COOK ISLANDS ENVIRONMENT
|The geological landscape of the 15 islands making up the Cook Island group range from low lying coral atolls surrounded by outer reefs encircling turquoise lagoons in the northern group, to the verdant jungle clad peaks of Rarotonga and raised makatea coral islands of four of the southern group islands. The southern group islands make up nearly 90% of the landmass in the entire group, and each of the 15 islands were formed through volcanic activity.
Over time, a number of the islands sank below sea level, leaving a coral rim to form the distinctive lagoons the northern group are known for. While Rarotonga is considered only a young island in geological terms, a number of the Cook Islands have existed for a very long time. Mangaia, the most southerly in the group is considered to be the oldest island in the entire South Pacific.
Due to their relative isolation the Cook Islands formed with only one native land mammal, the Pacific fruit bat, and while today there are numerous pigs, dogs, goats and a few horses and cows, these were all introduced largely as domesticated animals, and as a readily available food source.
While famous for its variety of tropical flora – the Cook Islands support over 400 different plant species, among them the frangipani (tipani), bougainvillea (taria), and the profusely scented gardenia (tiare Maori) – surprisingly very few of these colourful plants are native to the islands and most were introduced including the resplendent orange-red flowered Flame Tree, a native of South America.
Birds in the Cook Islands
Once, a greater proliferation and range of endemic birds existed in the forest regions of the islands, but with the introduction of the predatory black (ships) rat and the Indian mynah bird – brought in as a means to control coconut stick insects – the native bird population suffered serious declines on many islands over the following years.
A growing concern for the ecological health of the native bird population saw the establishment in 1996 of the Takitumu Conservation area, an 155 hectare community-based protection area on the inland hills of Rarotonga. This successful conservation initiative has heralded the comeback of the kakerori Rarotongan Flycatcher, a bird until recently on the verge of extinction. Breeding pairs of the kakerori have now also been established on the island of Atiu, and guided walks enable visitors to see first hand these rare land birds either within the Takitumu Conservation area, or with Birdman George’s tour on Atiu.
In 1978 the Cook Islands also established a national park on the northern group island of Suwarrow, permanently protecting the large breeding colony of seabirds found there.
Cook Islanders have a history of living in harmony with their pristine environment, and consequently their islands are regarded as some of the best cared for in the Pacific. Traditional ra’ui (protected marine reserves) have been put in place in parts of the lagoon around Rarotonga to allow the fish stocks to rejuvenate, and while swimming and snorkelling are allowed, all fishing and food gathering is prohibited in those areas.
In the temperate ocean waters surrounding the islands, a diverse and spectacular marine life flourishes with different species of sea turtle, the green, hawksbill, and loggerhead all regularly sighted outside the reef, along with eagle rays, butterfly fish and reef sharks amongst the variety of colourful tropical fish swimming by. But to see truly impressive sea creatures, the months of July to October during the austral winter are the best time to catch the migratory visits of the Humpback whales, as they pass close by on their seasonal journey south to the Antarctic. Usually with young calves alongside, these huge mammals often swim only a few hundred metres from the shoreline and are clearly visible as they playfully breach the surface.
Once hunted for their blubber during last century, the entire 2.2 million sq km of Cook Islands ocean territory has been designated as an official whale sanctuary since 2001, allowing the to’ora, the traditional Maori name for these large whales, to travel safely through Cook Island waters without being harmed.
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