Flora And Fauna
Everything is utterly basic and simple on the low-lying Pacific islands. The three worlds of animal, vegetable and mineral are very poorly represented. a volcanic base at unplumbed depths; above this limestone rock covered by a layer of sand and coral debris which is at water-level; that's all there is as far as minerals go. Set fire to it all and there would be lime. The thin bed of humus lying on the ground only supports sparse vegetation. Twenty-three times, five shrubs, five creepers, ten or or small plants, one vegetable, babai, and that's all the vegetation names that Abemama school children can write on their slates. Even an expert wouldn't be able to count up many more, leaving aside those plants introduced recently. Most of these different kinds of trees re represented by only a few specimens. The narrow but well-populated islands are trimmed and shorn of much vegetation for the benefit of the coconut palm. You can hardly find virgin land or rough scrub-land anywhere except at the centre of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka.
Even there the biggest part of the Gilbertese forest contains only three trees and one shrub: the coconut palm, the pandanus, The uri and the mao. Coconut trees may only take up a quarter of the land but they are the kings of the island and dominate everything while hiding everything. They are planted on the best land along the western side and, in some places, in the centre of the island or on the eastern coast. but the pandanus and uri put up a good fight for space with the coconut tree - and are almost as tall as it is. The rest of the island is covered by a perennial shrub: mao (Scaevola hoenegini?) which must cover almost half the available land. It sprouts everywhere and becomes thickly and impossibly tangled. Its most obvious use is that its leaves add to the humus a little and it helps to keep the middle of the sun-baked island a little cooler.
The uri (Guattarda speciosa) is only good for firewood. You can get a few poor quality planks from it, for canoes or piles. Buried in the lagoon mud they will stay as sound as the day they were put there, but they soon rot if left uncovered. The ren and non are fairly common in the forest at Abemama. The ren (Turnifortia argentea) makes one think of an elder because of its bark and clusters of berries. it has fairly short trunk and pretty, silvery, bushy top, but its wood isn't really much use. When it grows straight the non (Morinda eitrofolia) gives good wood for building the fames of houses, and insects hardly ever attack it. It has a bitter, apple-like fruit with little black seeds in it. Children sometimes nibble it, pulling faces as they do so. You can also find a little tree called bero which has a round yellow berry, a little bigger than a pea. This is very tasty if cooked, but people tend to hide themselves away to do the cooking. It's called 'famine food' and no one wants to appear to hard up.
These low-lying islands are not completely devoid of fine shade-giving trees with good sturdy trunks - like European oaks or lime-trees. They like good and, however, and nothing grows around them. As they aren't fruit-bearing the locals get rid of them for their coconut trees, so they are quite rare. however, the itai (Tamana tree) and the kanawa supply good wood for furniture. One is rather like a cherry tree and the other like walnut but their knotted wood is difficult to plane. The Bairiati (Barringtonia asiatica) a broad-leaved and rather rare tree, has a strong-smelling heady white flower capable of making people dizzy. When crushed it fan be used as a drug to help in catching fish.
Here and thee in the white mud along the edge of the lagoon there is a type of mangrove. It stands in the water, its roots arching out or acting as buttresses. In the north of Aranuka the mangroves there form a positive hill of greenery. The centre of this rounded shape is quite empty: there isn't leaf to be seen: only branches and trunks. This space could be likened to a great temple or church for birds. Each fork contains a nest. Terns argue away here; their shrilling can be heard day and night. In marshy places the tree whose scientific name is Pemphis acidula grows. This has very hard wood and tiny leaves. When its rough bark is stripped off, the prickly uneven trunk then looks completely red, almost as if it had been singed. This wood makes very good posts for huts if it grows straight. Except on Kuria and Aranuka, however, it's difficult to find any that is thick enough.
In the Gilberts the breadfruit tree only grows near houses. It's a recent import, perhaps from the Marshalls, and it's a pity that it isn't planted and tended in a more organized way. In these barren islands its large floury fruit, which has sweet parts in it, is vital food for everyone but especially for children.
