Life and future of the Malau
By Dieter R. Rinke, Lata H. Soakai, Alison Usback
Illustrations by George Bennett and Christiane Denecke-Rinke
Photos by Dieter R. Rinke

  A project of 
Published by Brehm Fund for International Bird Conservation
Bonn, Germany and Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga, 1993
ISBN 982-314-001-4

I first met Dr Dieter Rinke in the Ha'apai group, when we were asked to help some papalangi back after a spell of bad weather endured on the island of Tofua. Naturally, I was curious as to what was worth risking one's life far. The Blue-crowned Lorikeet was the answer. He was on a mission funded by the Brehm Fund for International Bird Conservation to collect samples of native species, and help to preserve our ornithological heritage. His enthusiasm was catching, and soon we had the crew of the ship identifying the sea birds on the way back to Lifuka. Sadly, this has brought home the fact that many Tongans are no longer interested in the natural surroundings.
Since arriving in Tongatapu, he has raised awareness of the average Tongan towards his environment through a programme of education, and also through the setting up of a Bird Park known throughout the Kingdom for the variety of native wildlife there for all to see. Some for the first time, and definitely not the last, for he is instituting a successful ongoing breeding and release programme.
This book will primarily educate our younger generation to appreciate nature, for it is they who will be their guardians.
20th May 1993

View of the crater near Vai Kona (the sulphur pool), showing dense forest cover, steep cliffs and one of the many pools in that area click to enlarge click to enlarge A view of Vai Lahi (the great lake) with Motu Lahi (the big island)
Map of the Kingdom of Tonga

It's a very special place, Tonga's northernmost island Niuafo'ou. A million years ago, an underwater volcano built the island, this volcano is stili active. When it last erupted in 1946, all but about 40 people left the island to find a new home on 'Eua.
Some returned, and at present, about 700 people live on Niuafo'ou. They are rather isolated from the rest of the world, with boats and airplanes arriving only occasionally.
Large lava fields, where nothing grows, extend between the villages and plantations on the outer slopes of the crater.
The crater has several lakes, of which the "big lake"(VAI LAHI) covers more than half of the crater area. A smaller lake (VAI SI'I) and several pools are in the east and south. VAI LAHI has four islands.
Most of the crater area and the islands in VAI LAHI are covered by dense forest.
Only here, and nowhere else on earth, lives the Malau, the Tongan Megapode (Megapodius pritchardii), one of the rarest birds in the world.

Map of South Pacific Map of Niuafo'ou


The Malau itself cannot be seen very easily as it is dull brown and grey, and very shy. It is between the Banded Rail (Veka - Gallirallus Philippensis) and a feral chicken (Moa Kaivao - Gallus Gallus) in size. However, it walks more upright, and it is the smallest megapode in the world.
The Malau needs open ground with little vegetation under the dark forest canopy. Here, it spends most of its time scratching the leaf litter and top soil of the forest floor in search for food.
It mainly eats insects and worms, but also small reptiles (Moko), seeds and small fruits.
The Malau can fly very well, it sometimes flies over to the islands in the lake. And the night, it spends high up in trees.
Normally, they stay in pairs, which live in a certain area (called "territory") of about 4 acres. Once they are lost in the dark forest, the male starts a song, the female enters after a few seconds, and the male sings the final part.
Such songs are called duet songs. They are also used to tell other Malaus that they should not enter a pair's territory.

click to enlarge
singing male Malau
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Most of the time, the Malau spends searching for food between leaves on the forest floor.


The most peculiar thing about the Malau is its breeding behaviour. The Malau hen never sits on the eggs to incubate them, but it leaves this job to the volcano.
Niuafo'ou has several areas, where volcanic ducts from the interior of the island warm up the soil. Some of these areas have the right temperature at a right depth.
When the hen is ready ta lay an egg, she makes her way to one of such grounds, usually to the same place where she hatched herself. There is no special breeding period, but it is said, that more eggscan be found in the warmer part of the year.
The egg is relatively large, about 1/5 or 1/4 of the weight of the Malau's body (an egg of a domestic chicken is less than 1/10 of the hen's weight!).
If takes some time and a lot of protein-rich food to develop such a large egg. The male Malau helps: he offers the best food items to his mate. During one season, a hen may lay up to 10 eggs at intervals of 12 days. Usually, her work starts early in the morning, but sometimes in the afternoon, too. The Malau hen digs deep into the soil, until she reaches the proper temperature of about 35°C. She can measure the temperafure of the soil with her tongue.
When she has laid the egg, she fills up the burrow with soil again. The male never helps her, but sometimes waits close to her watching the surroundings.
40 to 55 days later, the chick hatches in complete darkness. It has to make up its way to the light all by itself - a pretty tough job, which may take 2 days.
When it reaches the surface, it is fully feathered and can fly. The parents never care for their off-spring; the chick is able to cope with the difficulties of life in the forest.
This, again, is unusual among birds. In no other bird, the chick is developed so far when hatching. And there are no other birds, where the parents do not look after their young.

