Trip report: Samoa
The forests of Samoa in the South Pacific shelter a wealth of wildlife for those intrepid enough to brave the dense undergrowth, humidity and insect assault in pursuit of the rare and beautiful, writes Adrian Phillips
Toni stopped, peered keenly and then slapped me around the face.
‘Mosquito,’ he explained, as I rubbed my stinging cheek; I thanked him stiffly and we continued through the tropical forest. A bird swept from a tree on our right to a tree on our left.
‘Oh, a wattle!’ cried Rebecca from behind an enormous pair of binoculars. ‘And some more,’ she continued as others broke cover ahead of us.
‘If you’re looking for a wattle, first none’ll come and then a lot’ll’, I said, rather pleased with myself. But Toni had no time for spontaneous rhyme, and was advancing with the air of a man eager to slap another mosquito. So I quickened my pace and fell in beside Rebecca to learn about the tooth-billed pigeon.
The tooth-billed pigeon (or manumea) is the sort of odd-featured specimen that provokes passion in people. It’s closely related to the dodo – ‘That’s proven genetics, not wishy-washy theory!’ I was told. And the resemblance is clear, particularly in the ancestral beak, which is big and hooked and decidedly un-pigeon-like. The lower bill has a pair of ‘teeth’ that are probably used to break into the bulky seeds of Dysoxylum trees like the maota.
You’ll note the word ‘probably’. Little is known for certain about the preferred diet of the manumea, nor about its ecology or its breeding behaviour or, indeed, about a great deal about its anything else. What’s obvious, however, is that the national bird of the Independent State of Samoa is uncomfortably close to the dodo in a way other than shared DNA.
In 1994 it was estimated there were 2,000 manumea left on Samoa’s main islands of Upolu and Savai’i, but during an 11-day biodiversity survey of upland Savai’i in 2012 ornithologists made a single sighting among the thick montane forest.
My walking companion, Rebecca Stirnemann – studying another endangered Samoan endemic, the mao, for her PhD – has chanced upon only 10 manumea in two and a half years of field work; Faleafaga Toni Tipamaa of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has spotted just one. There are no confirmed recordings of its call and the few decent photos are of a captive adult and juvenile taken decades ago. However, the bleak survey findings have focused minds on this slippery noodle of a bird.
We followed the path into Upolu’s interior, walking between splayed ferns and tree trunks hairy with the brown, ragged ropes of vines and creepers. Toni pointed to a pair of white-throated pigeons before recording our position in his notepad and cupping his hands to copy their cooing. The manumea’s call is lower, he said, shifting his fingers to create a deeper, warmer sound. Pausing mid puff, he cocked his head and closed his eyes to better catch the shrill pee pee pee of a nearby broadbill.
‘So much birding relies on sound,’ Rebecca commented. But Toni didn’t hear; he was tracking the passage of a crimson-crowned fruit dove, before ducking into undergrowth to pull up some taro plants, their leaves like elephant ears, to eat later with onions and coconut milk.
After 30 minutes, we reached our destination: Tiavi village and the vast corpse of a fallen banyan tree, its base an earthy mess of worming roots the height of a bus. Alongside was a fragile wooden hut with a sagging rainbow of washing strung from its eaves and a woman called Rachel leaning in the doorframe. The tree had succumbed to Cyclone Evan four weeks previously, a storm that raged across this Pacific island like no other since the 1990s, skittling palm trees and tearing roofs from churches. However, the word on the village telegraph was that Rachel’s banyan had been the favourite haunt of a manumea. It was a precious lead.
The scientists stalked the area while Rachel looked on amused. This was prime manumea territory, they chirped excitably. See the maota trees, tall and spindly with their bushy crowns?
Could the villagers have seen another species, I wondered. No, no, Rebecca assured me. They’d described the manumea’s low, awkward flight and oversized head. And its bright orange beak: although photos of captive birds show a dull, peach-hued bill, it’s a garish carrot colour on those in the wild. Of course, this individual might have been killed in the cyclone, they mused.
But Rachel wasn’t going to let a storm rain on her parade: ‘I’m sure he’s still around – he’s probably watching you right now.’ Toni seemed barely able to control himself, hopping to and fro like the forest birds.
Rebecca made plans. There are so many questions to answer about the manumea and how to ensure its survival. Does it nest on the ground, at the mercy of rats and cats? Is the creeping clearance of forest for village plantations to blame for its decline? She assessed the landscape with a practised eye, judging positions for sound recorders, cameras and feeders. Perhaps Rachel’s bird would return to the other banyan near her hut, and they could set up a viewing area for tourists. Meanwhile Toni bobbed about the greenery, one moment trailing a fast-flapping starling, the next craning to see a flat-billed kingfisher on a branch.
As Rebecca planned, Toni bobbed, and Rachel’s manumea did or didn’t spy on us from a leafy hiding place, I leant on the banyan and watched forest life unfold. Two multi-coloured doves hurried past in a clapping flurry of green wings. There were flashes of scarlet amongst a bank of white flowers as a cardinal honeyeater fed, and a broadbill dotted endlessly from twig to twig.
‘They don’t sit long, broadbills,’ observed Rebecca as she joined me. ‘The male builds a display nest and covers it with shiny things to entice a mate. And there’s a miti.’ She nodded towards a blur of brown and white as it resolved itself briefly into a small bird on a post. ‘It means “dream”. Mitis are little cuties.’