The coconut palm
At this point we should pause to consider the two trees that Fate has prepared especially for the people of these islands and which to them are even more essential and irreplaceable than wheat for a Canadian or rice for the Chinese. Everyone knows, at least through pictures, what the coconut is like, with its great plumed top sweeping the clouds. it is so finer than a stalk of wheat with its green spike and in fact the forests on the islands are not unlike a wheat-field. The best time for the coconut palm as it sways and rustles in the wind is when it has grown to about four or five metres. Then it is heavy with nuts and its ragged shadow is thrown close to its base. The palm-fronds form a rounded shape. Some droop down along the trunk like dangling arms; others stand out at an angle rather like the sails of a windmill; the tallest, curved back on themselves, making the tree-top look a bit like a hat under a protective cover, point sharply up towards the heavens. The palm-fronds sometimes grow to as much as eight metres in length. A coconut tree in the Gilberts is rarely more than twenty-five metres high. A tree that reaches this height simply vegetates and only two or three nuts can be seen in its small tuft of fronds. The wind has little effect on it. A few are uprooted and die but most stand long after they are dead and one or the other serves as a lookout post for the flocks of curlews.
On occasion one tall tree by itself can be magnificent to see when it is struggling against the wind. with all its fronds swept back and pointing to the East and its trunk bending too it looks like an inside-out umbrella. One of these trees could say, better than any reed, 'I bend but I don't break'. Its trunk is rather like the cable of a suspension bridge: It is made of long fibres held together by a rubbery substance which becomes softer towards the centre of the trunk. Unlike European oaks trees, the coconut has a soft heart and the rest of it we could liken to muscles. It's very long roots are like thin strips of steel. Some penetrate to the water-table. Every day a coconut tree takes in forty to sixty litres of moisture. Most of them run along at ground level in the thin layh4er of humus covering the white sand. They acquire sustenance from the sea. Along the shore, leaning at an alarming angle, you can see coconut trees heavily laden with nuts, more than half of their roots are watered by the sea. Even when they are reduced to briny water, coconut trees still survive: it takes a really long drought to kill off these long-haired heroes!
The nuts take rather more than a year to ripen. They grow in clusters. Between the palm-fronds there is a spathe and from this little stalks grow out. The nut grows at the end of the stalk. A healthy tree can carry a dozen clusters of about fifty nuts which rise in tiers one above the other, diminishing in age and size. The Gilbertese give more names to their coconut trees than they do attention: the coconut has seventeen names which follow its development and the tree itself has almost as many. All they do in the way of looking after the trees is to clear the land a little and plant some trees, but they never dig over the land near the trees, even though the coconut palm is to them like nurse, cow, bread and house. There's scarcely another plant in creation that has more varied and fortunate uses.
To begin with there are two drinks from it. For instance in a certain European country, when it's evening the farmer goes off to milk his cow. The Gilbertese man gets up and fills his pot at the top of the coconut tree. Did we say fill? In fact the container is already full. One tree will have two or three hanging in it, full of palm-wine: a sweet honey-like, delicious fresh drink. In English there is a shorter word: toddy - or in Gilbertese: karewe. The task of extracting it - or perhaps one should say the rite - is called toddy-cutting. Each family has a toddy-cutter. When a child is born one question is 'will he be a toddy-cutter?' Every boy has to be a good climber! Every day, early in the morning and then about sunset, you can see young men going along with their knives and what might look like skulls but are in fact hollowed-out coconut shells; they can clatter just like two heads being knocked together. The climber moves as it were up a ladder. His tree has been cut and each notch is like a rung. The delicate part of the undertaking is to move between the fronds and take up a settled position. It is something of a triumph too for the climber. Far above the ground and nicely wedged in the tree up above everyone, the toddy-cutter feels the same emotions that an alpinist has atop the conquered peaks. First he scans the horizon, taking in the ocean and the lagoon and quite convincing himself that he is the highest soul in his country,. Over in the east, between two distant continents, is the sun, about to rise from the waves, in the west there is perhaps a ship in the passage.
The first to see this shouts out 'Tero! Sail ho!' All those watching up in the leafy crown-nests echo his cry. Then all the lower beings come out of their huts and turn up on he shore to see if this is really true. If there's no ship then the watcher atop his tree contemplates the coming and going of the canoes. While his hands are busy at their daily ask he sings away like a cricket. It's either a chant or a dance refrain or a hymn sung and punctuated in the most fantastic way. And oh what strange voices you can hear! The toddy man's song is also a totally free and spontaneous hymn in praise of the delights of living in these windswept islands, especially as the morning light grows. The work he does up in his tree is actually this: between the palm-fronds is the spathe which projects rather like a spear. this has a fairly hard outer covering. The toddy-cutter makes an incision at the base of this so that it hangs down at a right angle. Then he strips the end for several inches so the soft white inside of the spathe can be seen. He binds this, to prevent any further development of the stalks on which nuts would form. The man now cuts a tiny circle in the green stumps of the spathe to make sure that juice continues to flow from it. If this task is neglected then the opening will close up and the juice will no longer ooze out. Under his expert touch, this little opening, which is cut twice daily, will ooze juice for more than a month and yield a litre of drink every twelve hours. The toddy, or juice, is channelled into the waiting shell by means of a leaf shaped into a funnel.
