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The Wetlands of the Pitcairn Islands

Used by Permission of Wetlands International

PITCAIRN ISLANDS--Introduction (Document prepared, 1992.)

Area: 43

Population: 66 in January 1992 (Population in October 2005: 42 Pitcairners, 8 others.)

The Pitcairn Islands are a group of four small islands situated between latitudes 23 and 26 degrees South and longitudes 124 and 131 degrees West in the South Pacific Ocean, about 2,000 km southeast of Tahiti and 1,900 km west of Easter Island. The group comprises Pitcairn Island (25 degrees 04 minutes South, 130 degrees 06 minutes West) and three uninhabited islands: Oeno (120 km northwest of Pitcairn), Henderson (200 km east-northeast of Pitcairn) and Ducie (472 km east of Pitcairn). Pitcairn itself is a high volcanic island of 450 ha with lava cliffs and rugged hills rising to a peak at 335 m. Henderson, the largest island in the group with an area of 3,700 ha, is a raised limestone atoll which rises to 33 m. Oeno (65 ha) and Ducie (70 ha) are both low coral atolls with maximum elevations of about 4 metres.

The climate is subtropical, with an average rainfall of about 2,000 mm spread evenly throughout the year. Henderson is somewhat drier than Pitcairn, with 1,620 mm of rainfall in 1991/92 compared with 2,170 mm on Pitcairn in the same period. Mean monthly temperatures range from 24 degrees C in January to 19 degrees C in July. The Southeast Trades predominate.

The Pitcairn Islands are a British Crown Colony, with the British High Commissioner in New Zealand holding the position of Governor. Most of the 66 inhabitants are direct descendants of the mutineers from H.M.S. Bounty and their Polynesian consorts, who reached the islands in 1790. In 1856, the 194 inhabitants were moved to Norfolk Island, off the east coast of Australia, but by 1864, 43 of the islanders had returned, and Pitcairn has been permanently settled since then. The local economy is based on subsistence agriculture, the fertile volcanic soils of Pitcairn producing a wide variety of tropical and subtropical crops. Some fruit, vegetables and handicrafts are sold to passing ships running between New Zealand and Panama. A re-afforestation scheme was introduced in 1963 with emphasis on the planting of miro trees (Thespesia populnea) which provide the wood used in making handicrafts.

The islands are of particular conservation importance for their endemic plants and invertebrates, endemic land-birds (four on Henderson Island), globally significant breeding populations of seabirds (especially gadfly petrels Pterodroma spp.), and non-breeding populations of the threatened Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis). The main interest in the coral reefs is their isolated and undisturbed location at the geographical limit of reef growth. The breeding population of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) at East Beach on Henderson Island may also be of international importance.

Summary of Wetland Situation

The Pitcairn Islands have very few freshwater habitats. Pitcairn itself has some permanent streams as well as a number of intermittent streams, but there do not appear to be any permanent freshwater ponds or marshy habitats. No fresh water is known to occur on the other three islands except for cave drips on Henderson and freshwater lenses on Oeno. The only other wetland habitats in the islands are coral reefs, reef flats and beaches. Coral reefs are well developed on Oeno and Ducie and surround most of Henderson, but are poorly developed around Pitcairn (Hepburn et al., 1992). There are three large discrete coral sand beaches on Henderson.

Only seven species of waterbirds are known from the islands. The Pacific Reef-Heron (Egretta sacra) has been recorded on Henderson and Oeno. The flightless Henderson Island Crake (Porzana (Nesophylax) atra) is confined to Henderson where it remains common, and the Spotless Crake (Porzana tabuensis) has been reported from Oeno. Wandering Tattlers (Heteroscelus incanus) and Bristle-thighed Curlews (Numenius tahitiensis) are fairly common non-breeding visitors to the beaches and reef flats during the austral summer, and the Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva) and Sanderling (Calidris alba) have been recorded (Williams, 1960; Pratt et al., 1987; M. de L. Brooke, pers. comm.). The relatively large numbers of Bristle-thighed Curlews (a threatened species) on Henderson and Oeno are of international significance. Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) nest on the largest beach on Henderson.

No protected areas have been established in the islands, but the extreme isolation of Henderson, Oeno and Ducie affords these uninhabited islands a considerable degree of protection. Henderson Island was inscribed as a World Heritage Site under the Unesco World Heritage Convention in 1988. Hepburn et al. (1992) have recently discussed the application of the Convention of Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (the Ramsar Convention) to the Pitcairn Islands, and have concluded that the two low-lying coral atolls of Oeno and Ducie and the beaches and inshore reefs of Henderson would be suitable for designation as Wetlands of International Importance under the terms of the Convention.

