Saving the ‘Samoan dodo’

Moeumu Uili, December 2023

Ten years ago, Moeumu "Moe" Uili won a CLP Future Conservationist Award to support her project on the 'little dodo' or tooth-billed pigeon, a Critically Endangered relative of the famously extinct dodo. Found only in Samoa, it is the country's national bird, and is known locally as Manumea.

CLP alumna Moeumu Uili doing what she loves best - searching Samoan forests for the rare endemic tooth-billed pigeon or Manumea (Didunculus strigirostris)

After Moe's CLP project uncovered vital information to help save the Manumea from extinction, she has dedicated her career to its conservation, including pursuing a research Master's degree and working with a local NGO to involve local communities in conservation efforts.

In an interview with us below, Moe tells us more about her proudest moments from her CLP project, her subsequent career, and what she thinks is the key to successful conservation.

Who inspired you to work in conservation?

My parents. Growing up, I saw how hard-working and committed they were in everything they did. They taught me lessons in life that enabled me to be courageous, which has really helped me overcome the many challenges I have experienced as a conservationist. I learned honesty, passion, and commitment from my parents, which I always try to practice every day as I strive to do my best at what I am and what I do as a conservationist.

What were you most proud of about your CLP project?

Our most celebrated moment from our CLP project, which has remained an everlasting memory for me, was when we finally found a single juvenile of our target species! We took a photo as evidence of the species' persistence. This discovery was the first record of the species successfully breeding in over 10 years. So it was really positive because it eliminated growing speculation that the species was already extinct and confirmed it was still breeding in our lowland forests.

The juvenile tooth-billed pigeon Moe discovered during her 2013 CLP project - crucial evidence it still existed © Moeumu Uili

Additionally, during our CLP project, through field surveys and interviews with local communities, we uncovered other key information that has helped direct future Manumea conservation efforts. We surveyed 24 sites, using calls as a means of identification, but confirmed the presence of the species in only one of these sites (and possibly three more) indicating its extreme rarity. This data contributed to IUCN upgrading the species from Endangered to Critically Endangered. Now we know that there may be no more than 150 left in the wild, and the last confirmed sighting was in 2021.

In our project, we also identified the main threats to these sites, including forest loss, hunting and invasive pests, and local knowledge also informed us that the Manumea nests on the ground, making them vulnerable to predation by rats, cats, dogs and pigs. This and other information collected in subsequent surveys has assisted the Samoan Government in the development of the 10 year Manumea Recovery Plan, which was launched in 2020.

It was also a big win for us when our project outreach activities with local communities managed to convince them to enforce a ban on shooting the birds in the wild.

CLP alumna Moeumu Uili conducting fieldwork in the Samoan forest © Moeumu Uili

What have you done in your career since completing your CLP project?

We took the sighting of the juvenile as a sign that more conservation effort was needed and that we should not waste time. So, I continued to participate and actively engage in several other activities to promote the species' conservation. This included ongoing outreach programs with local communities, forest restoration activities, promoting alternative income generation activities, and supporting local communities with decision-making on the protection of natural resources under their authority.

I also joined a team of dedicated conservationists at a local NGO, called Samoa Conservation Society (SCS), that promotes collaboration with local communities and stakeholders in conservation programs, working in partnership with other organisations such as Auckland Zoo and BirdLife International. For example, I was involved in an SCS rat management project in the Samoan forest to reduce the threat of invasive rats; as Manumea are ground-nesting birds, rat predation can be devastating for nesting success (which we initially identified in our CLP project).

A mural of the Manumea on the wall of the New Zealand High Commission in Apia © Jane Vaafusuaga

The SCS also works in partnership with Samoa's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) on campaigns such as The Save the Manumea Campaign, which was officially launched in 2019 by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern and the Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa, the Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata'afa.

Lastly, I recently attained a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue a Master's degree at Colorado State University, for which I am studying the distribution and site occupancy of the Samoan forest by the Manumea.

What are the biggest challenges you've had to overcome so far in your career?

I have come to learn that one of the biggest challenges I have encountered along this journey is driven by political realms and policy-making. For example, if your strategy is to offer easy money to a community to participate in a conservation project, that community will not work for a project that comes two years later, with no easy money offered. The point is that conservation is not about money, but about the passion to work in partnership with others to sustain shared resource benefits for all. Many conservation projects either fail to complete or become disconnected with no strategic continuity plans, hence failing in the long-term, with the impact becoming worse or at least having no sign of improvement.

Has winning a CLP Award and being part of the CLP Alumni Network helped you?

Yes, it has helped me both personally and professionally.

I have to say that winning our CLP Award in 2013 was a milestone that gave me and our team more motivation and a feeling of assertion that we were on the right path, and this is what I(we) wanted to do. Attending CLP's two-week Conservation Management & Leadership workshop in Calgary, Canada, made me feel even more excitement and instilled in me this passion for environmental conservation.

Fieldwork in the Samoan forest, searching for the rare and elusive Manumea © Moeumu Uili

At the end of the training, I went back to Samoa and immediately planned a similar training program for my colleagues who were unable to attend due to funding limitations. The focus was to give motivation and assurance to the team members and inform them of our purpose, and to help them be transparent in communicating and courageous throughout our journey. At the end of the training, we continued with more field work and camping days searching for the Manumea, which is when we made our amazing discovery of the juvenile!

As a CLP alumna, I have been able to engage in CLP Alumni Network opportunities, including for project funding, training and mentoring programs, and continue to connect with my CLP friends from around the world who are leading similar projects and share the same passion towards conserving wildlife and biodiversity.

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to continue to work on saving the remaining population of our Manumea in the wild. I know this will be challenging, but I want to get one step closer to acknowledging we are racing against time to save this species from extinction. In addition, I would like to continue my conservation activities with local communities in Samoa.

What advice would you give to young conservationists just starting out in their careers?

When you find something that you are happy to work on and are confident to pursue, set it as your target and work towards achieving that. Along the way, you will face many challenges but you must find people that you trust to work with, to support and guide you, until you are strong enough to lead for the most part. Remember, to achieve conservation goals, we must work together. So you can never go alone or act alone. You are a member of the team, but your job is to lead on what you believe in.

Searching for the Manumea in the Samoan forest is a challenging task © Moeumu Uili

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