A survey was recently conducted in Mitiaro by NES Environmental Compliance Officer Eva Patai, and assisted by Mitiaro Environment Officer Matatapu Ngaiorae, Mitiaro MMR Officer Ngarouru Tou, a Rarotonga based MMR team and two volunteers from the community Roimata Rouru and Pokotea Guinea. The survey was part of a planned trip by MMR on a range of activities that included reef surveys, microalgae sampling, marine sediment sampling, beach rubbish quantification and clean up.
Iniao (Pritchardia mitiaroana), or Mitiaro fan palm, is an endemic species to the Cook Islands only found on the island of Mitiaro. Due to its limited range and population size, it is considered a highly threatened species. In 2015, the population size was estimated to be 375 mature Iniao plants. However, a subsequent NES survey in 2019 identified clusters previously unrecorded, placing this number between 500-600. This increase was due to improvements in survey technology (drone) than a growth in population size. However new growth was also identified during that time, which was a promising sign. A species status report was subsequently developed and released in 2020 and is available on our NES website here
This most recent survey identified further new growth at two Iniao cluster sites. This offered significant value in providing comparative analysis with the 2019 survey for the two sites visited. At site 1, the number of new shoots has doubled since 2019 (from 5 to 10), with no decline in mature trees, indicating a positive sign of growth in the species. No change was observed at site 2, showing stability. These sites were chosen due to their accessibility, which also increases its vulnerability and exposure to higher foot traffic and public access. For example, public graffiti is engraved into the trunks of these special trees. Each tree was identified using identifiable markings for future monitoring, referencing and surveys.
In 2008, Mitiaro agreed to protect the 1200ha of forest containing the Iniao for 10 years as part of a community grant provided by international NGO Seacology, which was subsequently extended for another 10 years.
Recommendations have been made to establish a working group led by Mitiaro NES Environment Officer to regularly clear the two accessible sites of dead palm fronds, which have been observed to build up and inhibit seeds from reaching the soil and becoming established. Ongoing education and protection measures are also recommended to prevent future damage to these sites.
NES will continue to work with the Mitiaro community and other key stakeholders to conduct periodic monitoring of the Iniao to track changes in its population size and threat status.