Wetland Research

Despite a substantial number of visits by scientists and naturalists to one or more of the Pitcairn Islands in the last century, the island remain relatively poorly known. A major independent multi-disciplinary expedition, based on Henderson Island from January 1991 to March 1992, has gathered a considerable amount of information on the current and historical ecology of Henderson and on the other islands in the group. Thirty-four individuals from seven countries participated in this expedition . Much of the information has yet to be analyzed and presented, but early results from the expedition (Brooke et al., 1991; Weisler et al., 1991) provide a substantially improved basis for assessing the conservation value of the islands’ biota (Hepburn et al., 1992). One of the objectives of the Pitcairn Islands Scientific Expedition was to assess the potential for designation of Oeno and Ducie atolls as Wetlands of International Importance under the terms of the Ramsar Convention.

Wetlands Area Legislation

Conservation legislation in the Pitcairn Islands has recently been reviewed by Hepburn et al., (1992). There is no specific conservation policy for the islands, and there appears to be no specific legislation covering the protection of sites for conservation purposes. The Ordinances (Local Government Regulations, 1971) cover wildlife protection and fisheries management. The legislation generally prohibits the killing of wild birds or taking of their eggs, or, subject to the authority of the Wild Bird Protection Committee, controls the extent to which certain prescribed species may be exploited. An amendment in 1982 adds species which are protected (three whales, three seabirds and two turtles), and sets conditions under which they may be captured, killed or harassed. This amendment also extends protection to migratory species as a means of implementation the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (the Bonn Convention) within the Pitcairn Islands.

The Pitcairn Islands are included in the UK ratification of the Ramsar Convention.

Wetland Area Administration

The Pitcairn Islands Council has ultimate responsibility for the implementation of any management decisions which might affect natural ecosystems including wetlands.

Organizations involved with Wetlands

Pitcairn Islands Council - Wild Bird Protection Committee.


Site descriptions compiled from information provided by J.R. Setterfield (Office of the Governor of Pitcairn Island), M. de L. Brooke and I. Hepburn.

Click for details:

[Oeno Atoll] [Henderson Island] [Ducie Atoll] [Wetlands Introduction]


Brooke, M. de L., Spencer, T. & Benton, T. (1991). Pitcairn Islands Scientific Expedition: Interim Report, Cambridge: PISE.

Collar, N.J. & Andrew, P. (1988). Birds to Watch: The ICBP World Checklist of Threatened Birds. ICBP Technical Publication No. 8. ICBP, Cambridge, U.K.

Dahl, A.L. (1980). Regional Ecosystems Survey of the South Pacific Area. SPC Technical Paper No. 179. South Pacific Commission, Noumea, New Caledonia.

Dahl, A.L. (1986). Review of the Protected Areas System in Oceania. UNEP & IUCN Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas, Gland, Switzerland.

Elliot, H. (1973). Pacific Oceanic Islands Recommended for Designation as Islands for Science. In: South Pacific Commission Regional Symposium on Conservation of Nature - Reefs and Lagoons, 1971. Part II: Working Papers: 287-305. South Pacific Commission, Noumea, New Caledonia.

Hay, R. (1985). Bird Conservation in the Pacific Islands. SPREP Topic Review No. 25 (ICBP Study Report No. 7). South Pacific Commission, Noumea, New Caledonia. (ICBP, Cambridge, U.K.).

Hepburn, I. (in prep). Henderson Island World Heritage Site. Draft Management Plan. Prepared by NaturData for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Hepburn, I., Oldfield, S. & Thompson, K. (1992). UK Dependent Territories Ramsar Study: Stage 1. Report submitted to the Department of Environment, European and International Habitat Branch, by the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau and NGO Forum for Nature Conservation in UK Dependent Territories.

IUCN (1991). IUCN Directory of Protected Areas in Oceania. Prepared by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K.

Philipson, W.R. & St. John, H. (1960). List of the Flora of Oeno Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, South-Central Pacific Ocean. Trans. Royal Society of New Zealand 88: 401-403.

Pratt, H.D., Bruner, P.L. & Berrett, D.G. (1987). A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawwaii and the Tropical Pacific. Princeton University Press, Princeton, U.S.A.

Rehder, H.A. & Randall, J.E. (1975). Ducie Atoll: its history, physiography and biota. Atoll Research Bulletin 183: 1-55.

St. John, H. & Philipson, W.R. (1962). An account of the flora of Henderson Island, South Pacific Ocean. Trans. Royal Society of New Zealand 1: 175-194.

UNEP/IUCN (1988). Coral Reefs of the World. Volume 3: Central and Western Pacific.

UNEP Regional Seas Directories and Bibliographies. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, U.K./UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya.

Weisler, M., Benton, T.G., Brooke, M. de L., Jones, P.J., Spencer, T. & Wragg, G. (1991). The Pitcairn Islands Scientific Expedition (1991-1992): First results; future goals. Pacific Science Association Information Bulletin 43: 4-8.

Williams, G.R. (1960). The Birds of the Pitcairn Islands, Central South Pacific Ocean. Ibis 102: 58-70.

Wetlands International

[Oeno Atoll] [Henderson Island] [Ducie Atoll] [Wetlands Introduction]