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Albatrosses and man in the marshalls

Many people in the Marshall Islands feel that "le" or albatrosses are cursed birds and if they ever see land, they will die. This idea may be due to the fact that these magnificent fliers can remain away from land for months - even years - on end, gliding the air currents, swooping down to capture squids and fishes to eat, or get a drink of saltwater, only periodically resting on the surface of the sea.

But albatrosses do need dry land in order to nest and lay their eggs. They choose isolated islands, far from any human habitation, and hence are unseen by most people. Here, the birds can congregate on the ground in large numbers. The paired parents all take off nine months to a year from their open ocean wanderings so they can faithfully share the responsibilities of raising their single offspring.

At some of the Marshalls' atoll workshops on biodiversity, it was stated that of all native birds, "le" are among the least valuable. Yet, albatrosses were actively sought by the original inhabitants. Their wingbones were used as tattooing tools, and adventurous sailors would make the dangerous trek to the far northern atolls in order to obtain these instruments. Furthermore, during the late 1800's and early 1900's albatrosses were considered extremely valuable birds by the Japanese feather industry. At that time, the feathers of albatrosses and other birds were in such demand for soft beds and pillows, and to decorate stylish ladies' hats, that an enterprising feather collector could quickly become extremely wealthy.

The islands off Japan were initially exploited - at the expense of some 5 million birds killed in the process. After those breeding grounds had been exhausted, feather hunters turned to central Pacific Islands to satisfy market demands.

Wake and Bokak were both visited by Japanese feather hunters seeking not only the limited number of albatrosses, but also terns, boobies and frigatebirds. The birds, not knowing any fear of man, were easy pickings. The downy chicks were dunked in scalding water so their feathers could be plucked out. The breast feathers of the adults were also plucked, but their wings were just hacked off and shipped back whole for processing. A feather collection expedition could easily yield the equivalent of $100,000 - a sum that translated into the demise of close to 1/4 million birds!

The German government was more decisive in acting against the invasion of their territory than was the United States. Hence more illegal poaching was done on the United States possession of Wake than on the nearby German held territories. Yet, when the feather gathering had fairly well been controlled and there was supposed to be some degree of protection to the albatrosses, the ravages of World War II hit the area. Starving soldiers could hardly be blamed for seeking out the birds that did remain.

Nowadays, albatrosses are no longer greedily exploited for their feathers in the Marshall Islands, but the damage has been done. The most valuable of all North Pacific albatrosses, the short-tailed with its spectacular 8 foot wingspan, was even considered to be extinct for a while, but was "rediscovered" in the 1950's on its primary nesting ground off Japan. It is slowly making a comeback and is now internationally recognized as endangered. This species, and the slightly smaller Laysan and black-footed albatrosses may occasionally wander over the waters of the Marshall Islands, some even visiting Bokak once in a while. However, no albatrosses nest there or on Wake anymore. They are part of the Marshalls' biological resources - and biodiversity - that was virtually wiped out!

No, "Ie" or albatrosses of the Marshall Islands do not have to die when they encounter land. But it does seem that the pressures of overexploitation during the heyday of the feather industry and the stresses of war were curses to them. They have apparently learned that they may die if they spend too much time on the dry land.

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