An Island Icon Threatened with Extinction

After flying 50 degrees of latitude from the subantarctic to the equator, I am back on Fernando de Noronha, following in the footsteps of Hōkūleʻa who just departed. Here I find the icon of Fernando de Noronha, the tropic bird, emblazoned on tourism material, is gradually going extinct. The red-billed tropic bird (Phaethon aethereus) is nearly extinct at less than ten individuals. The white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus) is relegated to a second class citizen on offshore rock stacks, as are other avian citizens such as masked boobies (Sula dactylatra). When a tropicbird attempts to nest on the main island of Noronha, it is quickly savagely mauled by a cat.

A white-tailed tropic bird killed by a feral cat on its nest at Fernando de Noronha
The sight of a white-tailed tropic bird killed by a feral cat on its nest is not uncommon at Fernando de Noronha (Photo by James Russell)

Our team visits one of the offshore rock stacks; Ilha do Chapéu lies off the popular Baía do Sueste and can be walked out to at low tide. Its overhanging champignon rock topography would provide even a challenge to rock climbers and certainly between the tides and rocks excludes cats. And so it’s no surprise that on top of the plateau we find tropicbirds and masked boobies breeding happily in abundance. Fat native mabuya lizards bask on the rocks, immune to cat predation. Our rat tracking tunnels come back negative, additionally confirming the absence of rats here, compared to the main island where they are currently reaching up to sixty per hectare. This small island is the true paradise of Noronha.

Ilha do Chapéu
Ilha do Chapéu lies tantalisingly close but inaccessible from Baía do Sueste (Photo by James Russell)

The tourists are more interested in beaches, while the residents are more interested in feeding the local introduced cat population, which numbers over 1,000. Subsidies to cat populations in this way have been shown elsewhere to have devastating consequences. Permanent removal of cats from the island is an urgent necessity, but lethal control is forbidden from the continental state of Pernambuco which Noronha is attached to, and community support is currently lacking.

A white-tailed tropic bird
A white-tailed tropic bird breeds in relatively quiet contentment on Ilha do Chapéu free from predator disturbance (Photo by James Russell)

A further complicating threat is the presence of introduced teju (Tupinambis merianae). A CITES listed native on continental Brazil, introduced to Noronha it is a ferocious predatory species from which nothing on the ground is safe, including birds, eggs, reptiles and turtle nestlings.

View Photos from the Expedition

Read All Posts by James Russell

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Conservation biologist Dr. James Russell works throughout the world on remote islands and other sites to provide conservation solutions by applying a combination of scientific methods. Follow James on National Geographic voices for regular updates on his own work or other exciting developments in island conservation.