By Jake Cohen
Like many Pohnpeians, The Nature Conservancy’s Ricky Carl remembers the Ant Atoll of his youth fondly.
“I went to Ant when I was younger and I remember hunting for coconut crabs,” he says. “It was easy. They were all over the place.”
Things have changed since then. “Today people will smoke out coconut crab holes,” Carl says. “It’s very different. Before all you had to do was spread coconuts on the ground and they’d come.“
Ant, a now-uninhabited atoll that lies nine miles southwest of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, is still changing. The Conservancy is working with Pohnpeians to restore the area’s environmental integrity and protect the rare tropical wildlife that depend on the atoll’s land and water for survival.
In a place where tradition plays a crucial role in dictating the conservation sites of highest value, it is important to retain memories like Carl's. Fortunately, those memories are being used to power new conservation plans that will preserve Ant as a resource for Pohnpeians and a refuge for wildlife.
Taking a Toll
In the 1950s and 60s, Ant Atoll was home to a bustling community of 500 people whose livelihoods revolved around the export of copra, or dried coconut meat. Those residents have departed in recent decades, turning Ant into a ghost island and the only uninhabited atoll in the state of Pohnpei.
Sadly, wildlife populations have also declined. A recent assessment of the atoll’s biological health found a vast array of life, including over 165 species of fish, hawksbill and green turtles, great frigatebirds and — of course — the coconut crab, the world’s largest land-living arthropod.
But species like these are paradoxically endangered by the lack of a permanent human settlement. Since Ant ceased to be a year-round home for Pohnpeians, it’s become more difficult to prevent illegal fishing operations from preying on the resources around the atoll.
To enter the atoll’s lagoon, all fish must travel through a narrow pass. That single entrance makes catching fish easier than… well, shooting fish in a barrel. As a result, Ant’s waters have become dangerously depleted, destabilizing an already fragile ecosystem.
Around 10 years ago, the family that owns Ant started looking for partners to help defend their atoll.
They found that The Nature Conservancy and a group of partners — including the Conservation Society of Pohnpei and Pohnpei’s Department of Land and Natural Resources — were ready and willing to help.
One of the first steps was conducting the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) that took stock of the atoll’s health. In addition to supporting the healthiest population of giant clams (a threatened species) in Pohnpei, Ant Atoll is one of the best remaining seabird nesting islands in Micronesia. In addition to frigatebirds, Ant shelters red-tailed tropicbirds, sooty terns, red-footed boobies and several thousand black noddies.
Carl is the Conservancy’s deputy director of external affairs in Pohnpei and has been promoting conservation in the communities around nearby Nahtik. He worked to impress the atoll’s importance upon the local government and communities. Gradually, the forces rallying to protect Ant Atoll were able to institute new protective measures.
Ant Goes Marching On
In 2007, thanks to persistent lobbying from local conservationists, all 2,300 acres of Ant Atoll became Micronesia’s second official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. And on February 4, 2010, the Pohnpei State Government declared the atoll an official state-protected area, adding the site to the ever-broadening portfolio of protected areas that comprises the Micronesia Challenge.
As with many other Micronesia Challenge sites, the Conservancy is working with partners to strengthen local enforcement and helping to plan how the atoll’s resources will be used sustainably. With input from local communities, we are identifying culturally important areas around the atoll as no-take zones, where fishing will be outlawed.
The childhood memories that Carl and many other Pohnpeians created on Ant are now being used to protect the atoll. With proper management, Ant’s coconut crab, seabird and fish populations can all recover and create more memories for future Pohnpeians.
“Pohnpeians have come to realize that Ant Atoll’s precious resources are finite,” Carl says. “If we don’t manage the way they’re utilized, they’re not going to be there for generations to come.”
You help make lasting partnerships like this possible when you support our work.
Jake Cohen is conservation writer at The Nature Conservancy.