Growing Food for Iguanas
By Peter Harlow
Fiji’s Monuriki Island is home to a small population of the Critically Endangered Fijian Crested Iguana (Brachylophus vitiensis). Although this island is uninhabited, it has seen considerable deforestation after almost 50 years of goat grazing and forest fires. Many native tree species have completely disappeared, reducing important food sources for the iguanas. However, the goats were removed in 2011, and the Fijian landowners now have an opportunity to reintroduce tree species that are important to the survival of Fijian Crested Iguanas.
Reforesting with Locally Extinct Trees
With funding from the International Iguana Foundation, this reforestation project is reintroducing extinct native tree species back to Monuriki, starting with those that are favorite foods for the resident iguanas. Once small stands of these locally extinct trees are re-established, their fruit will provide food for iguanas, fruit bats, and native pigeons, which will then disperse the seeds on Monuriki. This will allow self-sustaining regeneration of the forest to take place, and, in turn, provide a natural increase in the iguana population.
“In the last four years, we have successfully begun re-establishing two important Fijian Crested Iguana food tree species back on Monuriki Island: Vesi Wai (Pongamia pinnata) and Cevua (Vavaea amicorum),” said Joeli Vadada, the forest ranger for Monuriki. “These are tree species that are currently extinct on Monuriki, and more seedlings are growing well in my home nursery.”
Joeli Vadada has been growing Vesi Wai trees for four years, from seeds he and his family collected on nearby Tokoriki Island. The leaves of this tree are food for Crested Iguanas, and this is also a culturally important tree for local people. Vesi Wai has not been seen on Monuriki in living memory. The saplings Joeli is growing will eventually be some of the biggest trees in the forest!
Cevua—an Iguana Favorite
The Cevua tree is another tree species not seen on the island in living memory. Tiny seedlings of this plant were collected on Castaway Island, and they were cared for in Joeli’s nursery before being transplanted on Monuriki in 2022. A slow-growing species, its fruit, flowers, and leaves are by far the most-favored food for Crested Iguanas. When these trees mature and start fruiting in a few years, the iguanas will eat the tasty black berries and spread the seeds around the island. More potted seedlings are currently being cared for on nearby Yanuya Island by Joeli and his family, and they will be ready for planting on Monuriki in early 2024.
A big thank you to all those supporting this project, especially the Mamanuca Environment Society, Castaway Island Resort, and the Ministry of Forestry.