Report submitted by Kim Lovich, Robert Fisher, Jone Niukula, and Nunia Thomas
Photos by Robert Fisher unless otherwise noted
Fijian iguanas (Brachylophus species) currently exist in fragmented forest patches, that are isolated on remote islands. This relict distribution survives in areas where the land has little or no protection and is threatened by continued habitat loss and degradation, the spread of invasive species, and illegal collecting. This project aimed to create a community of rangers within Fiji that are tasked with protecting the endemic iguanas. Since the 1980s there has been a Ranger Program on Yadua Taba Island protecting a population of Crested Iguana, which has been successfully run by the National Trust of Fiji. With funding from the Disney Conservation Fund and the IIF, we expanded that program to include both Monuriki and Macuata Islands in 2016. As Macuata Island is privately owned, all access should be closely controlled, but historically it has not been. All three Rangers would receive the same training and tools for conducting their work. This would include deploying remote-triggered camera stations so that trespassing events can be quantified and categorized, potential poaching can be identified, and then interdiction can be optimized. Rangers would also be involved in educational outreach with school and village programs, focusing on the protection of iguanas and the islands they occupy.
Our first discussion regarding hiring a ranger took place in August 2015 when Nunia Thomas (NatureFiji) identified Varayame (“Abraham”) Tavualevu from Navunitogoloa Village as a potential candidate for Macuata Island. Abraham had previous experience working with the University of South Pacific when they first investigated the occurrence of iguanas on the island about ten years ago. He also helped put out the fire started by picnickers on the island in August 2015. Discussion then took place with the island’s owner about the possibility of having a ranger employed to oversee island activities. These discussions were positive enough to submit a proposal to IIF in December 2015 for funding this position.
In January 2016, R. Fisher attended several meetings in Fiji to sort out logistics to support rangers for both Monuriki (funded by Disney) and Macuata (funded by IIF) Islands. With the National Trust of Fiji and NatureFiji, a supervisory infrastructure was developed to oversee the elements of this Ranger Program. In March 2016, the team met for the first time for initial education outreach and Ranger training. This week-long training included all three Rangers and several educators within Fiji and allowed everyone to develop a sense of the program. Part of the training took place on both Monuriki and Macuata Islands. The site visits focused on the priority issues specific to each island, such as ecotourism on Monuriki, and illegal fires and trespassing on Macuata. Also during this trip, we conducted post-cyclone assessments, as Tropical Cyclone Winston affected both islands in February, just 5 weeks earlier. This was the second-largest cyclone to make landfall in the southern hemisphere and the eye passed right over Macuata Island. These assessments were critical to understanding how the iguanas fare after storm events. For the most part leaves were removed from the trees during the storm, and on Macuata many of the tops of the trees were missing. However, we found iguanas were doing extremely well on both islands, and there was a lot of new vegetative growth by our arrival.
As part of Ranger training in March 2016, we conducted surveys on Monuriki Island to see if we could detect any of the 32 captive-bred Crested Iguanas (Brachylophus vitiensis) that had been released in May 2015. We had previously conducted a short-term radio-telemetry project to show their survivorship over 56 days (Chand et al. 2016). During this survey, we were a bit concerned because the devastating cyclone was only five weeks prior to our visit. We conducted two nights of field work on Monuriki with the new Rangers and were unable to detect any of the captive-born and released iguanas. While this was quite surprising and concerning, we were able to find 15 wild-born iguanas, five of which were hatchlings. This was a huge number of individuals for this island, and we had never previously detected hatchlings (surveys in 1998 and 2003). It seems that this is an important response to the rat and goat eradication that took place in 2012. Overall, the wild iguanas are recovering at a fast rate and really show the success of the non-natives eradication effort. For comparison, we surveyed for Crested Iguanas on Macuata Island the following night and although we detected 21 iguanas none were hatchlings. Macuata Island still harbors many non-native rats and conducting an eradication is something the Ranger will help with in the future.
In June 2016, we continued training and the Rangers received their equipment and camera peripherals. We deployed cameras on the three islands and conducted training on photo downloading and processing. We programmed a special interface for the Rangers to use for data entry and analysis on their laptops. We collected preliminary datasets on this trip and helped the Rangers with processing them.
To date, this program is seeming to be very successful. When we arrive in Fiji in October 2016, we will revisit the camera setup and determine how well the process is working. No fires have taken place on Macuata since we initiated the Ranger Program. Abraham was doing a great job of informing people about the rules for the island and taking his job very seriously.
Initiating this Ranger Program and education programs on Macuata and Monuriki Islands are building a lot of local excitement for iguana conservation. There has been an increased buy-in by the National Trust. Their only previous responsibility was for Yadua Taba, and taking on these additional islands puts pressure on their existing programs, but they see the short- and long-term benefits of this expanded iguana conservation network. Additionally, Rangers from Sigatoka Sand Dunes and other sites are helping to form the education and training programs, and serve as peer groups for the new iguana Rangers. Having the Rangers named and identified locally has given a sense of conservation to these two islands that was lacking before. Having a responsible party that everyone looks to really makes a difference. With the camera imagery, we will be able to start quantifying access on these islands, and can really focus on the groups that are out of compliance.
Sadly, Abraham disappeared on August 31 while fishing not far from Macuata Island (http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=372250) and we will be presenting something to his family following the IUCN ISG Meeting in Fiji. This was quite a surprise, and everyone is very upset about these circumstances. We are working to identify another potential Ranger to continue the work and start their training. The village and the island’s owner are both very enthusiastic about the Ranger Program and we plan to continue it long-term and work towards its sustainability.
Chand, R., J. Niukula, J. Vadada, R. Fisher, K. Lovich, S. Pasachnik, S. Rasalato, B. Thaman, E. Seniloli, T. Tuamoto, T. Yanuya, and P. Harlow. 2016. Captive breeding and re-introduction of the Monuriki Island Crested Iguana in Fiji. Pp. 76-81 In: Global Re-introduction Perspectives: 2016. Case Studies from Around the Globe. P.S. Soorae, ed. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group and Abu Dhabi, UAE: Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.