Easter Island looks for help to save statues from ‘leprosy’


Within a century the emblematic stone figures that guard remote Easter Island could be little more than weathered rectangular blocks, conservation experts are warning – but Britain could be part of the fix.

The giant heads, carved centuries ago by the island’s inhabitants, represent the living ancestors of Easter Island’s Polynesian people – the Rapa Nui – and have brought it Unesco world heritage site status in its Pacific location more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile.

But the hundreds of giant Moai statues dominating the hillsides are facing the threat of what locals ominously describe as a kind of “leprosy” – white spots that are appearing on the figures’ facades.

Caused by lichen, the patches are eating away at the sculptures, softening them to a clay-like consistency and deforming their features. The statues must also contend with coastal erosion, rising sea levels that will worsen with climate change, high winds and damage from freely roaming livestock, having withstood the elements for more than half a millennium.

“I imagine that in a century more these Moai will basically be rectangular figures,” Tahira Edmunds, the adviser to Chile’s National Forestry Corporation (Conaf), who has worked on cleaning the sculptures to remove the lichen, told Reuters during a visit to the island last month.

Sonia Haoa, an archaeologist and Easter Island native, is compiling an inventory of its heritage, including the Moai. She estimates that about 70% of the more than 1,000 statues are affected by lichens.

While the deterioration can appear shocking to visitors to the remote volcanic island, Haoa said it was still possible to save them, through laborious cleaning and coating with sealant chemicals to curb moisture and prevent the porous volcanic rock from collapsing.

The most famous Moai groupings, such as the Ahu Tongariki, 15 statues arranged along a platform by the sea, and those scattered around the Ranu Raraku quarry, the source of the stone, are already being cared for by heritage experts and the indigenous community’s administrators of the Rapa Nui national park.

But the island has at least 30,000 archaeological sites spread across its 64 sq miles. To protect all the statues could cost as much as $500m, and international help will be needed, according to local authorities and experts.

“You will never be able to entirely prevent the impact of time or the weather, but you can hold it back, so that more people can see them first,” Haoa said.

Government funding and tourism revenues going towards protection measures have their limitations. But the mayor of Easter Island has come up with an innovative solution: seeking royalty payments from nations whose explorers took some of Easter Island’s statues centuries ago.

Among them is the Hoa Hakananai’a, a 7ft (2.13 metres) tall basalt statue at the British Museum, removed from the island by British sailors more than 150 years ago. The Easter Island authorities and the Chilean government sent a delegation to London in November to request the return of the hefty statue. The museum responded that it was happy to consider a long-term loan of the Moai.

Mayor Pedro Edmunds Paoa instead suggested the Hoa Hakananai’a could act as an “ambassador” for Easter Island, and Britain could keep it in return for regular payments to ensure the upkeep of its Easter Island counterparts. “We would win much more,” he said.

The British Museum said it was looking forward to continuing the “warm, friendly and open” conversation begun in London with a potential visit to Easter Island.

About the author

Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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