Nature wins the battle for survival in island war zone
Date: July 27 2002
By Greg Roberts
The silver lining on the cloud that was the 10-year Bougainville civil war comes
in the unlikely form of a small, flightless waterbird.
In a remarkable twist of fate, the conflict on the Papua New Guinean island has
brought the Woodford's rail back from the brink of extinction. The rail was one
of the world's rarest birds. It was thought to be extinct on Bougainville and
Guadalcanal in the adjacent Solomon Islands.
A tiny population had survived on the only other place it ever existed - Santa
Isabel Island, also in the Solomons.
In 1998 a ceasefire brokered by New Zealand ended the bitter conflict between
the Bougainville Revolutionary Army which was seeking independence for
Bougainville, and the PNG Defence Force.
The following year, Don Hadden, a New Zealand teacher and ornithologist, arrived
in the former Bougainville capital of Arawa for a stint as a volunteer aid
worker. Locals told him about a strange black bird they were seeing around town.
Mr Hadden had lived in Arawa previously for five years, around the time the
conflict erupted, and had never seen such birds.
"It wasn't long before I saw these birds running across the road everywhere I
went," Mr Hadden said. "I asked my students to catch me one. Then I had a
beaming year 10 student on my doorstep holding a very lively, very angry black
"There was no doubt I was holding the presumed extinct Woodford's rail," he
During the conflict, fields and plantations on the coastal plains around Arawa
were unattended, allowing the proliferation of native grasses that would
normally be cut.
Extensive stands of three metre-high native grass have provided an ideal habitat
for the secretive rails, which are now so numerous they can be seen foraging
among the ruins of buildings in Arawa that were burnt during the conflict.
"It really is quite an extraordinary tale of survival," Mr Hadden said. "There
must have been a few birds hanging on somewhere all that time that nobody knew
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