The incomparable and diverse range of flowers found on the Cook Islands are a central part of local culture. Blooms of virtually every shape and color are used daily for personal adornment and to grace homes and buildings.
Cook island women are taught young how to weave the intricate patterns of the flowers they wear and their speedy dexterity is wonderful to watch.
Upon arrival, visitors are customarily presented with a garland of flowers such as Tiare Maori (gardenia - the national flower) to wear around their necks. Another spectacular native flower is the hibiscus, referred to by the Cook Islanders as 'Kaute.' The wild hibiscus bark is used to create the amazing dancing costumes of the islanders, who are regarded as world leaders.
The spectacular beauty of the 'flamboyant,' or 'flame tree' is legendary. While primarily a native of South America, in their hime land they are much smaller than the magnificent specimens found in the Cook Islands.These striking, widely photographed crimson trees provide colorful landscaping throughout the islands.
Several plants and flowers on the Cook Islands are not just beautiful to look at. Many have traditional medicinal uses, most notably the Noni plant whose roots and leaves are used by herbalists in treating a wide array of ailments, including diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, and more.
Noni juice is now being mass cultivated on Rarotonga for export around the world and is regarded as natures wonder-product for the health properties it delivers.
The Cook Islands is blessed, much like New Zealand, with no native poisonous creatures or predatory animals – other than what you might find offshore! But there are a number of unusual and rare birds, which are not found elsewhere and of four original native birds species not found elsewhere, all bar one are now extinct.
A BIRDS-EYE VIEW
There are few birds on the islands; most are in the hills of Rarotonga. Many birds have been driven out by the frequently obnoxious mynah bird, (called Gudgeon’s Revenge, after the Englishman who brought them to the Cooks in an effort to get rid of some of the insect population).
Among endemic birds are the cave-dwelling Atiu Swiftlet, the chattering Kingfisher of Atiu and Mauke and the rare Mangaia kingfisher. The Rarotonga Flycatcher, or Kakerori, is found only on a limited area of that island and is slowly making a comeback from the endangered species list.
The Kakerori was until recently on the verge of extinction. Due to the efforts of the Kakerori Recovery Program, a population increase from 29 birds in 1989 to 140 in 1997 was documented, so it is now making a comeback.
The only mammals considered native are Pacific fruit bats, which are found only on Mangaia and Rarotonga. As with most islands of the South Pacific, rats and pigs were introduced when European explorers arrived.
These days, there is a combination of both domestic and wild pigs – if you see one tied by one leg to a coconut tree, you can be assured it is being domesticated! Rarotonga also has many dogs, some cats and goats and a few horses and cattle.
Oddly, Aitutaki has no dogs - they aren't permitted due to an old law relating to leprosy during the 1940's. While that disease no longer exists there, the law about dogs still does!
The waters around the islands are swarming with parrot-fish, sea cucumbers and humpback whales, among others.
KAKERORI ~ (Rarotonga Flycatcher) saved from extinction
It’s taken almost eleven years for one of the world’s rarest birds to be saved from almost certain extinction by a small group of dedicated conservationists and native landowners in Rarotonga.
Although still vulnerable, the tiny Rarotongan Flycatcher, known locally as the Kakerori, now number around 240 adults and is off the critically endangered list. In 1989, a survey found only 29 of the birds in Rarotonga.
The birds are found only in the native bushland of Takitumu in the southern part of Rarotonga. To better manage the Kakerori habitat and strengthen the birds’ conservation, landowners and conservationists set up the Takitumu Conservation Area (TCA) programme.
The efforts of that small group of people have now been internationally recognised.
The Takitumu Conservation Area won the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) inaugural award for being the “Most Progressive Conservation Area” in the Pacific.
The three families that own the 380 acres of Takitumu bush and mountain lands where the Kakerori is found, have full control of the conservation area. One of them, Ian Karika, who heads the TCA, says establishing their land as a protected reserve in perpetuity is not impossible and it’s something they’re “actively pursuing at the moment.” Cook Islands land laws require the agreement of a majority of landowners.
The Kakerori were almost killed off by rats introduced into Rarotonga by trading ships in the 1800’s. A warm climate and abundance of fruit saw the ship rat flourish here and in some other islands of the Cooks group.
Younger birds are also vulnerable to heavy continuous rain and can develop hypothermia from trying to forage in those conditions.
A former New Zealand DSIR worker Ed Saul, who has been involved with the conservation of the Kakerori since the outset, would tramp through parts of the 380 acres of bushland, laying rat-traps and placing metal bands on trees to prevent the rats from climbing them.
He probably knows more about the Kakerori than any other person in the Cook Islands. Surveying them, he says, is relatively easy because “they’re no shrinking violet that we have to creep up on, they have the same sort of friendliness as the New Zealand Fantail.”
A feasibility study carried out on the outer island of Atiu showed that, with ample bushland and no ship rats, the Kakerori could survive there. Ten birds were taken there about four years ago to colonise Atiu.
They are thriving well and are a feature of bushwalks guided by local character Birdman George.