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The Rehabilitation of Christmas Island

Abbott's booby birds of Christmas Island

Christmas Island mining rehabilitation because of the endangered Abbott's booby bird

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The following is an extract of an article title 'Unholy Alliance on Christmas Island' that was kindly supplied to the Banaban Heritage Society by Roger Hart.

The article was published in two parts in the 'Rehabilitation Forum' of the 'Banaba/Ocean Island News'.

Part One appeared in Issue No. 15 May/June 1995, and Part Two in Issue No. 16 Jul/Aug 1995

Roger Hart, was at the time of writing, the Rehabilitation Officer for the Australian Nature Conservation Agency, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean.

Roger informed us in 1995 that they were currently into their sixth year of operation of the CIRRP (Christmas Island Rainforest Rehabilitation Program), and seem to be achieving good results.




A new beginning brings together industry, the environment and the unions.

There are two ways to deal with the scars left by extensive phosphate mining.

In Nauru, 50 years of environmental neglect produced a decimated landscape and $107 million in compensation from the Australian government.

"An omen to all the people on earth," was how the island's finance minister described their sad history.

The once fertile, Pleasant Island, reduced to little more than a moonscape. Plans for rehabilitation are on the drawing board - long after the birds have flown.

In Christmas Island, they've found a better, and much cheaper, way.

Three unusual bedfellows; industrialists, environmentalists, and the Mineworkers' Union are cooperating to restore the island to its original beauty by planting trees and bushes on the ravaged landscape. And they are not just talking about it but actively making it happen - replanting hundreds of thousands of carefully chosen trees, bushes and shrubs on the disfigured mining grounds.

It's a unique arrangement and one that could well be an inspirational model for our decaying world. It also marks a reunion of industry and conservationists - previously sworn enemies at opposite ends of the development spectrum.

The central players who have brought about this unlikely alliance are David Argyle, managing director of the Christmas Island Phosphate Mining Company, Roger Hart, specialist field officer of the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA) and Lillian Oh, former Union Secretary.

This unholy triumvirate, as they are dubbed, share a common love of the Christmas Island environment - the only home of the stunningly beautiful Abbott's booby bird - and the birthplace of millions of red crabs.

"It's an environment worth preserving for business reasons alone, beyond the obvious esoteric concerns."

This is the pragmatic view of David Argyle.

"The phosphate mine is a bridge to the longer-term economic security of tourism in general and environmental tourism in particular," he explains.

"To safeguard our future, we have to be committed to more than short-term profit."

Christmas Island is an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean, 2600 kilometres north-west of Perth. It is the only nesting site in the world of the endangered Abbott's booby bird.

There are now over 3000 nests of the endemic abbot's booby on the island. In 1966 a renowned ornithologist estimated that only 100 pairs remained. The bird nests only on Christmas Island. Their number had slowly declined since 1895 when Murray and George Clunies-Ross discovered phosphate in abundance on this 50 million-year-old extinct volcano rising out of the Indian Ocean.

Mining of the phosphate required stripping of the trees and this was particularly threatening to the magnificent Abbott's booby.

The need to restore the island's tall trees to preserve the booby bird is explained by the ANCA man responsible for the rehabilitation, Roger Hart.

"The birds needed high nests because of their long narrow wings which allow the bird to literally glide into a landing site. The wing size and shape make it almost impossible for the adult bird to take off from low sites."

Abbott's booby birds also need to land into the wind, rather like a conventional aeroplane - restricting nesting sites to the north-western side of the island in trees protected from the prevailing winds.

If the bird misses its approach to land on a tall branch, it cannot regain height and often falls to earth. Unable to take off from the ground the bird could face starvation.


Christmas Island phosphate loading facilities 1970s.




After arriving on the island 5 years ago, Roger Hart was aware of the problem facing the birds, which were by now officially listed as an endangered species.

"By removing even some of the trees from the dense rainforest the booby bird had to deal with 'wind-shear' just before landing - equally unpopular with a glider-bird as with any other pilot."

Despite objections from visiting naturalists, Australia needed more superphosphate fertiliser for its wheat production particularly when prices of petroleum-based fertiliser shot up in 1974. Mining operations were moved from areas away from the birds' nesting sites to the central and western plateaus. By 1980 one-third of the breeding habitat had been destroyed.

