Wednesday 2 November 2022

From On Board: Heritage Expeditions in Melanesia. Tetepare Island - cursed or blessed?


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Tetepare warrior confronts his guests (Fiona Wardle/Heritage Expeditions)

The 120sqkm lush, thickly wooded island of Tetepare located in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Just how it became that way is the stuff of legend.

According to oral history, Tetepare was once inhabited by a racially and linguistically distinct tribe known throughout the region for their fierce warrior traditions. But somewhere along the line, these proud people offended their gods who responded with storms and disease. Once weakened, they became vulnerable to the neighbouring headhunters, a practice that was widespread in Melanesia for many hundreds of years.

After being decimated by waves of misfortune, the survivors declared the island cursed and left, never to return. At the beginning of the 20th century, a copra plantation was started and quickly became one of the most productive in all the Pacific. But when the Pacific War reached Tetepare in 1942, the island was abandoned once again. Attempts to resume copra failed.

Mary Bea, one of the Tetepare elders entrusted with the island's preservation (RE)

A giant coconut crab (RE)
“We are tagging the nesting turtles like the endangered hawksbill and leatherbacks and conserving the coconut crabs,” says Mary Bea, one of the elders who manage the island's delicate ecosystem, “and we have (feral) pigs – but you can hunt as many of those as you like!”

Today it seems the gods are content again. The old plantation is returning to the jungle and a field station and ecolodge have been established by the descendants of the original people through an association expressly created to preserve the ecology of the island. Twenty years ago the Tetepare Descendants' Association (TDA) was created to manage and protect the resources of the island as a conservation area. 

Tetepare is home to some 230 bird species as well as 24 reptile, four frog and 13 mammal species including such bizarre lizards as the monkey-tailed skink and mangrove monitor. As we wandered with our guides it was easy to see why such reverence was held for this land and why its preservation is so important. Perhaps it is the will of the gods?

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