Dieter Mueller-Dombois: a champion of Pacific biology

a tribute in memoriam by Gunnar Keppel (Associate Professor in Environmental Biology, University of South Australia), Marika Tuiwawa (Curator, South Pacific Regional Herbarium), Nunia Thomas-Moko (Director, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti), and Suemālō Tumutalie ‘Talie’ Foliga (Community Engagement Officer, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Samoa)

Gunnar Keppel still remembers when Dieter walked into the South Pacific Regional Herbarium at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in September 2000. It was a momentous occasion for a young scientist, who could not believe that he was shaking the hands of one of the greatest vegetation ecologists. Dieter was in Fiji on an invitation of Marika Tuiwawa to help establish a core site of the Pacific-Asia Biodiversity Transect (PABITRA) project. Although he had already published many famous works on Pacific, particularly on the stand-level dieback of Ōhi’a (Metrosideros polymorpha) forests in Hawai’i and the first comprehensive book about the ecology and biogeography of the Pacific Islands, his greatest contribution to the region was still to come. As part of PABITRA, introduced a mountain-to-coast approach as the paradigm for understanding and managing biodiversity in Pacific Islands and he initiated and facilitated the training and development of indigenous Pacific Island scientists.

The late Prof. Dieter Mueller-Dombois, vegetation ecologist extraordinaire.

Dieter understood the fragility and interconnectedness of island ecosystems. He knew that a comprehensive approach that included ecosystems from the mountains to the coral reefs was the only way for understanding and managing island ecosystems. It was a very relatable approach, as this concept is part of traditional land management approaches in many Pacific Island societies. As Dieter often pointed out, the term “ahupua`a” is used by Hawaiians for such a system. Dieter introduced this concept as a scientific paradigm to the Pacific and it helped galvanize young Pacific Island scientists to better understand and manage the biodiversity of their islands. The concept has also been widely appropriated and, in some cases, rebranded by conservation NGOs (for example, the “ridge-to-reef” program of the Wildlife Conservation Society).

Participants in the 2002 PABITRA workshop in Suva, Fiji. Dieter is on the left in the last row.

However, probably Dieter’s biggest and most lasting contribution was organizing and spear-heading two training workshops for budding Pacific Island scientists, involving leading local and international scientists. This resulted in the development of a generation of outstanding indigenous Pacific Island scientists and conservationists. As Talie Foliga, put it “Dieter did great work to support science in the islands and to development our Pacific pool of scientists”. The fruits of this initiative are still being harvested. One of the participants, Alivereti Naikatini, is currently uncovering outstanding information about the ecology and evolution of Fiji’s native forest birds as part of his PhD. Other participants have become leaders in the conservation field of Pacific Islands, such as Nunia Thomas-Moko in Fiji, David Boseto in the Solomon Islands, and the late Joseph Brider in the Cook Islands (follow this link for a tribute). Nunia Thomas-Moko remains grateful for Dieter’s lasting impact on her career: “I was fortunate to have been by his passion for botany and engaging young individuals in vegetation science”.

Participants of the PABITRA workshop in Apia, Samoa. Dieter is the third person from the left.

Dieter will be greatly missed as a champion of the ecology and conservation in the Pacific through both scientific valour and rigour, and through empowering and supporting indigenous scientists of the Pacific islands to better understand and protect their biodiversity. But as Marika Tuiwawa put it: “Dieter was more than just a teacher and mentor, he was a friend” – all of us knew him well personally and we were always welcome to visit him or seek his advice and support. The seed sown by Dieter through his vision and passion for Pacific Island Science has grown into large tree through the many Pacific scientists he influenced. The only way we can repay him for his great contribution is by ensuring that this tree continues to grow and spread. Rest in peace, dear friend.

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