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Most outsiders who visit Atiu come not for beaches and sun, but to see the rainforests, the ancient coral caves and the riot of birdlife, which includes some of the rarest species in the South Pacific, such as the brilliantly plumed Rimatara lorikeet. Once common throughout Polynesia, it was hunted for centuries for its scarlet breast feathers, used to adorn the cloaks of important chieftains, and preyed upon by the rats which were introduced to the islands by human settlers from their boats. By the dawn of the 21st century, with only a tiny population of birds left on the remote French Polynesian island of Rimatara, it was decided to reintroduce the endangered lorikeet on Atiu.

“We were lucky. We never had any rats come ashore here,” says “Birdman” George Mateariki, the island’s resident naturalist. “This made Atiu a safe place to try to rebuild the population, and so in 2007, 27 of them were released here.” After taking me to see the secluded cove where Captain Cook landed, he leads me into the rainforest to point out some of the island’s rarities and to try to find one of these beautiful, elusive lorikeets. It’s cool, dim and damp in here, even a little spooky, the trees far bigger and more primeval than I’d imagined for a Polynesian island. And then we see it, flitting through the branches, a miracle that even Captain Cook’s naturalists arrived too late to see when they passed through at the end of the 18th century. A living descendant of the South Seas birds that provided their feathers for the Tahitian noblemen’s cloaks.

Like these brooding forests, it is a tantalising glimpse back in time. But it is only a glimpse, and before I know it the little bird has flown away.

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The article ‘A tale of the South Pacific’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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