24 interesting facts about Kiribati

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From nuclear tests and vanishing islands to the first country to celebrate the New Year, these are the most interesting facts about Kiribati.

Christmas Atoll in Kiribati
Christmas Atoll in Kiribati (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Official name: Republic of Kiribati
Capital city: Tarawa
Population: 111,796
Area: 811 sq km
Major languages: I-Kiribati, English
Time zone: UTC+12/+13/+14 ()
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

Interesting facts about Kiribati

1. Kiribati in Oceania is made up of 33 atolls – ring-shaped reefs or series of islets caused by submerged volcanos – of which only 20 are inhabited.
– Source: Britannica, National Geographic

2. The first settlers in Kiribati came from Southeast Asia, via Micronesia, around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
– Source: Britannica

3. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, Samoans migrated to the islands, followed by Fijians and Tongans.
– Source: BBC News

4. The first Europeans to sight the islands were Spanish explorers in the 16th century, but the majority of Kiribati was not mapped (by westerners) until the early 19th century.
– Source: Britannica

5. In 1820 Kiribati was named the Gilbert Islands after British naval captain Thomas Gilbert who encountered several of the islands in 1788 when sailing from Australia to China.
– Source: BBC News

6. Kiribati was a Brtish protectorate from 1892 until 1979 when it became independent and was officially renamed Kiribati.
– Source: BBC News

7. For six years from 1957, the British military conducted nuclear tests on Christmas Island (and Malden Island) in Kiribati. As a result, parts of the island were sealed off for decades.
– Source: BBC News

A nuclear bomb test in Kiribati in 1957 (Public domain, Universal City Studios)

8. The name Kiribati is the local translation of Gilberts. The local language is Gilbertese, or I-Kiribati. The language has 13 sounds and ti is pronounced as see. Therefore, Kiribati is pronounced ‘Ki-ri-bas.’ Likewise, Christmas Island is written as Kiritimati Island.
– Source: Britannica

9. During the Second World War, parts of Kiribati were occupied by Japan. US forces liberated the islands during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 – one of the bloodiest battles in US Marine Corps history.
– Source: History Channel

10. Despite having only a tiny land area of 811 sq km, Kiribati is spread across an area roughly the size of India.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

11. Kiribati is the furthest (14 hours) ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), making it the first country in the world to celebrate a New Year.
– Source: The Telegraph

12. Kiribati is the only country in the world to fall into all four hemispheres (northern, southern, eastern and western).
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

Map of Kiribati showing it falls into all four hemispheres
Many interesting facts about Kiribati stem from its unique geography (Shutterstock)

13. Kiribati is home to the world’s largest designated Marine Protected Area. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) is also the country’s first and only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
– Source: UNESCO

14. With a mean elevation of just two meters, Kiribati has one of the world’s lowest average elevations.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book, The Telegraph

15. As such, this low-lying country is under threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change.
– Source: The Guardian

16. In 1999, two uninhabited Kiribati islands, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater.
– Source: The Independent

17. Kiribati has purchased 6,000 acres (24 sq km) of land in Fiji in case rising sea levels force the permanent evacuation of its residents.
– Source: The Guardian

18. Kiribati’s flag is made up of six undulating horizontal stripes of white and blue representing the Pacific Ocean. The top of the flag is red with a yellow sun and a local frigate bird.
– Source: Britannica

The flag of Kiribati
The flag of Kiribati (Shutterstock)

19. The main island of South Tarawa is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with a population density similar to Tokyo or Hong Kong.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

20. There’s only one road on the main island of South Tarawa which is in very poor condition. Potholes and wash-aways are commonplace.
– Source: The Guardian

21. Kiribati is the third-least visited country in the world. Receiving around 6,000 visitors a year, only fellow Pacific island nations the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu receive fewer tourists.
– Source: UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

23. There were no political parties in general elections in Kiribati until 1985. Instead, candidates stood for election as independent individuals.
– Source: The Journal of Politics Vol. 61, No. 1 (1999), pp. 171-184 (14 pages). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

24. Kiribati is one of just 21 countries not to have an army.
– Source: The Atlantic