If the singing suddenly stops then it means the toddy-cutter is getting ready to leave his greasy pole, as it were. Off he goes back to his village with three or four full shells. People have been waiting for him before eating for he is the bringer of milk. Mixed with a little water the toddy i8s passed round. If the rest is boiled it will not ferment and will be drinkable all day. To keep the toddy longer or to store it, means coiling it all morning. The water evaporates and molasses is obtained. If water is mixed with this again, a brownish drink is the result and it is just as pleasant as fresh toddy. Toddy or molasses: both are nourishing because of the concentration of sugar in them. Babies without anyone to feed them have even been reared on the stuff - but for them fresh or boiled toddy is better.
Where have the Gilbertese acquired this knack of drawing off palm-wine - something that many people in Oceania still don't know about? No one knows, but it is a very old method. something rather more recent is the use made of fermented drinks and the whites are the ones who would be held responsible for introducing this! toddy left unboiled for a day becomes sour and is then a good raising agent for bread. Later if it is drunk it has the same bad effects as alcohol. Most crimes may be blamed on it. The laws of the colony forbid the drinking of sour toddy but this doesn't manage to banish drunkenness. to achieve this would really mean depriving the Gilbertese of toddy, which is an absolutely essential drink for them. The other drink that the coconut tree provides is by no means as valuable as the first. It's really only a sort of mineral water - very clean and pleasant to the taste, but seat-inducing in a terrible way and more likely to encourage thirst than to ease it. This drink is coconut milk taken from the green nut when it has reached full size and when the flesh is beginning to grow in it. On some islands the locals make great use of it, for after quaffing this ideally pure pale drink he eats the flesh - not unlike half-cooked white of egg. The baby's first semi-solid food also comes from the green nut.
For the Gilbertese the coconut really is the staff of life, like bread. Without it, even if he eats ships biscuits and tinned meat, which he dotes on, the local will feel deprived. Certainly he doesn't appreciate it by itself, any more than a child appreciates dry bread, but he mixes it with all his food. It is the usual accompaniment to fish. Those who no longer have their teeth scrape out the flesh with a shell so that they too can enjoy it. Grated, it is used in all sorts of babai-based puddings. All Gilbertese sauces and sweets or jams include coconut cream (i.e. grated coconut and water). Open up a germinated nut and you find a white spongy mass - another delicacy. cooked by a skilled housewife even the heart of the coconut tree becomes a very much sought after colonial speciality. The local people however don't know about this recipe and so don't care about the dish.
Plaited palm fronds make thatch for roofs, large mats, screens against the wind, and baskets. Rolled up they will serve as torches. The softer fronds from the top of the tree can be used to make loin cloths, hats and fine baskets. Even the mid-rib of the frond is used. From it come very flexible laths which make a springy floor if laid close together. They also make ideal walls for they allow air and light to filter through while at the same time preventing wind and rain from getting in. Such walls conceal people inside but they can still see whatever is going on round about.
Coconut fibre provides tough long-lasting string which is used particularly in the construction of huts and canoes where nails or pegs are rarely used. to make it, in this land where everything is simple, the Gilbertese woman needs nothing except her right thigh and her two hands. She rolls the fibre against her thigh. Empty coconut shells make useful containers for the Gilbertese. A shell can be used as a bowl, a cup, a ladle, a funnel, a bottle and as a cooking-pot - toddy can even be boiled up in one. Nowadays glass, cast-iron and aluminium have only half replaced it. General poverty means that many old and picturesque habits are still current.
The pandanus fruit is very strange, formed rather like a pine cone. Fibrous fruits are attached to a central knob. They are V-shaped and separate quite easily. Stretch out your five fingers and bring them close together and you'll have some idea of their size and shape. the pandanus fruit is only ripe for half its length, so you bit off the end and suck. There's no good being shy about opening your mouth and displaying your false teeth! Certainly there's no better exercise for the jaw or better way of cleaning the teeth. And what a lovely smell it has. Your mouth and breath are delightfully scented. And what a variety of words there are for the pandanus. Brother Eloi has found 194 names for types of pandanus and possibly that isn't the whole range for its sweetness as far as the Gilbertese is concerned. In the gilberts the one variety that is missing is the pandanus that provided a nut to crack instead of something sweet to suck.
