Adult rhinoceros beetles burrow into the bases of palm fronds to drink the tree’s sap, creating large holes near the top of the palm’s trunk – and this allows other bugs and fungi to enter and damage the tree. Because palm trees only grow from one central point at the very top, the beetles’ burrowing can also damage the tree’s ability to make new leaves and may kill it.
The beetles chew through the new palm leaves that are folded up within the top of the tree, making “v” shaped cuts in the leaves when they extend. And when one beetle finds a tree, it attracts other beetles who join in attacking the tree.
Hakono Hararanga, the Tongareva (Penrhyn) Island Environment and Conservation Incorporated Society, insist they have found beetles at the most southern motu and in the main village, Omoka.
Tongareva-based marine zoologist Dr Michael White said he had been shown photos of an insect fonud on the island: “It's definitely rhino beetle.”
But a survey by the Ministry of Agriculture insect specialist found no evidence of rhinoceros beetles. The ministry’s entomologist Dr Maja Poeshko told Cook Islands News she went to the islands and investigated.
Even though there were signs of pests, there was no sign of rhinoceros beetle.
Secretary of Agriculture Temarama Anguna-Kamana said last night that Dr Poeshko was in Takutea, Atiu. They would be available to further comment on the case today, once Dr Poeshko had been shown the new photos.
Wilkie Rasmussen, spokesman for the Environment Society, said there was a growing concern that Penrhyn Island’s most valuable plant was getting damaged by coconut rhinoceros beetles.
The coconut palms produce rito (fibre) for weaving hats, fans and earrings, generating income for people from the island. The tree is also a food source.
Rasmussen said people were familiar with damage by rats, which they saw when they harvested the rito, and what they were reporting was different.
It warranted an investigation by the ministry, “before it is too late”.
Rasmussen said the ministry made a general public announcement through the media claiming there were no rhino beetles on Tongareva. “It appeared that the Ministry of Agriculture was spooked by emails from the island that the dangerous bug to coconut trees was seen in Omoka village,” Rasmussen said.
Dr Poeshko had been to Tongareva for just two days, he said, before she jumped to the conclusion that there was no bug there.
Two days on a relatively big island was not enough time to do a conclusive survey: “It appeared to me that the Ministry was somehow making a pre-emptive strike to dismiss any such claims before these claims ever came out into the public arena.
“The emails were never intended for public reading but was to let the Ministry and Government officials at the Prime Minister’s Department know of what residents in Penrhyn saw and believed.
“The Ministry of Agriculture’s public announcement was therefore puzzling.”
Rasmussen explained that on two occasions a Penrhyn couple discovered two beetles that they believed were rhino beetles and conveyed that to Hakono Hararanga, and this was conveyed to government.
“Other people have also noticed the damage of leafs similar to the damage described as being done by the rhino beetle. Unfortunately, no sample beetles were kept.
“Hararanga is concerned that the ministry is spending much effort to dampen the claims by people living on the island instead of double checking as to whether their evidence is comprehensive and conclusive.”