UniSA students help protecting Fiji’s unique biodiversity

This July twelve University of South Australia students visited Fiji as part of their final year project in the Bachelor of Environmental and Geospatial Sciences. The trip was made possible through the New Colombo Plan initiative by the Australian Government. UniSA students were joined by two young Fijian researchers. During 3-6 day stays at Abaca village in the Mount Koroyanitu National Heritage Park, the capital city Suva and an ecotourism resort on Leluvia Island, they worked on their projects, learned about life, histories and cultures in Fiji, and experienced various facets of life in the Fiji Islands. All projects were closely aligned with conservation priorities in Fiji and developed in consultation with the local NGO NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (NFMV) and researchers at the University of the South Pacific.

One project directly supported ongoing research by NFMV on the critically endangered tree Pterocymbium oceanicum, locally known a ma. Ma is one of Fiji’s biggest trees, reaching up to 1.5 m in diameter and more than 25 m in height. The biggest remaining population of the ma tree is found around Abaca village, but it had never been surveyed. With the help of Poli (Napolioni Ratuku) and other inhabitants of Abaca village, 125 trees were precisely mapped and a detailed population count revealed more than 200 adult individuals in this subpopulation (more than twice the previous estimate). We also identified the invasive African tulip tree as a potential threat to ma, as it occupies a similar habitat.

The ma tree survey team comprised of UniSA students, Abaca Villagers and NatureFiji-MareqetiViti staff in front of a large ma tree. Photo: Gunnar Keppel.

As this Fiji excursion was running for the fourth time, data collection from our bird surveys in the Mount Koroyanitu National Heritage Park and the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park now provide three years of annual surveys. It is the only such data set for Fijian birds and surveys this year were led by Alivereti Naikatini of the University of the South Pacific. The project was initially started by Prof. Sonia Kleindorfer of Flinders University in 2016 who unfortunately could not join us this year. The data provide an invaluable baseline of bird abundance and behaviour in two key conservation areas.

Forests provide important resources for biodiversity, such as nectar and fruits. One of the projects, which was facilitated by Dr. Annette Scanlon, quantified these resources in the protected forests at Mount Koroyanitu National Heritage Park, Colo-i-Suva Forest Park and Leluvia Island, and identified the dependent biota (such as birds and bats). These data will help to better understand the value of primary, secondary and plantation forests in sustaining Fiji’s native and endemic biodiversity. The close collaboration with key conservation groups in Fiji will ensure that the information collected in this and the other projects will be used and applied to improve conservation in Fiji.

Emergent ma trees towering over secondary forest in the scenic Mount Koroyanitu Heritage Park. Photo: Gunnar Keppel.

And honours student, Christopher Lowe, investigated the terrestrial habitat requirements of the yellow-lipped sea krait on Leluvia, recording snake behaviour vegetation and microclimate. Sea kraits are snakes that hunt in the marine environment but spend about half their lives on land, where they digest their food and mate. Populations of sea kraits are declining in some places. While their dependence on healthy reefs has been documented, the importance of suitable coastal habitat for their survival has not been investigated.

Contributing to biodiversity conservation through collaboration with local organisations was a rewarding experience for our Australian students and our Fijian counterparts. Visits to the Sigatoka sand dunes and the Fiji National Museum provided further depth in understanding Fiji and her history, culture and biodiversity. Students and staff of the UniSA who visited Fiji as part of this project over last three years are extremely grateful to the Australian Government for enabling this exchange and are confident that it has built long-lasting and far-reaching relationships and data.

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