Photos by Marrelie Page
Majuro--There are a lot of terns on Majuro, which is funny because there is just one road. These sharp, swift, snow-white acrobats are the stars of the day sky, gliding with aerial majesty then dropping like a stone before darting up and around with the agility of bats dogfighting in a mosquito cloud.
Were it not for the Eurasian sparrows white terns would certainly be the most conspicuous avian fauna in Majuro, the capital of Marshall Islands. Instead, it is hard to look at a building, street or open space without seeing flocks of little, brown, plump, white-crested birds scrambling around pecking and pecking at bits too small to see.
Eurasian sparrows are recent arrivals. They were introduced by humans at some point and they look the farthest birds can get from seabirds. They do not fit in, almost comically so. Sparrows do not migrate and rarely fly even 20 miles.
Exotic species are organisms that have been brought by humans to an environment they are not native to. (Some exotic species even take on regional significance, such as potatoes in Ireland and apples in the U.S., which are from South America and Central Asia, respectively.)
The Marshall Islands has 523 exotic, or invasive, species, including both flora, fungi and fauna, according to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program.
Exotic species contrast with indigenous and endemic species. Indigenous are species that are found somewhere without human interference. This includes birds or other species that might stop by occasionally, such as snow geese. A species is endemic if it is from that place originally. Coconut palms are indigenous on the Marshall Islands but not endemic, as they are most likely not originally from here.
Why would people introduce a new species into an environment? Many are brought for economic and agricultural reasons, such as the potato and apple above, or they are brought to remind people of their homeland. Many Europeans tried to introduce various sparrows in their colonies for this reason. Some are accidentally brought, such as mosquitoes to Pacific Islands and fire ants to the southern U.S. where they terrorize millions who are looking for grass to sit on.
Another recent exotic avian arrival on Majuro is the red vented bulbul. It is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s list of top 100 worst invasive species. A 2015 study listed it as having gotten a foothold here though I have never seen one.
The red vented bulbul spread through the Pacific with the British Empire, especially with Indian indentured servants. On the subcontinent they were kept as pets. They are notable for their cropped, short crest that looks triangular and upswept-to-the back as if via a generous use of hair gel.
I have been looking for the bulbuls but have not had any luck yet. I watch Eurasian sparrows from my porch as they hang sideways and upside down from shipping containers and trees, making their homes in spaces you did know even know were spaces. They are adorable — so tiny, cute and busy.
It is illogical to blame the exotic species for their presence. In spite of being called so, they are not literally invasive species. That would imply they had a plan to colonize. Humans are completely responsible for bringing them to places they do not belong to. A rat or a Eurasian sparrow could not make it across the Pacific on their own, especially not in numbers necessary to gain an ecological toehold.
On-island exotic species, such as dogs, cannot be blamed for their presence here or for being dogs. Bemoaning and getting angry at island dogs is like getting annoyed at your hat for being on your head. Do not feel guilty for enjoying or giving love to the exotic species. They have a right to live their lives like the rest of us do. They were born here because of our mistakes and dealing with the problem is nothing but difficult choices.
The animal welfare organization MIOAW Majuro does what it can for cat and dog populations by organizing visits by veterinarian volunteers, but there are no practicing vets on the island. Sterilizing then adopting out on-island exotic animals should be the first option. It would be relatively easy to bring the dog and cat population under control with a concentrated sterilization program. This is achievable by an extended stay here by just a couple professionals.
As it is not an option for the majority of exotic species, how does one then weigh the philosophical difficulties in the choice of exterminating them or continuing our destruction of the environment and local species by leaving them feral and reproducing?
So much of humanity’s expansion leads us back to this same place and these kinds of decisions. Are people going to be able to severely limit our ability to have children? Or stop using fossil fuels and consuming so much in order to make up for the situation we have put ourselves in? Or just let the seas rise and pollution make what is left uninhabitable?
And, as humans bring themselves everywhere, we are the most “successful” exotic species on the planet, having more biomass than all other species except for perhaps antarctic krill (which stick to their own cold waters). I am an animal from south-east Africa sitting on a chair of plastic and metal from China, on a house made of lumber from North America watching Eurasian sparrows flock on a breadfruit tree from south-east Asia and Papua New Guinea on a 1,000-foot wide strip of land in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. Exotic.
Geoff Goodman teaches Liberal Arts at the College of Marshall Islands. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org