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Ahura Resorts Fiji – Release of Rare Fijian Crested Iguanas

August 4, 2016 Responsible Tourism No Comments Print Print Email Email

Ahura Resorts is delighted to announce the release of three critically endangered Fijian crested iguana babies back to the wild on Malolo Island.

One of the most imperilled species on Earth, these iguanas are a vital part of the Fijian natural heritage. They are naturally found on only a few islands in western Fiji, where they are threatened by destruction of their tropical dry forest habitat and by introduced, non-native mammals such as cats, rats, and goats. Ongoing conservation initiatives to benefit this species at Likuliku Lagoon Resort and Malolo Island Resort, jointly managed under the Ahura Resorts banner, provide a spark of hope for the iguanas’ future.

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A baby Fijian crested iguana from Malolo Island.

The project involves a local and international team of hoteliers, researchers, and environmental educators, including the US Geological Survey, San Diego Zoo Global, Taronga Zoo, and the Mamanuca Environment Society.

”Our discovery of these wild baby iguanas last month was a moment of elation,” says Adam Clause, a visiting scientist from The University of Georgia (USA). “They represent clear evidence that our team’s restoration actions are working. Now that cats and rats have been mostly removed from the Ahura Resorts leases, these iguanas can now breed unmolested. After a health assessment, morphological analysis, and DNA sampling, we gave these baby iguanas a clean bill of health. They are ready to go home!”

“This is also a sign of things to come. Ahura Resorts and our partners are committed to successful captive breeding of this species in the near future. We plan to start churning out babies every year, all destined to be released back to their natural habitat on Malolo Island. Ahura Resorts’ commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable tourism has never been stronger” comments Adam.

On a warm winter’s day, the three iguanas squirm excitedly in their keepers’ hands as the momentous occasion approaches. They have been christened with the names Yadua, Monuriki, and Vatubulou after nearby islands in the Mamanuca group.

“These are adorable creatures of the wild,” says Samuela Naitao, Activities Manager at Likuliku Lagoon Resort. As part of my job, I carefully feed and water these iguanas several times a week, and also sometimes help with surveys of wild iguanas. It makes me quite happy to see these babies returned to where they belong.”

Upon release, each iguana scrambles up to safety into its treetop home. Strict herbivores, they will feed on the leaves, flowers, and fruits of preferred native tropical dry forest plants. In several years, they will be big enough to breed themselves, and continue the cycle of life.
As adults, the iguanas will grow to almost three-quarters of a meter in length, and weigh about a third of a kilogram.

Tulia Seru, Likiliku Lagoon Resort Manager, looks on with pride as the iguanas scale the trees. “These baby iguanas, or vokai, are the beginning of a conservation success story. Myself and other Likuliku staff have been pleased to support local initiatives to protect these animals. Alongside our guests, we have learned about the importance of this species, the value of their forest habitat, and how our communities benefit from having these iguanas around.”

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Likuliku Lagoon Resort staff and baby iguanas. From left to right: Samuela Naitao, Tulia Seru, Bill Naitao.

The Journey – A Disappearing Species – The Discovery – The Sanctuary

The Fijian crested iguana was considered extinct on Malolo Island until 2010 when an injured adult female was discovered at Likuliku Lagoon Resort.

It was sent to Kula Park on the main island for care but unfortunately died shortly after arrival. The curator of Kula Park advised visiting researchers Robert Fisher of the US Geological Survey and Peter Harlow of Taronga Zoo of the find and they took the iguana to Suva where it is now a part of the University of South Pacific vertebrate collection. A tissue sample was eventually sent to San Diego Zoo for DNA analysis. There was bittersweet excitement when six weeks later the results confirmed it was a species not seen on the island in over 25 years.

Fortunately, three months later another junior iguana was found at Malolo Island Resort and then a second at Likuliku Lagoon Resort. Despite these rare, ad-hoc finds that clearly indicate a small iguana presence in the area, early surveys undertaken to find more failed to produce sightings in their natural habitat.

Working closely with researchers from the US Geological Survey, Taronga Zoo and San Diego Zoo Global immediate steps were taken by Ahura Resorts to identify the major threats affecting the iguana population. The first item on the agenda was to control the feral cat and rat populations and secondly to introduce an ongoing tropical dry forest reforestation program on the resort leases.

By July 2016, a total of 21 individual wild iguanas had been documented at Ahura Resorts. Much to everyone’s excitement, it appears that the conservation programs have made a positive impact, and the population is rebounding. Nearly all of these iguanas have been electronically tagged, enabling researchers to track them over time. It is hoped that ongoing surveys will show continued success of the programs and a further increase in the iguana population.

Four pairs of wild-caught adult iguanas (also tagged) are currently kept at Likuliku Lagoon Resort, where they serve as the nucleus of an early captive breeding program. The females are expected to begin laying eggs starting in January 2017.

The preservation of the iguanas and the tropical dry forest vegetation on Likuliku Lagoon Resort and Malolo Island Resort leases is an ongoing environmental initiative of Ahura Resorts in partnership with US Geological Survey, San Diego Zoo Global, Taronga Zoo, and the Mamanuca Environment Society.

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