Cook Islands Residents Champion Conservation

In the Cook Islands, conservation is not a newfangled idea imported by visiting scientists.

Throughout the country, the relationship between people and natural resources remains strong. Most outer islands don’t have a supermarket; some get a cargo ship twice a year. Certain villages and islands still honour the ancient practice of ra’ui, or restricting access to a resource or area for as long as it takes natural processes to achieve restored health. Setting and lifting a ra’ui remains the prerogative of chiefs.

On islands where residents increasingly work day jobs, local and international organisations have run campaigns to revive traditional management. Nonprofits have also stepped in to fund scientific research and policy change, particularly targeting animals being exploited all over the world.

The Cook Islands Turtle Project, launched in 2010, sourced funding for surveys of turtle populations throughout the Cook Islands, including the globally endangered Hawksbill. The studies revealed, among other insights, the impact of development on nesting behaviours.

“Turtles are an iconic indicator species,” said Steve Lyon, founder of the Rarotonga-based Pacific Islands Conservation Initiative. “They’re a flagship species or series of species. By protecting turtles, you can bring light to the other work you’re doing.”

This other work would later expand to include a two-million-square-kilometre contribution toward ending the global exploitation of sharks. After a year and a half of advocacy and public consultations, the government agreed to legislate a shark sanctuary within its national boundaries. Now, for bringing sharks on board, fishing vessels are subject to losing their licences and paying fines of up to $250,000.

In 2014, Cook Islanders unanimously supported a proposal for stricter regulation of their marine environment. Three years later, legislation established the world’s largest marine-protected area.

“We do this as a gift to the world and future generations and also because we acknowledge that our environment and our people are the basis of our economy,” Prime Minister Henry Puna said before the United Nations’ General Assembly in 2017. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature called the marine-protected area a landmark decision.

Today, half the Cook Islands’ ocean territory is in the process of being zoned. No industrial activity is allowed within 50 square miles of any island. The marine park has become known as Marae Moana, or Sacred Ocean.

In 2019, in response to the increasing number of tourists snorkelling with turtles, a group of residents formed an association that seeks to monitor and raise money for the species’ protection.

“As we see it,” said Julie Tamaariki, the association’s president, “if tourists who view our turtles can also take home a message, not only on the turtles, but our amazing marine life and the sustainability of our environment, then we are doing our part for the future of our planet.”