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A Beetle Has Triggered a State of Emergency in Vanuatu

The coconut rhinoceros beetle could pose a threat to the country's entire coconut industry.

by Gavin Butler
24 July 2019, 4:32am

Image via Flickr user Forest Starr and Kim Starr, CC licence 2.0 (L) and Flickr user Artem Beliaikin, CC licence 1.0 (R)

Dried coconut meat, or copra, is one of Vanuatu's biggest exports. Tens of thousands of ni-Vanuatus depend upon the valuable commercial product—which is utilised first for the harvest of coconut oil and then, when all the oil has been extracted, as animal feed—for their livelihood. Indeed, coconuts in general have historically been one of the nation’s most successful industries. So it’s a big deal when a beetle with an insatiable appetite for coconut palm sap starts showing up in plantations around the country.

Vanuatu declared a state of emergency last week after discovering coconut rhinoceros beetles were infiltrating their crops, the ABC reports. Coconut rhinoceros beetles are named for their habit of attacking and killing palm trees throughout tropical Asia and a number of Pacific islands. The beetles bore into the centre of the crown to feed on the tree’s sap, often destroying the plant in the process. And for a country that depends upon the fruit of those palms for the purpose of trade exports, that’s a problem.

The pest first appeared in Vanuatu in May, on the north-west coast of Efate island, and has since been spotted at other locations several kilometres away. If it continues to spread, there are fears it could have serious ramifications for the country’s cash crops of coconut oil and copra.

"If it spreads to the north and centre of Vanuatu where the main producing areas for copra are, that means it's going to be really destructive for our coconuts," said Dyson Wilson, general manager of Vanuatu Copra and Cocoa Exports. The beetle has previously decimated coconut plantations in parts of the Solomon Islands following its arrival there in 2015, and was declared an invasive species in Hawaii after it was found there in 2013.

Not wanting to become victim to a potential plague of coconut rhinoceros beetles, President Obed Tallis declared a state of emergency and deployed authorities to set up restriction zones around infected areas.

"We're getting more grubs collected, we're getting more breeding sites destroyed, we're getting more numbers of adult beetles," Leisongi Bulesulu, a plant health officer from the Department of Biosecurity, told the ABC. Vanuatu’s Daily Post meanwhile suggested that it would be “a huge public concern” if the infestation spread further, potentially damaging more coconut plantations and, in turn, local communities.

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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.