Abbott's booby birds are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment as each bird has only one mate throughout their lifetime and together produce only one egg every two years. Each offspring is nurtured for up to 16 months in the nest.

Destruction of the rainforest and extinction of this unique bird was proceeding apace when the federal government closed down the mine in December 1987 claiming it was unprofitable. Forest clearing was sopped and breeding areas of the Abbott's booby came under the direct control of, what is now, the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA).

In 1991 the Mineworkers' Union won the right to mine areas already cleared. They agreed that part of the royalties should finance the rehabilitation. At first, it seemed like a big step for miners to consider the long-term effect of stripping away vegetation. Now mining chief David Argyle give high marks to the dedicated environmentalists.

"We have a very good relationship because they are practical people. We consult with the nature conservationists all the time - even before we touch a tree. They give us sensible rather than blinkered advice. I appreciate that. We are a very good team."

From each tonne of the phosphate sold mainly to Asian markets, the company pays $1.50 for the rehabilitation of the environment. So far this has raised $700,000 to plant 35,000 new trees each year. It has been estimated that $6.5 million will be needed for complete restoration of the landscape - but that certainly beats $107 million in compensation.

"I'd rather pay for environmental rehabilitation than see it disappear into general government revenue," points out the down-to-earth David Argyle.

"We see almost immediate returns and the good sense of doing it is obvious to everyone in the community and beyond."

The initial solution was to replant the tree to minimise the turbulence caused by bare areas in the rainforest.

As ANCA's man Roger Hart explains, "The original rainforest was perfect, but as this was stripped, the exposed trees began to lose foliage and the birds had to leave their traditional nesting ground. The future of the entire species was threatened."

Roger originally hails from Sydney. The results he has achieved are spectacular in anybody's language. He hopes to see the first phase of the project through to completion at the end of the current 10-year lease the company has on mining rights.

"Complete restoration will never be completed in my lifetime because the forest will take a hundred years to return to its original state. The birds clearly couldn't wait that long - they would have been extinct. We have made tremendous progress in a short time," he says with justifiable pride.

"We will leave a valuable legacy."

That the birds are now being preserved by proceeds from the phosphate mine is perhaps a perfect example OCS cyclical natural law, as the phosphate was originally formed from bird dropping guano accumulated over centuries. Proceed from those ancient bird droppings are now being used as an investment in the future of the bird's ancestors.

The third member of the unlikely trio that combined to save the natural habitat of the birds is Lillian Oh - formerly Union Secretary and now Shire President.

"Environmental rehabilitation is seen as good for the long term future of the island. Everybody here is pro-environment -even the miners."

Lillian Oh came to the island to help with union business after the Federal government closed the mine. It took just over three years for the workers to revive the mine.

"Only under worker control did the mine start caring for the environment," is her rightful claim.

Even the operators of Christmas Island's new casino recognise that in the gambling off-season their beds need to be occupied by keen tourists wishing to see not roulette wheel and playing cards, but booby birds and 3 million crabs. As John Farrow, the casino manager points out, "In the offseason for gamblers we see the environment and rehabilitation of forest as an important part of our business."

"We will supply excellent facilities for those people who come here each year to see the red crabs and the booby birds."

It is a satisfying situation when the industry can work together with the preservers of Christmas Island's National Park (which now covers more than 60 per cent of the island). There is a common good recognised by the hard-nosed businessman, the bird lover and the unionist.

Nauru has been described as a small island in the middle of a blue ocean whose birds have flown away. Even hefty compensation won't bring the birds back. On Christmas Island, an endangered species is back from the brink - thanks to the holy triumvirate.

A visionary solution on Christmas Island will make the Abbott's booby nesting areas habitable again. With that kind of wider perspective, perhaps big business and environmentalists may once again see that they really are in the same camp.

Editor's Footnote: Ko raba Roger for supplying us with this very inspiring story on the Rehabilitation Program on Christmas Island. This story shows what can be achieved when people work towards a common goal. The sad thing about the comparisons between Christmas and Banaba islands is the fact that Christmas Island never had an indigenous population. It's amazing what effort has gone into protecting the endangered species of 'Abbott's booby' bird. It would be interesting to find out just how many species were lost on Banaba over the years of mining.


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