The coconut tree yields fruit all the year round but the pandanus has seasons for fruit. There is so much to pick in some months that the local people have to store it. The man of the family takes a long pole with a knife blade on the end. He cuts down the fruit and takes it off home. this is tiring work because the trees are scattered and some distance from the houses. The wife, however, does most of the work. She had to pull large pieces of skin and sawdust-like fibre off it. The process takes too long to describe and in any case anyone who watched too closely would lose his appetite. In general, this is what happens ... the detached fruit is put in a pot and cooked - or even done over the embers. Then the juicy part is scraped and all bits of fibre are removed from it. This sticky mass is spread out on leaves and left to dry in the sun. three days later you have what looks like a nice piece of brown leather. You roll this up, package it and then you have something to offer to visitors. You just cut a slice and eaten in the hand it really is very good. it can also be softened in coconut milk or molasses, when it is even better. this substance is tuae.
To get the rather sawdusty powder you cut off the edible part of the fruit and cook it but you don't separate the pulp from the fibres. This is spread in the sun and then cooked again. After another three or four days in the sun you no longer get a leathery substance but something that looks like rough matting. this you simply pound and then you get a powder, yellow unless the housewife burnt it in the cooking. Three or four spoons of this in a bowl of water make a nice broth. anyone going out to work will be well set up until midday if he has eaten some of this on getting up. it is a very fragrant food and is rich in sugar. this preserve and powder are very valuable indeed to the local person, because they keep well and can be stored. The Gilbertese housewife dissuades ants from attacking this sugary powder by rolling it up in a pandanus leaves. These tubes of powder look not unlike shotguns and are useful in all sorts of expeditions. The local is careful to equip himself with the powd4r as well as the thick slices, all carefully packed up, if he is going on any important move.
Obviously, fresh pandanus preserve is the best of the lot. The season for this passes all too quickly as far as both children and adults are concerned. the best cooks easily make a preserve that would be at a premium anywhere. It is doubtful whether there is any better pandanus fruit than there is in the Gilberts, where it grows and ripens slowly. Nor do we know of any other race in Oceania who make such use of pandanus as the Gilbertese. You might think of the Gilbertese as truly ungrateful. Not only does he neglect the pandanus but sometimes he doesn't even collect the fruit. He crowds the tree on to poor land and has more and more coconut trees, which bring him money. On Makin and Butaritari the pandanus is becoming rare. It is however a better emblem of the Gilbertese than the coconut tree. The pandanus adapts much better to dry sandy land, scorched by the sun. it triumphs over the coconut and when it is competing against the coconut on good land the pandanus bole grows high so that the tree gets its share of wind and light. then its trunk is much appreciated by the Gilbertese, for the best wood for building comes from it. the coconut would be eaten away before the pandanus had even been attached by worms.
The pandanus leaf is a long green strip about as broad as your hand and two metres in length. along the edge here are fine sharp prickles and this makes handling it difficult, especially when it is dry. Nevertheless the Gilbertese need to pick it; a hundred are needed to make a piece of thatch and it takes two hundred sections of thatch to cover a small house. All respectable buildings have a pandanus thatch. The leaves are softened in water and then rolled one on top of the other, very firmly, round a stick. They are folded in two and sewn on to a lath; fibres from the coconut frond are used as thread and a bone is used as sort of needle. In this way you get an excellent thatch which will last five years, more or less. They have an advantage over any other roofing in the world: as well as keeping out rain they fend off the heat. The most valuable leaf is also used to make baskets and very fine mats used as carpets, bed covers or blankets. 'the softening and weaving of the leaf is too long to be anything but laborious or even disagreeable. there is no market, as yet, for Gilbertese mats, baskets and hats.
A mat has a big advantage over a carpet in that it doesn't absorb dust. Go over it with a broom or flick a damp cloth over it and there it is, quite clean. Laid on a piece of canvas or over a rope frame the mat makes a mattress. All the whites in the colony use one and find there is nothing neater or cooler.
