A piece of their identity

WHEN they were young, they feared going to Monuriki Island because according to their elders it was haunted by a monster with strange looking claws and razor sharp teeth.

Back then, children of Yanuya Village were scared to travel to the island, for fear of being eaten alive by the monster.

That was the story shared by Semisi Naceva, the leader of the tokatoka Vunaivira.

This week, we take you on a new journey of discovery.

We find out more about Monuriki Island, and how its habitat, one of the country’s endemic species, is now earmarked as an income generating project.

It is a discovery of the western banded crested iguana that is only found on the island. What was first thought of as a monster is, according to Mr Naceva, one of the friendliest species.

Monuriki is an uninhabited tiny island off the west coast of Viti Levu in a group of islands known as the Mamanuca Islands.

Monuriki is a five-minute boat ride from the nearest village of Yanuya on the island of Yanuya.

The island is of volcanic origin and is a 38-acre haven with steep rocky terrain rising to more than 200 metres above sea level.

Garlanded by white sandy beach and crystal clear waters that glitter like a sea of diamond, Monuriki is home to the crested iguana that is only found in Fiji. The island is traditionally owned by the people of Yanuya.

Yanuya Island, which is about a 30-minute boat ride from Port Denarau is home to Yanuya villa.

Mr Naceva said there was neither a legend nor myth to explain as to how the crested iguana ended up on Monuriki Island. They did not even know its significance until they were visited by the National Trust of Fiji officials.

Since the early 1980s, the National Trust of Fiji had been lobbying for the island to be a sanctuary and a declared site for crested iguana.

Over the years, the National Trust had pleaded with villagers to get rid of the goats on the island but in all those years that plea fell on deaf years.

“It was their source of income and was a bit difficult to change their mind,” said Jone Niukula, the National Trust of Fiji project officer.

Almost two decades after the first request was made to the islanders, Mr Niukula said they tried a different approach.

“In 2010, we saw that the number of crested iguana on the island had rapidly decreased so we went to the village and asked them if they could give us 20 iguanas — 10 male and 10 female, to be taken for captive breeding at the Kula Eco Park in Sigatoka.

“The late Taukei Yanuya Sitiveni Drigi then asked me what was causing the rapid decrease in the numbers of crested iguana and I told him that the goats were feeding off their food source —- the native food plants.

“So he agreed that we took the 20 we requested for and to our surprise he told us that they would also take care of the goats.”

For the next one and a half years, members of the Yanuya rugby team helped with capturing the goats to be sold at the Lautoka market.

“After one and a half year, the rugby players told us that there were only about 20 goats left ad it was very difficult to capture them so we said we were to bring in two specialist hunters from New Zealand and within a week of their arrival on the island about 70 goats were captured.

“All owners were compensated in the process and in total about 300 goats were caught on the island,” said Mr Niukula.

Soon after, Mr Niukula said, Birdlife International joined in the cause by being given approval to spray the island in its rat eradication project.

Mr Niukula said the rats also contributed in the decline of the iguana because they dug up the eggs that were buried in the sand and ate them and they also fed on baby iguanas.

He said for the two years that followed, further survey and follow-up were done before the island was finally declared goat and rat free.

The National Trust is now working with the Yanuya villagers to protect the island and make it an income-generating project.

Mr Naceva said they had been approached several times by a few developers for a resort to be constructed on the island, but they had refused the offer.

“If we build a hotel or resort there, it means destroying the habitat of our iguana. This species here is only found on our island, to eradicate it is like taking away a piece of our identity and that is why we have agreed that a resort will not be constructed there and we will protect the iguana.

“We are confident that within the next few years this project will generate income and we will know the benefits.”

Last year, about 30 iguanas that were kept at the Kula Bird Eco park were released back into the wild.

Over the years the National Trust of Fiji has invested more than $200,000 on the project alone.

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