Rhino beetle infestation a growing threat to Pacific islands' economies



The growing threat of coconut rhinoceros beetle infestation in the Pacific islands is estimated to cost the region $169 million (NZ$237 million) a year by 2040 if the pest invasion is not curbed, according to the Pacific Community or SPC.

The rhino beetle, or CRB, has been wreaking havoc in many Pacific Island nations, threatening to wipe out the coconut industry and causing losses to economies that rely on it and its oil, in addition to other palm species, for revenue, SPC stated in an article posted on its website.


As the world observes the International Day of Forests today with the theme, "Forest Restoration: A path to recovery & wellbeing’," SPC said it is vital to raise awareness on the region's coconut palm industry and the threat to it from invasive species.


"Our coconut palms help drive many Pacific economies, with Pacific Island countries supplying 50 percent of the world’s copra trade. Papua New Guinea is the largest exporter of copra in the world," SPC said.


The coconut tree is known in the region as the "tree of life," whose every part is useful from its tallest frond down to its rooted trunk. Islanders enjoy the sweet juice and fresh meat of its fruits. Its husks fuel fires. The fronds are use to make baskets and the trunks that go into building homes and furniture.


In smaller outer atolls where crop cultivation is not possible, coconut is the only staple food, ensuring food security for island inhabitants.


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In the Solomon Islands and Fiji, the majority of informal sector livelihoods rely on coconuts for food security and income.


However, the growing threat of CRB has the potential to seriously damage Pacific island states and their local and regional economies.


A concerted effort to manage the beetle has been initiated by the New Zealand government through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


The regional ‘Pacific Awareness and Response to Coconut Rhinoceros Beetles (PARC)’ project will help strengthen the Pacific’s capacity to detect and control the spread of CRB.


The project is coordinated by SPC under the auspices of the Pacific Plant Protection Organisation. As the regional body responsible for plant protection matters, SPC provides its knowledge and capacity to help control this persistent pest.


In Fiji, a local survey completed by SPC’s Land Resources Division showed CRB presence has increased in the aftermath of the cyclones the nation has faced over the past three years.


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This invasive species has become more dangerous, however, as it has mutated to a new strain called CRB-G or Coconut Rhinoceros Beetles Guam, after it was discovered near Guam’s Tumon area in 2007.


Molecular analysis found these beetles were genetically different from the existing CRB-S population and were resistant to the NudiVirus infection that had initially subdued the CRB-S population.


Since its discovery in Guam, the CRB-G strain has been confirmed in Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Northern Marianas and more recently, New Caledonia.


Though Fiji is free of the new strain, CRB will continue to spread in the Pacific unless effective monitoring, surveillance and management programs, including the identification of effective biological control agents, are established. As the new strain continues to flourish, the original population is still causing considerable damage.


The four-year PARC project will operate mainly in Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and PNG. It seeks to (1) Empower and strengthen regional capacity to control the spread and suppress the population of CRB, (2) Enhance Pacific ability to prepare for and respond to CRB pest incursion, (3) Upgrade and integrate national level surveillance systems into a regional CRB-G management surveillance system, (4) Integrate a regional approach to CRB-G biosecurity education and awareness, and (5) Build a regional CRB-G research and development management system.


The PARC team sit at The Pacific Community Land Resources Division and work closely with AgResearch, one of New Zealand’s largest Crown Research Institutes, and local partners, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to control and hopefully eradicate both variants of CRB. (SPC)




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