encroaching high tide line. Recently, the job has also meant becoming involved with the relief effort after the April earthquake and tsunami in the Solomon Islands.

TDA's receipt of old warden uniforms is part of a bigger donation program that Parks Canada is spearheading. Through ties with the International Ranger Federation, Canadian wardens are recycling old uniforms to less affluent conservation groups all over the world. A ranger in Kenya, a marine monitor in the Solomons, a warden in Canada; the job and the look are the same.

If you would like to find out more about Tetepare Island and conservation

in the Pacific, please check out their website at www.tetepare.org

Mike and Jeanine D'Antonio are currently serving a two-year contract as CUSO

cooperants and have worked in protected areas throughout Canada, the US and Africa. They now make their home with their three year old son, Camas on

Tetepare Island in the South Pacific.

Spirits of an Uninhabited Island

Mike and TDA Rangers at Tetepare field Station

Spirits of an Uninhabited Island:

Tetepare, South Pacific

by Jeanine and Mike D'Antonio

Most park rangers wear boots when they patrol the backcountry. Most park rangers rely on compasses, maps and GPS units to navigate through unfamiliar territory. Most park rangers button up their shirts.

But not the rangers I’m trudging behind through this thick jungle. Their bare toes are splayed and grip the muddy trail, their shirt tails flap open, and even with no guiding technology at hand, they never become “temporarily disoriented.” I follow slowly, picking my way through the quagmire, the treads of my boots gummed up like platform shoes covered in clay. I’m following the park rangers of Tetepare Island, and there's no one that I'd feel safer with while in the wild bush of the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific.

We have been placed in the Solomons by CUSO, a Canadian volunteer-sending organization. Our family, which includes three-year-old son Camas, has taken up residence for the next two years on Tetepare, the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Northeast of Australia, it’s 120-square-kilometres of verdant jungle with aquamarine lagoons and fringing reefs, where populations of dugong, leatherback turtles and estuarine crocodiles reside.

The only structures on the island – our leaf house, a research field station and an eco-lodge – are located on the western tip of an abandoned coconut plantation. They are the only signs of human activity for the last 150 years. The inhabitants of this island, things that crawl, slither and strangle, are used to being alone.

No one is sure what happened one-and-a-half centuries ago to the villagers of Tetepare. Some blame malevolent spirits that let disease and headhunting raids devastate the local inhabitants. But a handful of survivors did make it off the island, and their genealogy has been traced back eight or nine generations. This scattered population has grown in numbers, and in recent years they have organized to reclaim and protect their heritage.

In many parts of the Pacific, land is held communally. The Tetepare descendents – whose customary land tenure follows matrilineal lines – have formed the Tetepare Descendants' Association (TDA). With over 2,000 financial members, all of whom must trace their genealogy back to a survivor, it is the largest land holding group in the Solomon Islands.

TDA is a community conservation group, working to protect the resources of Tetepare. The organization is working to provide an economic alternative to the unsustainable resource harvesting that would otherwise have been the island’s fate. That alternative includes the research centre and the eco-tourism lodge.

And as soon as a tourist sets out to explore Tetepare, they will begin to appreciate what it means for the natural world to be left alone for 150 years. The rain forest is thick and tangled with layers of life and death in all its stages. Unseen birds cry out as in surprise at seeing something so large and awkward in their home. The rain and the wind and the sun take turns setting the mood.

Visitors seeking adventure will not have to go far. The forest trails are like the routes of hunters, hardly visible through the thick bush and wandering as if on a scent. Tourists can imagine themselves explorers as they make their way through tunnels of vegetation and over outcrops of thrust-up coral. They will be able to climb in, on and even through, the roots of strangler figs. And they will travel in time to the ruins of ancient settlements and learn about the culture that was here on Tetepare.

If the visitors want a break from the bush, all trails on Tetepare lead to the sea. The island is fringed on the south by a reef and associated lagoon which provide a colorful diversion into a world of black tipped reef sharks and barracuda, giant clams, sea turtles and dugongs. The reef is off-limits to fishing, as the Tetepare Descendants' Association has established a Marine Protected Area. Research staff have been gathering data that shows more species and higher numbers than anywhere else this side of the Sydney aquarium.

Our jobs here in the Solomons are to help the TDA develop a system of resource management that combines the structure and experience of western-style organization with the unique qualities of traditional Pacific resource management and culture. It can be a frustrating task at times. But it only takes one trip into the bush with a local guide telling us the names of birds we can only hear, and the many uses of plants we can't distinguish from one another, for us to realize that the challenges are worth it. We have a lot to learn about how we look at the natural world, and it would be hard to find a better set of teachers.

The Tetepare rangers are a hardy and dedicated lot. They have easily made the transition from logging and plantation work to conservation, now that TDA has provided the opportunity. They happily work week-long shifts that take them away from family and their coconut groves, to protect the resources and way of life they love and hope is still an option for their children.

The staff here all come from traditional villages on the neighboring island of Rendova, where they survive on subsistence farming and to a much, much lesser extent on a slowly growing cash economy. Though they have little formal education, they speak proudly about their jobs and their conservation efforts. They have risen to the tasks of mist netting and banding birds, catching and tagging sea turtles, and becoming research assistants to visiting bat, butterfly and freshwater biologists.

The conservation of Tetepare is vital because the island is still used by descendants as their supermarket and hardware store. If sustainably managed, the island’s resources are plentiful. The oceans team with fish and invertebrates for food and shells, and lobsters to sell. On land, hunting parties find wild pig and coconut crab. The forest has always provided building materials, from canoe trees and house poles to leaves and vines for making walls and roofs.

Harvesting is closely monitored. Every month on the new moon, TDA rangers survey the islands' population of coconut crabs, the world’s largest terrestrial invertebrate. This data is gathered to compare the population levels of this highly sought after food source inside and outside the Marine Protected Area. And for four months, between November and February, the rangers camp out on the island's black sand beaches to monitor and protect the yearly nesting of the endangered leatherback turtles.

Like park rangers the world over, these frontline workers for the Tetepare Descendants’ Association hold a deep commitment to the land, the water, and the species that call this place home. We think the spirits that inhabit this island would be pleased.

 

If you would like to find out more about Tetepare Island and conservation in the Pacific, please check out their website at www.tetepare.org. Mike and Jeanine D'Antonio are currently serving a two-year contract as CUSO cooperants and have worked in protected areas throughout Canada, the US and Africa. They now make their home with their three year old son, Camas on Tetepare Island in the South Pacific.