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Post-cyclone rhinoceros beetle outbreak concerns in Vanuatu

Dr Mark Ero, who specialises in the study of insects, completed a visit to Vanuatu recently through a Pacific Community (SPC) project to raise awareness on the invasive species.

RNZ Pacific reports Dr Ero is concerned that the damaged logs and coconut palms left in the aftermath of the double cyclones last month was the preferred breeding hosts for the beetle.

He said if the palm trunks were not cleaned and destroyed properly they would become conducive breeding grounds for the beetle, enabling the population to explode, exacerbating damage levels and spreading further.

"Considering the extent of the damage, additional manpower and resources and a workable action plan will be necessary to effectively destroy the palm trunks and prevent this potential population explosion."

The incursion of coconut rhinoceros beetles is a not a new problem in Vanuatu, as authorities have had to control its spread in the past.

But the biosecurity office has been racing against time to contain the beetle spread on Efate island with funding support from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, according to SPC.

Biosecurity Vanuatu acting director Armstrong Sam said a ministerial order is in place to assist in controlling the movement of agricultural materials being exported from Efate to other islands.

The government directive requires ships - most of them carrying food supplies to the outer islands - to depart Port Vila's main Lapetasi International Wharf before 4pm local time.

This is to avoid ships leaving after sundown as rhino beetles are attracted to light and if the boats leave the wharf at night the pests could be transferred to other parts of the country.

Sam has urged residents of Port Vila and those close to town to help authorities destroy potential breeding sites for the beetles.

"They will need to chop the dead logs and branches into smaller pieces to use as firewood," he said.

"Once they chop them up, they can put them in a heap and contact our biosecurity officers to spray fungus on them. For those in the outer islands, they can chop up these dead lying logs and burn them."

Meanwhile, Ifira island has also recorded the presence of the coconut rhinoceros beetle Guam strain (CRB-G).

Dr Ero's team has been working alongside the Vanuatu officials to place traps on the island including spraying the artificial breeding sites with the Metarhizium fungus that has proven to be an effective rhino beetle biocontrol agent.

The SPC will continue to monitor and follow up on their efforts in Vanuatu to ensure the pest does not get a new foothold in the country as cyclone recovery efforts progress.

Coconut rhinoceros beetle outbreak could become a major issue for Vanuatu in the coming months, according to Dr Mark Ero. Photo: SPC