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Cross section through a nesting ground
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Malau's egg
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A chick emerges from its volcanic incubator. A first glimpse of dayligth, and then a sudden burst to find a shady place, where the well camouflaged chick is hardly visible
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Barn Owls (Lulu - Tyto Alba), feral cats, and long-legged ants prey on the Malau.
The owl sometimes catches chicks and half-grown megapodes.
The ants bite into the eyes of chicks just before they reach the surface. They eyes get blind immediately and the ants start to eat the poor creature.
The cat is dangerous, because it often takes malau hens by surprise, while they dig their burrows. Cats are the only predators wich have been brought to Niuafo'ou by humans.

barn owl long-legged ants feral cat  
The Tongan Megapode is one of the rarest birds in the Pacific. The main reason is the use of the Malau and its forests by humans.
Forests are cut down to grow food crops, and to grow grass for cattle and horses. People brought goats, pigs and cats. Goats destroy trees and bushes, while pigs eat many things, which the Malau likes to eat. Cats escaped from the homes of people and catch birds in the forests. But, most importantly, the egg of the Malau is a very good food, and so people go and dig out many eggs every year. The result is, that fewer and fewer megapodes survive on Niuafo'ou.
Forest are converted into agricultural land to provide food for a growing population.
 The loss of forests, however, has adverse effects on the Malau population.
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Digging for the eggs of the Malau
at a nesting ground near Teleka
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The island of Niuafo'ou showing locations of nesting grounds
(1:in use - 2:abandoned - 3:proposed protected areas)


The Malau on Niuafo'ou is the only surviving megapode in Polynesia. It originally lived on many islands in the Kingdom of Tonga, and possibly also in Fiji and Samoa. Now, is closest relatives live in Vanuatu. If we do not look after the Malau, in not so many years we shall no longer see this very special creature.
We human beings, who are more intelligent and powerful than any other creature on earth, should not only use the resources which nature provides.
We also do have a responsibility to protect life, whether it be animal or plant life, not only for our own future, but for the future of earth.
The eggs of the Malau were used as food since old times, and are still highly prized. But, the numbers of Malau have decreased over the past 20 years. At the same time, while we use its eggs, we have to think about ways to keep this source of food for the next generations, and to preserve this unique creature for the future. Imagine a life on Niuafo'ou without Malau.
Why do we not try to protect some places where the Malau digs its eggs? We can still use those which are easy to access.
Why do we not consider a closed season for about three months, during which no eggs will be collected?
Why do we not take the goats from the islands of Vai Lahi to protect the Malau's forests?
Why do catch Malaus for food? Do we not have chicken in abundance around our homes, chicken which are nothing special when compared to our precious Malau?
We humans could use our natural resources wisely. By doing so, we do not help only the Malau, but also ourselves and our children.

In order to reduce the risk of extinction, the Brehm Fund transfers Malaus to the islands of Late and Fonualei. Hopefully, these birds will start to breed and establish two healthy Malau populations.


I am deeply indebted to the people of Niuafo'ou, who supported the field studies and conservation activities of the Brehm Fund on Niuafo'ou. Mr Lofita Sifa was indispensable as translator and organiser during field work. Thanks to Kalala Folaumoeloa, Melania Takapu, Malia Ve'ehala, and Lakai Koloamatangi, who assisted in translating the English text into Tongan language. Peter Poulsen helped our with his computer.

© Brehm Fund for International Bird Conservation

English Text by Alison Usback and Dieter R. Rinke
Illustrations by George Rennett and Christiane Denecke-Rinke
Design, layout and photos by Dieter R. Rinke
Funded by the Brehm Fund for International Bird Conservation

Copies of the booklet are available from the Brehm Fund South Seas Expedition, Private Bag 52, Nuku'alofa, Kingdom of Tonga, or from the Brehm Fund for International Bird Conservation, c/o Vogelpark Walsrode, Am Rieselbach, 29664 Walsrode, Fed. Rep. Of Germany.

Versione Italiana - Italian Version

Ufficio del Turismo di Tonga in Italia
e-mail: info@tongaturismo.info