Babai is the only vegetable the Gilbertese have. They don't grow anything else. Where does this big tuber come from? It is neither of ancient origin nor recently imported. Old legends describe someone arriving with his coconut, pandanus, fish and his grandfather's skull - but babai isn't mentioned. Nevertheless on Abemama, the land is churned up and full of babai pits in which old coconut trees are dying off. Were the earlier people more numerous - or simply more industrious? At any rate they didn't rely on food introduced by the European. to sum up then: there are two important species of fruit: the coconut and the pandanus; a middling-sized berry; the bero; and two salad ingredients - portulaca and hogweed; that is all that the Gilbertese bush provides for the people to eat. We can add to this babai, breadfruit, and pawpaw. there we have all the somewhat frugal Gilbertese vegetation.
The Europeans have tried to introduce other plants: banana, pumpkin, sweet potato, tomato, melon, peas and other vegetables. The local person looks at these little gardens, which are constantly threatened by drought, but he doesn't do anything about copying them. they take too much trouble and your Gilbertese is a firm believer in a minimum of work and effort. Neighbours and passers-by, cheeky beggars that they are, will take all the results of his labour without his being able to make the least gesture of resistance. he goes instead for a few ornamental plants and flowers, especially those that smell nice.
The islands have very few flowers - not much at all in the way of fragrance. Young girls and dancers have a great deal of trouble when it comes to getting flowers for the essential head-garland or kaue. Plants that have been introduced such as frangipani and hibiscus, as well as others, give them some assistance at the moment. When it's necessary to keep to flowers form the bush they have only four little flowers that do smell: the itai (tamanu tree); the uri (Guettarda speciosa); the mao (salt bush) and the inato (Clerodendronn inerme). As for the kaura (Wedella stringulosa), which makes yellow patches between the mao, this is tiny and has no fragrance. The women go along to pick its leaves to make compost for their taro and take them away in big baskets. to pay a compliment that really means something to a young girl, you just have to compare her to the white blossom on the male pandanus. It is fresh, velvety and extremely fragrant.
Fauna of the Gilberts
The fauna of the Gilberts is even more impoverished than its flora! Leaving aside birds and crabs, the mouse reigns supreme. thee are no snakes and only two species of lizard, who devour flies and mosquitoes: the little wall lizard and the hideous gecko with its toad-like mouth. The gecko loves sweet toddy and he gives a terrible fright to toddy-cutters for he may cling on to their bare skin as he jumps away. Not particularly dangerous, there are also the centipedes and scorpions. the scorpion's sting soon wars off, but a bit from a centipede can cause half a day's suffering. The large long-legged spider is only alarming to little lizards and cockroaches. The whites introduced dogs, cats, chickens and pigs. The dog, however, was known previously, even after the return of the Samoans. Then it vanished, no doubt eradicated by some famine or other.
What is remembered of the animals met in Asia? Kekenu - is this a tiger or a crocodile? Mouakena: a nightingale? these are all that remain from legends. Beetles and butterflies are rare. There is a mythological creature the Gilbertese call 'sea butterfly' and it can never be caught. The whites, who like to have a barrier of greenery around their houses, have their hours enlivened by the shrilling of a cricket which sings day and night. Attempts have been made to introduce bees, but every one of them flew away. Instead thee are two pests which appear to be thriving: a large grasshopper from Hawaii which on Abemama chews up the coconut fronds and, on Tarawa, a sort of cockchafer whose grub, living underground, destroys anything young and tender - babai and young coconut palms included.
Fodder has to be imported from Sydney to feed the cows and horses brought to Butaritari. Even goats find it difficult to exist thee. The sandy soil is more suited to the different types of crab who tunnel in it. some are edible. The largest of these is the coconut crab with large pincers which can crack a nut open. Nourished on coconut milk as they are, these crabs are amongst The most tasty of crustaceans. They are far superior to crayfish which are caught when the tides are high, in the first quarter of the moon.
As the little Pacific islands lack predators and hunters, they are absolute paradise for birds, which can be seen rising in clouds from the tiniest spits of sand. the Gilberts are home to a good share of them, but these birds live off the sea. there is only one species that lives in the Gilbertese forest: the kabanei or new Zealand swallow, a grey bird with a cuckoo's beak and a long striped tail. If it is surprised it utters a shrill cry and dashes away into the nearest thicket. It is fairly rare and rather wild. the countless birds that live off the sea are web-footed or are waders. The former hunt in deep water whereas the waders are satisfied with paddling around in the pools left on the beach at low tide. What they have in common is an abysmal sense of music. Most of them have such harsh rough voices that even a regiment of crows would beat a hasty retreat.
