Palmyra: Pacific Paradise in Danger
July 24 - 25, 2000 -- The Nature Conservancy calls it the last chance to truly protect an intact Pacific atoll ecosystem. Field biologists call it an environmental treasure of wildlife, plants and fish that are gone or disappearing elsewhere. You might call it paradise -- an uninhabited tropical island, where great swarms of rare, colorful birds gather to nest, where tall palms drop coconuts on sandy beaches, and where schools of large fish laze through warm lagoons.
Palmyra is a privately owned American island in the central Pacific, 1,000 miles south of Hawaii. Except during World War II, when the US Navy maintained a base there, it's never really been occupied. Species that have been hunted to local extinction elsewhere flourish on Palmyra -- frigate birds, enormous land crabs, rare trees, marine corals and fish.
The atoll has been mostly in the possession of one family for almost a century; now, the Nature Conservancy is trying to buy Palmyra to keep it and its biological riches protected forever. The environmental group plans to raise $37-million dollars to pay for the atoll and establish a fund to maintain it for conservation and research, as well as a small scale eco-tourism site.
On his latest National Geographic Radio Expedition, hear NPR's Alex Chadwick report on his charter flight to paradise...only to discover that even here there are many challenges -- including the dubious experience of landing a small plane in a tropical storm on an old, unpaved Navy runway. The island is flourishing indeed -- thanks in large measure to the heavy rainfall.
The expedition finds biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recording extraordinary bird colonies, coral beds that are far richer than those found in Hawaii or the Caribbean, and schools of large, rare fish that may be impossible to still find elsewhere.
Chadwick concludes his two-part series on Palmyra with further reports on the rainy island's birds, wildlife, and schools of large tropical fish. He also talks about the efforts to preserve the atoll.
Alterations to the atoll made by the Navy present real problems for the health of the atolls central lagoons, and weather and infrastructure will make difficulties for eco-tourism -- but if the Nature Conservancy can push ahead with its ambitious plans, it may yet preserve a last tropical atoll in something like a state of Eden.
Chadwick's Radio Expedition to Palmyra for Morning Edition was broadcast on Monday and Tuesday, July 24 and 25, 2000.
Palmyra's owners have sold the property to a preservation group that will leave the pristine environment untouched.