‘What’s that?’ said Toni in an electric whisper, stock still for once and staring into the middle distance. He’d seen a large-ish shape alight untidily in a tree. We poked binoculars and cameras in its direction.
‘Fruit bat?’ asked Rebecca.
‘No,’ Toni insisted, ‘not a bat – I saw it perch, not hang. Definitely not a bat!’
For several minutes we wished dearly for a manumea, breath held and eyes straining at the foliage, until the large-ish shape launched and glided away.
‘A bat,’ stated Toni, as if he’d told us so all along, before heading off in pursuit of a blue-crowned lorikeet.
In Samoa, domestic pigs truffle where they fancy and skinny dogs skulk about the village fringes, but fruit bats – or flying foxes – are the only native land mammals. A good place to see them is Mount Tafua, a volcanic crater on Savai’i island. A slab of a guide called Anthony took me there the next afternoon, his bulbous calves swinging beneath a turquoise sarong called a lava-lava as we walked the narrow-cut track, stepping across damp logs and busy lines of ants. It was hard work climbing the 300m to the rim, panting through the dense air and under attack from thorns and insects. Tropical forests are uncomfortable places; after one field expedition, Rebecca had found a leech on her eyeball. Sweat ran from my brow in syrupy dribbles onto decaying leaves and lumps of lava stone.
An hour later we reached the top. From here, the crater looked like a black bowl filled with broccoli, its sheer rock dropping to a frilly rainforest canopy. White-rumped swiftlets were on the wing. Earlier in the day we’d visited Peapea Cave, a nesting place for swiftlets, and I’d followed the cave’s guardian – an old man with no shoes and a feeble torch – into the darkness to see what he called the ‘little bats’ snug on their rocky ledges. Now they careered above the trees in dog fights with flies and moths. And around them, like bombers among spitfires, three Samoan flying foxes made lazy circles.
There are pluses and minuses to being a flying fox in Samoa. On the one hand, the animal holds a celebrated place in Polynesian mythology as a great protector, having rescued the warrior goddess Nafanua from a desolate island. On the other, it tastes good in stews. The bat is on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, and hunting it has been banned since 2004. Nevertheless, old habits die hard, and in recent weeks a ministry official had himself assisted a production crew to film the cooking of a flying fox for a programme on unusual world cuisines.
Which brings me back to the previous day’s expedition. Hunting is a threat to the manumea too, although villagers claim only to kill it by accident when out shooting the better-flavoured white-throated and Pacific pigeons.
Yet hunters might prove to be the saviours of the manumea. They know the twists and turns of the forest’s knotty tangle far better than any scientist, and are starting to share their knowledge. Two hunters from the nearby village of Taga have agreed to lead scientists to an area where they regularly see manumea. If the expedition proves successful, the plan is to establish an eco-tourism project at Taga, encouraging villagers to preserve the bird’s habitat and act as guides on manumea-spotting treks.
As dusk approached to dim the daylight, I looked over Tafua Crater and hoped it wasn’t too late for those modern-day dodos quite possibly still surviving alongside the flying foxes in its trees.
Hang on, manumea – hang on by the skin of your toothy bill – for help is on its way.
Sample package tour
Adrian Phillips travelled courtesy of the Samoa Tourism Authority (020 8877 4512; www.samoa.travel). He stayed at Tanoa Tusitala Hotel (www.tanoatusitala.com), Seabreeze Resort (www.seabreezesamoa.com) and Sinalei Reef Resort (www.sinalei.com) on Upolu; Le Lagoto Resort (www.lelagoto.ws) on Savai’i; and the rustic Sunset View Fales (00 685 775 3143/759 6240) on Manono Island. Troppo Fishing (00 685 779 8666; www.fishsamoa.com) hosted a whale-watching excursion. Polynesian Xplorer offers a nature discovery trip, including nine nights’ accommodation, internal transport, wildlife tour of Upolu and day trip with Troppo Fishing for £1,650 per person (based on two sharing and excluding flights).
Access to Samoa is usually via either Nadi in Fiji or Auckland in New Zealand. Adrian travelled with Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.co.uk), which flies from Heathrow to Hong Kong with code-share connections to Apia via Fiji on Air Pacific (00 679 672 0888; www.airpacific.com). Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk) offers services from Auckland, as does Virgin Samoa (00 685 28 112; virginaustralia.com), which also goes from Sydney and Brisbane. Alternatively, you can travel from Los Angeles, with connections on Air Pacific via Fiji.
Visa requirements from the UK
UK tourists visiting for up to 60 days do not require a visa.
Tips & warnings
No vaccinations are required for entry and Samoa is not a malarial country. Nevertheless, there are occasional outbreaks of dengue fever and mosquitoes are common in the forests. Be sure to take a DEET-based insect repellent and light clothing to cover legs and arms for wildlife treks. Sturdy footwear is also advised, particularly for walking over sharp volcanic rock.
When to go
The temperature is fairly stable in Samoa throughout the year at an average of 27°C. However, it’s safest to visit during the dry season between May and October; the best whale watching is around July–November. The wet season from November to April sees regular heavy showers, as well as the odd cyclone. Note that many Samoans living abroad return for holidays in December and January, and flight prices can be higher.
Polynesian Xplorer is the only company currently offering wildlife tours, and any UK operator would contract directly with them. If you’d like to go through a UK operator, the Samoa Tourism Authority can advise which would suit your particular requirements.