This expedition is split between two main field sites on the Fijian Island of Vanua Levu in the South Pacific. The first week is spent at a forest camp within the lowland tropical forests of the Island. The second week is spent at the Natewa Bay Marine Research Centre within Natewa National Park.
Map of Fiji showing main locations students will stay or transit through
Fiji is comprised of a group of mountainous islands in the South Pacific, 1,300 miles (2,000km) northeast of New Zealand. The islands of Fiji were formed approximately 150 million years ago through volcanic activity. In fact, most of mountains in Fiji are dormant or extinct volcanoes. Fiji’s climate is warm and tropical year-round, even in the islands’ “winter” months. The average temperature in Fiji is 25°C (77°F), but it can climb to above 30°C (86°F) in summer (December and January) and sink to 18°C (64°F) in winter (July and August). Heavy rains (up to 304 cm or 120 inches annually) fall on the windward (south-eastern) side, covering these sections of the islands with dense tropical forest.
Only 106 of the 332 islands and 522 islets, which make up the Fijian archipelago, are permanently inhabited. The two largest islands are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu and between them make up 87% of Fiji’s landmass. The Operation Wallacea research site is based on the island of Vanau Levu which is the second largest island in the archipelago and covers just over 30% of the country’s land area. Despite its size, this island is home to only 15% of the Fijian population.
The tropical forests of Fiji contain some of the richest communities of flora and fauna of all the oceanic islands of the Pacific. Moreover, their unusual biogeographical history, complex topography and relative isolation has led a large number of the species found in Fiji to be endemic. Over half of all Fiji’s vascular plants are endemic, many of which are confined to a single island or single site, including some of the world’s most primitive plant species. Twenty-five birds occur only in Fiji and most of the reptiles, amphibians, bats, and invertebrates are unique to the islands. Because many of the species found in Fiji are restricted to only one or a few islands, they are vulnerable to human disturbance.
3,300 to 4,000 years ago the islands of Fiji’s were first colonised by Polynesians and Melanesians. The current population of Fiji stands at approximately 880,000 and is rapidly growing. A rapidly growing population is often a key driver of deforestation. The FAO Global Forest Resource Assessment (2010) estimates Fiji’s forest cover to be 56% of the total land area (1,014,0800 ha). Alarmingly, since the 1960’s about 15% of the forests in Fiji have been completely cleared. 87.9% of the land is Fiji is communally owned as “iTaukei land” through traditional Fijian landowning units called Mataqali (pronounced matangali). As such, the state have limited control over land use or have the ability to designate protected areas or reserves. In Fiji, approximately only 68 km2 of moist forest is currently protected in reserves. This reserve system protects less than 1% of remaining forests and there is a strong need for reserves on islands to protect regional endemics.
In 2013 the Nambu Conservation Trust decided to create the first Fiji National Park on their mataqali land. This was an important step since 95%+ of the best remaining forest on Fiji is mataqali land. The neighbouring mataqali also agreed to put their land into the newly formed Natewa National Park so that the park area now encompasses 2000+ ha of rainforest. Since that point there has been considerable interest from surrounding mataqali in extending this national park to include traversing and no logging or hunting rules onto the rest of the high conservation value forests in the Natewa tribal district which would result in a national park that covers the majority of all quality conservation land on the Natewa peninsula. However in order to demonstrate to the remaining mataqali that the creation of a national park can lead to income for those communities, it is proposed to start in 2017 with the day tourist visits and biodiversity research in just the 2000+ ha of the declared National Park. Once that is established the income generation and research activity will be spread to the remaining areas of the proposed expanded Park.
One of the best ways of generating income from protecting forests is to use funding sources such as REDD+ where a forest is packaged according to the carbon value, biodiversity and societal benefits and regular payments are made from a REDD+ fund to maintain the forests in their present condition. The REDD+ funds are provided by wealthy nations to the forestry departments of developing countries to ensure the forests are maintained and the carbon saved from not logging the funded forests is then counted towards the donor nations national carbon budgets. The objective is to complete the data collection to submit a REDD+ application for the forests of the Natewa District. In 2017 the REDD+ data collection protocols will be developed in the current borders of the Natewa National Park and initial data collected on this area. However, in future years the concept is to spread the survey work to the remaining forests indicated on the map below as REDD+ application forests. The research objectives for the first year of the forest project are:
- To establish a series of permanent vegetation plots using a stratified random design to reflect the different vegetation communities within the Park
- To gather data on the carbon levels and forest structure from these plots
- To sample arthropod fauna of the Park using a variety of techniques and to complete identifications using genetic bar coding
- To provide baseline data on the population levels of the endemic birds within the Park
- To collect data on the herpetofauna and bat communities within the Park
- To establish the carbon, biodiversity and societal impact survey protocols that will produce data for the REDD+ scheme within the Park and which can be extended to the remaining forested areas in future years
Research location in Fiji – Week 1 will be spent at the Plateau camp and Week 2 will be spent at the Natewa Bay Marine Research Station
The Peninsula is geologically and biologically an ‘almost island’ that is 60km long and averages over 10km wide. At its eastern end it is 10km from Taveuni Island, and at its western end (where it is connected by a narrow neck of land to Vanua Levu) the peninsula is only half a kilometre wide. The Natewa Peninsula is the wildest remaining area in Fiji with forests still containing some of the largest native trees and with the highest floristic and faunal diversity in the Fijian islands. It is also home to a number of the Fijian endemic species including the Silktail Flycatcher which is found only on the peninsula and in one small island offshore.
The Fijian Archipelago hosts a highly diverse and extensive marine environment encompassing an array of different marine habitats including; barrier and fringing coral reefs, mangroves, deep pelagic areas, and eelgrass beds. These habitats are considered to be internationally important sites for marine biodiversity and support numerous fish species, turtles and nesting seabirds. It is argued that the coral reefs of this region have some of the most species rich assemblages in the world. The waters of the Fiji contain 3.12% of the World’s coral reefs including Cakaulevu, the Great Sea Reef, which is the third largest coral reef in the world. Marine life includes over 390 known species of coral and 1,200 varieties of fish of which 7 are endemic. Currently 25% of Fiji’s waters have some form of protection or marine management plan.
Natewa Bay, which at 1000 km², is the largest bay in the South Pacific, bounds the northern part of the Natewa Peninsula. This bay has very low levels of fishing pressure and some superb reefs. Moreover, due to geological faults the centre of the bay is over 500m deep. Amazingly, no biological surveys have ever been completed on this bay. The Natewa National Park, which includes the waters of the bay opposite their land, is keen to investigate the biodiversity of the bay and use the data collected to make a World Heritage site. The first step in this process is to establish a marine research centre and the students on this expedition in 2017 will be contributing to getting the marine research and training centre launched. In addition scientists at the centre will be completing an initial scoping exercise to determine the monitoring programme that will be run from 2018 onwards.
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