Today was the first time that I stepped on Vatu-i-Ra Island in almost a year and a half. Right away, I knew things looked different.
“Why is there so much light streaming through the canopy?” I wondered.
And then I saw the branches and trunks of felled trees all around. Damage from Tropical Cyclone Evan? Possibly a little bit, but our hosts seemed to think that people were cutting trees to build fires for camping.
The small (2.3 ha) Vatu-i-Ra Island, located off of Ra Province, is a critically important seabird site, home to a large breeding colony of black noddies (Anous minutus), as well as dense populations of red-footed boobies (Sula sula) and lesser frigatebirds (Fregata ariel), breeding hawkesbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) and the endemic pygmy snake-eyed skink (Cryptoblecephalus eximius). Due to these features, BirdLife International declared the site an Important Bird Area.
Vatu-i-Ra Island is particularly special because of an enormously successful project by BirdLife International, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, the Pacific Invasives Initiative, the Pacific Invasives Learning Network and the New Zealand Department of Conservation to eradicate invasive rats (Rattus exulans), which were having a negative impact on bird populations. The island was declared rat free in 2008 and the bird populations have boomed. Ever since, Sione Gonewai, leader of the traditional landowners from the Yavusa Nagilogilo, has been working courageously to try to get Fiji Government to protect this critically important bird breeding ground.
But now I saw their breeding habitat in tatters. There were dead birds in the trees and on the ground. Moreover, a boat of fishers pulled ashore and started building a fire with the dead branches.
“Have you been fishing?” I asked.
They replied yes. They had come from Tailevu and worked as a crew to sell fish to a middleman based in Rakiraki, who then vends his haul at Nausori market.
“Did you know that this area is protected?” I further questioned.
They claimed no. It is somewhat understandable, given that the communities only declared the island and the northern half of Vatu-i-Ra Reef tabu in March 2012 and the protected status has been little publicized. Sione was not happy, but he agreed to let them off without penalty if they consented to be interviewed for a documentary we are making to highlight the need for increased management across the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape.
Today’s encounters highlighted to me just how urgently this protection is needed. It appeared as if perhaps a quarter of the trees have already been lost. And it would not take much for an errant match to ignite all of the dry brush that has accumulated and burn down the remaining habitat.
“Do you like the birds?” I asked the fishermen.
“Yes,” they replied. “Where there are sea birds, there are fish.”
I hope that through our efforts and assistance we can help hasten the protection of this critical bird sanctuary and ensure the adjacent reefs are managed both to support the breeding populations of birds and the fishermen from all across Fiji who depend on fish for their livelihoods.
We will soon be kicking off a campaign to protect the biodiversity and livelihoods of people and ecosystems across the Vatu-i-Ra Seascape. This project is being supported by the Waitt Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Stay tuned for more information to come.