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Young Cook Islanders gain job skills while helping protect threatened bird

April 16, 2021

Even in the remote, idyllic Cook Islands of the south Pacific, island ecosystems need active conservation to prevent damage from invasive species, global warming, and other threats. Seacology has worked with communities there for two decades, from our first project promoting ecotourism at an inland lake, to our recent partnership to strengthen the world’s largest multi-use marine reserve. Another recently concluded project is helping local youth prepare for well paying jobs while protecting the habitat of a threatened endemic bird.

Mangaia is the country’s second largest island. It is home to lush forests that provide a habitat for the tanga’eo, or Mangaia kingfisher, and many other vulnerable species. As is often the case on islands, invasive species pose a major threat to these birds. Chief among them is the common myna, introduced from Asia, which have taken over many of the burrows that the kingfishers nest in and disrupted their reproductive cycle.

The government is supporting an effort to remove the invasive birds, but the other pressures on their habitat, including logging, remain. So we partnered with the island’s communities to protect more than 4,500 acres of forest. The local people agreed to monitor the area, enforcing regulations and preventing cutting of the trees that the birds nest in.

Mangaia Kingfisher © CINHP/G. McCormack

Carpentry students use the new workshop.

In exchange, Seacology made a grant to retrofit a school building and buy equipment for a skilled-trades workshop. Using these new tools, local youth can learn valuable skills, opening a path to careers as carpenters, electricians, mechanics, and more. Local leaders hope that developing a well-trained young workforce will bolster the local economy, which has been hard hit by economic downturns and devastating storms. With marketable skills, youth can stay on the island, rather than having to leave to look for opportunities elsewhere.

Though the Cook Islands has so far avoided the COVID-19 pandemic by implementing severe travel restrictions, the official opening ceremony for the new school has been postponed out of an abundance of caution. That hasn’t stopped the facilities from being put to use, though. Earlier this year, 20 students completed a carpentry course in their new workshop and attained certification through the New Zealand government (the Cook Islands is an autonomous state politically associated with New Zealand). The graduates demonstrated their new craft by producing wooden stools and donating them to elderly community members.

A student gets comfortable with the circular saw.

Finished stools built by the carpentry students.