In the year 1991 Ann Goth travelled to a volcanic island in Tonga, a tropical place with no running water or electricity. Her purpose was to study an endangered species: the Malau birds. She was only twenty-one years old when she made the decision to settle there for two years with her boyfriend, Ivo, to do their research and protect the species.
As a conservation enthusiast and a biology student, Ann may have been inspired by other women. Jane Goodall had traveled to Tanzania to study chimpanzees in the wild thirty-one years earlier; Dian Fossey had flown to Rwanda in 1967 to understand the intricate lives of the mountain gorillas; Birute Galdikas reached one of the wildest places in Indonesian Borneo in 1971, along with her then-husband, Rod Brindamour.
How did Ann and Ivo manage to get the support they needed to reach such a remote island in the South Pacific? How did they even survive on that island? How did they adapt to the culture of the local people to be able to accomplish their goals? What did they do to tackle the distrust they would face there?
Patience, curiosity and a love for adventure were the pillars of their determination.
I was impressed by how sensitive and careful they were in their interactions with the local people. They painstakingly studied their beliefs, conventions and customs to be able to communicate with them and gain their trust and support. They needed their cooperation to protect the Malau birds and to learn about them.
Volcanic Adventures in Tonga narrates the journey that led her to become an international authority on megapodes. The Malau birds bury their eggs in the warm soil close to a volcano. People in Tonga used to unearth the eggs to eat them. This action contributed to their endangered status back then. Now the birds face new threats…
Ann and Ivo had to adapt to the precarious living conditions and the food the region offered. They lived in a simple hut that had been made by weaving fronds of the coconut palm. This is a vivid account of their experiences, discoveries, disappointments and rewards.
Dr. Goth does not even hide the grueling challenges of dealing with one of her supervisors, who had different objectives and threatened to revoke the visa that allowed Ann and Ivo to stay on the island.
The kingdom of Tonga consists of 171 named islands, but only 36 of them are inhabited. Volcanic Adventures in Tonga reminds us of the deep interconnection and interdependence that exist between the people and their environment. Human beings' coexistence with other species is part of that relationship.
Dr. Ann Goth decided to write about her experiences in Tonga thirty years after her stay there, and this is her memoir. The letters she wrote to her mother during that time helped to shape her story, and kudos to her mother for having typed the letters that keep the details of her scientific work and adventures.
I asked Dr. Goth to answer a few questions about her book for My Writing Life. I appreciate her time, knowledge and enthusiasm.
1)Why did you choose the Malau bird to do your research?
For two reasons. First, because the Malau is endangered and I wanted to help save an endangered bird. Second, because, among the birds, this one is highly unique and special. It is one of the very few birds in the world which does not sit on their eggs to incubate them and instead uses external heat sources for incubation. The Malau uses the volcano for this purpose. And what is even more amazing: the chicks have no contact with their parents and live all by themselves. They are the most precocial chicks in the world.
2)Are you still in touch with people from Tonga? Did you share your book with them?
For many years, I have been writing letters back and forth with our family on Tin Can Island and the fishermen we worked with. This has ceased after about 10 years. I have also sent some goods to our adopted family after the terrible volcanic eruption in 2022, and I did, of course, send several copies of my book to both this family and the school on the island. I have not heard back from them yet, but mail in Tonga is slow and this may take quite some months. I am also sharing the news about my book with the Tongan community on various Facebook pages.
3) In your book you mention that people in Tonga are no longer into the habit of digging out eggs, thankfully. Is this a result of greater awareness of the effects of this deleterious action?
I do not know the exact reasons but suspect there may be two motives behind this. One is the fact that digging out the eggs is very hard and sweaty work, especially in the humid tropical climate on this island. Younger people may be less inclined to do so. The other fact is that, hopefully, the awareness programs about the plight of the Malau have contributed to a heightened awareness about the negative effect of collecting too many eggs.
4) In what ways is climate change affecting the livelihoods and health of the people in Tonga today? (Feel free to explain how they are dealing with the challenges).
I have devoted a whole last chapter in my book to this topic, which provides more detail than I can give here. In summary, climate change in the South Pacific does not only mean that islands become flooded and people lose their place to live. It also means that their drinking water gets inundated with salt water and becomes unsafe to consume, that the soil becomes salty and useless for growing crops, and that their lives are at risk from increased disease, cyclones, heatwaves, and droughts. The more frequent cyclones damage the coral reefs where people fish for food and they destroy important crops such as coconuts, bananas and breadfruit. I finish my chapter with a positive note from Will Turner, senior scientist at Conservation International: "We can still make a difference, but we must act now!".