Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Kiwis take research to Brando's paradise

The Brando, an eco-resort in the Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell
The Brando, an eco-resort in the Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell

Kiwi scientists have brought their pest-busting expertise to a spectacular Pacific hideaway formerly owned by late legendary actor Marlon Brando.

Teti'aroa, an atoll in the Society Islands of French Polynesia, is best known for its purchase by the Apocalypse Now star in the 1960s for use as a low-impact luxury eco-hotel, called The Brando, focused on conservation and restoration.

A humpback whale breaches the ocean at Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell
A humpback whale breaches the ocean at Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell

But over recent times it's become a world-famous natural laboratory for conservation scientists, who have just succeeded in nearly completely eradicating its mosquito population.

In a recent trip, scientists from Auckland University and Victoria University undertook an atoll-wide survey of introduced ants.

A Polynesian rat in Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell
A Polynesian rat in Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell

Among them was intrepid Auckland University ecologist Dr James Russell, whose cutting-edge research has taken him from islands in New Zealand's subantarctic region to tropical Brazil.

"New Zealanders lead the world in managing invasive species such as rats and ants on islands," he said.

"French Polynesia is so remote that its ant fauna is almost entirely introduced, and some of the ants found are invasive."

Russell and his colleagues were surveying the atoll to document which ant species were present and how widespread they were, while also scoping for future rat eradications.

A coconut crab in the undergrowth. Photo / James Russell
A coconut crab in the undergrowth. Photo / James Russell

Since Brando's death in 2004, Russell has been involved with the Teti'aroa Society - a non-government organisation charged with environmental stewardship of the atoll.

"I work with the Teti'aroa Society to develop science and conservation projects on the atoll which have broader impact for global island conservation."

Russell said the atoll was a fantastic natural laboratory for testing science projects with broader conservation benefits.

A deserted beach in Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell
A deserted beach in Tahitian atoll Teti'aroa. Photo / James Russell

"With 12 motu [reef islets], each can be used as a replicated laboratory for testing new ideas, such as innovative methods in pest eradication.

"The atoll's convenient location close to Tahiti and in the middle of the tropical Pacific means scientific breakthroughs in pest control can have wide-ranging benefits for all the Pacific Islands."

Brando's vision for the eco-hotel also continues: it has just been ranked number one in the world by luxury travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler and earned a LEED platinum certification for its sustainability and conservation efforts.

- NZ Herald

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