WWF leads volunteer efforts to battle forest fires on New Caledonia

Posted on 11 January 2006
Fires are a major threat to forests throughout the Mediterranean.
Fires are a major threat to forests throughout the Mediterranean.
© WWF / Michel GUNTHER
Noumea, New Caledonia – WWF is assisting authorities on the French Pacific Ocean territory of New Caledonia to fight fires that have threatened the island’s endangered forests and wildlife.

The fires, which have been blazing for nearly two weeks, have engulfed more than 4,000ha in a critical area near the capital, Noumea, destroying rare flora and fauna in the process.

“Several rare plant species are being wiped from the planet,” said Regis Dick of WWF-France. “Some unusual plants that thrive in the cobalt- and nickel-rich soil are disappearing, and a species of gymnosperme, exclusive to New Caledonia, is also under threat.”

Gymnosperms — a group of seed-bearing, vascular plants such as conifer trees — are remarkably varied in New Caledonia.

"There are 44 species of gymnosperms in New Caledonia, 43 of which are endemic," added Eric Dinerstein, Chief Scientist at WWF-US. "That is arguably the highest diversity of conifers and conifer-related plants in the world, and certainly represents the highest endemism."

New Caledonia represents a fragment of the ancient super-continent Gondwana. Isolated for approximately 80 million of years, New Caledonia's tropical forest ecosystems are among the most unique on earth, where more than 80 per cent of the nearly 3,000 native plant species are found. They include the rare Pancher cypress pine (Neocallitropsis pancheri), which was once heavily exploited for its fragrent oils.

Today, much of the island's moist, dense tropical forest is gone, and that which remains is increasingly threatened. Major threats to the remaining habitat include uncontrolled burning, mining activities, and predation by introduced species.

Despite the yearly scourge of fires in New Caledonia and repeated appeals from environmental groups such as WWF, authorities on New Caledonia have failed to establish adequate measures to prevent and control fires.

Responding to the situation, WWF-New Caledonia launched a widespread public appeal, together with local partners (ASNNC, CIE, Endemia, Symioses, SCO, and others), for local citizens to join the effort to fight a particularly devastating fire affecting one of the island’s important watersheds. Over a period of five days, some 400 volunteers — armed with shovels, water vaporizers and courage — risked their lives to support fire-fighters in their effort to control the spreading fire. With the arrival of French disaster teams, the fires are now extinguished.

“Now that the fires are over, we are working to devise an effective fire-prevention and fire-fighting plan for New Caledonia,” said Hubert Geraux, WWF's New Caledonia Ecoregional Coordinator. “We hope to ensure that no fire-related ecological disaster of this magnitude can occur in the future.”

In addition to the effects fires have on the island’s flora and fauna, subsequent torrential rains wash away nutrient rich topsoil and fine sediment, which clogs waterways and smothers coral reef dwelling organisms in the island’s many pristine lagoons. As a result, fire-scorched areas suffer a drastic loss of biodiversity, and in some cases, their capacity to sustain life in the future.

“These combined effects explain why fire outranks invasive species and mining as the greatest threat to biodiversity in New Caledonia,” said Geraux.


• New Caledonia tropical forests are one of WWF’s Global 200 ecoregions. The Global 200 is a science-based global ranking of the Earth’s most biologically outstanding terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats. It provides a critical blueprint for biodiversity conservation at a global scale. Developed by WWF scientists in collaboration with regional experts around the world, the Global 200 is the first comparative analysis of biodiversity to cover every major habitat type, spanning five continents and all the world’s oceans. The aim of the Global 200 analysis is to ensure that the full range of ecosystems is represented within regional conservation and development strategies, so that conservation efforts around the world contribute to a global biodiversity strategy.

• WWF’s New Caledonia Tropical Ecoregion Programme, established in 2001, aims to protect priority areas and species; encourage natural regeneration of the dry forests, create protected areas; stop land clearing for agriculture; increase public awareness of dry forest; and control and limit forest fires.

For further information:
Ahab Charles Downer, Country Programme Manager
WWF New Caledonia
Tel: +687 27 50 25
E-mail: secretariat@wwf.nc
Fires are a major threat to forests throughout the Mediterranean.
Fires are a major threat to forests throughout the Mediterranean.
© WWF / Michel GUNTHER Enlarge
 Bois bouchon (Retrophyllum minor), endemic to the southern part of Grande Terre, New Caledonia.
Bois bouchon (Retrophyllum minor), endemic to the southern part of Grande Terre, New Caledonia.
© WWF / Marc-Antoine DUNAIS Enlarge