Most numerous of all are the sea swallows or terns, there are several species: the black, the white and one which has a white head. The white tern is a most likeable creature. It greets you by flying over your head in a very friendly way, so close that you could almost stoke its soft whiteness from which two gentle dark eyes shine out. Are we mistaken about its feelings - or have we perhaps avoided crushing its egg lying in a nest amongst the white coral or on a hollow branch, fallen to the ground? The other terns nest in the trees putting together a few sticks as untidily as can be and laying one or two eggs. From below the hen's long tail and her breast are easily seen. Terns fish out at sea and fishermen try to follow them for wherever they congregate the sea is swarming with bonito and large fish. Other diving-birds, including a sort of gull, look for food along the edge of the lagoon.
At low tide the beach is thick with waders picking around in holes and pools, looking for fish, worms and small shellfish. The largest of them is the heron: white or grey, by nature unsociable and given to fighting. You can see him stirring up the mud with his stilt-like legs, to flush out any lurking prey and when the fish or small crustacean crosses the space in front of him as it tries to get away it is gobbled up in the sharp beak and quickly swallowed. The smallest of the waders is a sort of plover with a white chest and yellow feet. These birds are also quarrelsome but do live in flocks. There are two species of these elegant sand-pipers: some which try to sing like larks and another sort which can be distinguished by the way they shake their heads as they watch you out of the corner of their little eyes.
Amongst them you can see the curlew with its sharp curved beak and a cousin of this bird which is rather smaller and picks at the sand with a long straight beak. Except for the heron all these waders are birds of passage. Where their nesting ground is no one can tell. Where do they go in spite of the vast deserts of ocean they must cross? When do they fly away, for the beach is covered with them at any given time of year?
The frigate bird
In the Gilberts the king of the air is the frigate bird. It no longer lives in the islands but does visit them frequently. The Gilbertese never tires of watching its gliding - better than any plane. Gilbertese dances try to copy the beauty and intoxication of its ecstatic flight. He copies its large wings when he makes kites, which in the Gilberts have a bold and quite original design. together with the eagle, the condor and the albatross, the frigate is a king of birds because of the majesty of its flight. it defeats all its main rivals, however, in the matter of long crossings. The great open spaces of the central Pacific are its unchallenged kingdom and seem especially made for it. The larger species have a wingspan of more than two metres. High up in the wind and the clear sky the frigate glides on for hours, with no perceptible movement of its wings. It has a typical silhouette, with its long curved wings and forked tail. some frigate birds have a white chest. It takes its name from its piratical instincts. If fishing, the frigate bird catches its prey as it skims along the top of the waves, not diving, for then it wouldn't be able to take off again. More often, however, it prefers to chase other birds coming back from fishing, until they drop their catch which is then taken by the frigate bird before it reaches the water.
This buccaneer of a bird sometimes becomes the victim of its own greed and laziness. The locals attract it with fish and when it flies within reach they throw a sort of lasso: a pebble on the end of a line which gets entangled in the bird's wings as the pebble begins to drop back again. A popular game kabane imitates this activity which is used particularly on Nauru and Ocean Island. On these islands you can still see high perches and on one of them there may be a captive frigate. This well-fed bird is there to attract its fellows. Once supplied with food they will readily seek out these perches and settle there in the hopes of a good meal. this creature of the wind looks very pitiful and sad with its wings tucked back sitting on a perch. It conceals its short feet and lets its long curved beak droop down. Soon however it is free again and off on its long journeyings, with a ribbon tied to its foot or a message fixed under its wing. A sign such as this will ensure it a welcome. No one would think of harming one of these birds. Once it was a crime to kill the frigate - every bit as serious as theft or adultery. The killing of one could only be paid for by giving up some land. 'In the bird's honour' - this was the title to possession for the person claiming compensation.
In old stories there is often mention of a near legendary bird: the red-tailed tropic-bird. Very few local people have seen it. It very rarely visits the Gilberts, but its hold over the imagination is even more extreme than the rareness of its appearance. for some people it is a sign of good luck but for those of the Keaki clan (those for whom the bird is a totem) it is a sign of forthcoming death in that clan. the red-tailed tropic-bird was the bird of the ancestral goddess, Nei Tituabine.