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ALOFI, Niue (Niue News, Jan. 27) - Niueans face an uphill struggle to save the island's birds and bats from extinction in the wake of Cyclone Heta, reports John Andrews, who visited Niue with New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff last week.

Hurricane-force winds denuded the island's vegetation, virtually wiping out fruit supplies on which wildlife survives.

Bats - a Niuean delicacy known as flying foxes - used to avoid inhabited areas. But since the onslaught they have been venturing out at all times of the day over villages and even the main town Alofi in their efforts to find food.

Pigeons, fruit doves and the common starling are also struggling.

Gravely concerned about ecological implications, the Niue government is looking to rush canned peaches to the island in a bid to sustain stressed wildlife.

Misa Kulatea, a long-time Niuean ecologist who is compiling a report on the issue for Sandra Lee Vercoe, New Zealand's high commissioner to Niue, said it was likely only a few bats - he estimates some have wingspans up to one meter - would survive.

"The damage is so severe that all the fruit trees are like skeletons in the forests," he said.

The Government has placed a ban on the traditional shooting of bats and pigeons but Mr Kulatea said some people were ignoring the embargo.

"We cannot get them to understand the danger we are facing with our wildlife," he said. "They are shooting them as if there are plenty. If we contribute to the destruction of the bird life, I do not think we will be able save any of them."

He believes Niue's birds and bats will become extinct unless alternative fruit sources can be found and dispersed in a way which thwarts the island's hordes of starving, tree-climbing Norwegian rats.

Toke Talagi, Deputy Premier and Minister for the Environment, said money would not be a constraining factor in efforts to save the wildlife.

Ms Lee-Vercoe said fewer birds could now be seen on Niue, such was the cyclone's power. She described how, a few days after the cyclone abated, the crew of a Niue-bound ship spotted an exhausted native pigeon clinging to a piece of flotsam 50 nautical miles from the island.

Hima Takelesi, Niue's high commissioner to New Zealand, was holidaying on Niue when, on the day before the maelstrom struck, he witnessed an incident in his backyard. More than a dozen fruit doves converged on one of his trees and gorged themselves on its berries.

"I thought it was unusual because you normally see one or two [together] but nothing like that," he said. "Were they gorging themselves in preparation for the cyclone?"

January 29, 2004

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