Cultural Evolution is Happening in the Solomon Islands

In the Malaita Province of the Solomon Islands, the dolphin hunters of South Malaita’s Fanalei Island have sporadically hunted kirio (Lau for dolphin) for centuries. Prized by the ‘saltwater people’ for both their meat and teeth, dolphins are intrinsically ingrained in Fanalei culture.

From childhood, villagers learn to treasure kirio teeth and meat. Wearing dolphin teeth at key life events such as weddings reflects the high social value and prestige of kirio and of the skilled, unified, and brave hunters — Dr. Sarah Keene Meltzoff.

Solomon Island villagers wearing traditional necklaces made from dolphin teeth and seashells. Photo: DolphinProject.com

Solomon Island villagers wearing traditional necklaces made from dolphin teeth and seashells.
Photo: Lincoln O’Barry/DolphinProject.com


Traditional bride price ceremony. The bride (center) is wearing her dowery of 1000-3000 dolphin teeth. Photo: DolphinProject.com/Lincoln O'Barry

Traditional bride price ceremony. The bride (center) is wearing her dowry of 1000-3000 dolphin teeth.
Photo: DolphinProject.com/Lincoln O’Barry

The dolphin hunts in the Solomon Islands are typically conducted between January and April when calmer seas prevail. Although sporadic in nature — even suspended at times, the average catch per season was around 800 dolphins.

Fanalei Island Photo: Dolphin Project/ Lincoln O’Barry

With surprisingly basic tools, single wooden canoes, signal flags and two stones hit together beneath the surface, the dolphin hunters are able to corral — mainly spinner dolphins, directly onto the beach. The technique is one that Taiji, Japan has industrialized with its fast-moving, engine-driven boats, giving rise to the thought that perhaps the technique was observed or shared at some point between cultures. Lending more credence to a Taiji-Solomon Island connection is Taiji’s late beginnings with dolphin drive hunting itself. According to Taiji Town’s own records, dolphin drives did not begin until 1969 and are not in the least, cultural.

One connection between the Solomon Islands and Taiji that cannot be denied is that both places have been targeted by the captive marine mammal industry. The ‘Animal Planet’s’ Blood Dolphin$ detailed in depth how Solomon Island dolphins were exploited for profit.

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Image: Google Earth

Since the show, the Fanalei villagers are facing increasing hurdles in an attempt to preserve their way of life. Since her first field trip in 1973, Dr. Meltzoff has lived with the dolphin hunters of Fanalei in Port Adam Passage, Small Malaita for over four decades. She says since the British colonized the Solomon Islands in 1893, “changes brought by an increasingly cash economy, by overpopulation, by environmental degradation, climate change and by modern industrialization have affected every aspect of life, including the dolphin hunt.”

These impacts are now threatening the core of the villager’s subsistence lifestyle and that of their families. The decline has been swift, with rising sea levels and beach erosion having forced the villagers to relocate their homes.

“Over the last 30 years, about 80% of the village houses on Fanalei Island have washed to sea,” Meltzoff reports. “Today, 400 of 500 Fanalei villagers have moved across Port Adam Passage to their old water supply area called Fouele.” She continues:

With overpopulation, the rainforest garden land with slash-and-burn agriculture can no longer be left fallow long enough to regenerate to produce good crops. Passage fisheries are stressed. It is common for a village family to have five children, and they struggle with the high cost of sending their children to secondary school. But, secondary education is essential for building a decent town life.

Fanalei Village, Solomon Islands underwater during high tide. Climate change is causing entire villages to move inland. Photo: DolphinProject.com

Fanalei Village, Solomon Islands underwater during high tide. Climate change is causing entire villages to move inland. Photo: DolphinProject.com

Dolphin Project has maintained a presence in the Solomon Islands with a recent emphasis on Fanalei Island for several years. And we’ve been listening. We’re using grassroots community development to transition island life away from hunting dolphin for teeth, meat, and cash. Through providing self-sufficient programs, the Dolphin Project is offering Fanalei a chance to seek alternatives to selling kirio teeth. And we’ve already begun.

With schooling and health costs eating much of the cash coming into Fanalei, Dolphin Project recently completed a school for the children. It is stocked full of supplies and we’ve also committed to paying two teachers’ wages for two years.

The fully-stocked school will ease the costs of education on Fanalei Island. Education is costly for the islanders. Image: DolphinProject.net

The fully-stocked school will ease the costs of education on Fanalei Island. Education is costly for the islanders. Image: DolphinProject.com

We’re already seeing change on Fanalei as perceptions evolve. The number of dolphins hunted has dropped from 800 animals to less than fifty. Lead hunters are starting to recognize the dolphins as sentient beings while science is helping them to learn about the complexities of dolphin brains. As a result, some hunters are now open to altering cultural tradition and even ceasing the hunt altogether.

Dolphin Project using Virtual Reality to educate villagers about dolphins.

Dolphin Project is using Virtual Reality to educate villagers about dolphins.


Dr. Sarah Meltzoff has formed a unique relationship with the villagers of Fanalei Island.

The school is just one of several projects planned by Dolphin Project to help Fanalei dolphin hunters with their transition process. We’re looking to provide practical and realistic solutions that support subsistence living so that the islanders can retain their sense of self, remain self-sufficient and feel comfortable with their evolution.

Stay tuned for more details.

Dr. Sarah Keene Meltzoff is the Dolphin Project Coordinator for the Solomon Islands. Associate Professor, Marine Affairs and Policy. Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science; Secondary appointment Anthropology Department, University of Miami.

Watch Lincoln O’Barry’s presentation on the Solomon Islands at Superpod5, courtesy of delphinidae.info:

Blood Dolphins in the Solomon Islands

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About Elizabeth Batt

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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.

Author: Elizabeth Batt
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