It is to be hoped that the Islands of the Wind (Mahui and Kaenunu) will be excluded from the tourist circuit for as long as possible. It would not be easy to develop them, in any case: the soil is so rough that it would be impossible to build an airport, and nothing larger than a rowing-boat can come close to their shores. Water is scarce, in some years totally lacking; the islands have therefore never supported any permanent human settlement. Nevertheless, Polynesian crews have landed there several times, perhaps even in the remote past, and a Japanese detachment stayed for a few months during the last war. The last human vestige to be found on the islands can be traced back to this fleeting presence: on the highest point of Mahui, a modest but steep ridge about one hundred metres high, are the ruins of a dry-stone anti-aircraft bunker. It may never have fired a shot: we have not found a single shell in its vicinity. On Kaenunu we found a whip wedged between two boulders, a vestige of some inexplicable violence.

Today Kaenunu is largely deserted. On Mahui, on the other hand, it is not unusual for anyone with patience and good vision to catch sight of some atoula, or more often a nacunu, one of the females. If one excludes the well-known cases of certain domestic animals, this is probably the only animal species in which the male and the female have been given different names, a fact that can be explained by the definite sexual dimorphism that characterizes them, and that is certainly unique among mammals. This remarkable species of rodent can only be found on the two islands.

The atoula–that is, the males–are as much as half a metre in length and weigh between five and eight kilos. They have grey or brown hair, very short tails, a pointed muzzle furnished with black whiskers, short triangular ears; their belly is naked, pinkish, and barely covered with a sparse down that, as we shall see, is not without its evolutionary significance. The females, which weigh rather more, are longer and sturdier than the males: their movements are swifter and more confident, and according to the Malayan hunters, their senses are also more developed, especially the sense of smell. Their hair is totally different: in all seasons, the nacunu wear a gaudy livery of shiny black, streaked with four brownish stripes, two on each side, that cross the flanks from the muzzle and join up near the tail, which is long and thick, and shaded from brown to orange, brilliant red, or purple, according to the age of the animal. While the males are almost invisible on the stony ground where they live, the females on the other hand can be observed from afar, because they are also in the habit of wagging their tails like dogs. The males are torpid and lazy, the females agile and active. Both are mute.


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