Island News

Mongoose tough on locals

Written By : INGER VOS, Waikato Times . I’m bouncing in the backseat being driven along a typical pock-marked Fiji road when a mustelid-like animal runs out in front of
20 Nov 2010 12:00

image Written By : INGER VOS, Waikato Times . I’m bouncing in the backseat being driven along a typical pock-marked Fiji road when a mustelid-like animal runs out in front of the car and disappears into the grass verge.
“What’s that?” I asked the Principal, the sister-in-law of a workmate who is taking us out for a day of sightseeing beyond the boundaries of the islands’ numerous luxury resorts.
“Mongoose,” she says.
The mongoose was introduced into the country in 1885 by a sugar refining company to control the rat population munching the sugar cane.
However, it also succeeded in controlling most of Fiji’s ground-nesting birds, terrestrial lizards and frogs, wiping them out on the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
The Fiji petrel has gone from all islands that have mongoose.
Sugar cane is Fiji’s leading export, and it’s late in the harvest season.
Fields are smouldering from the fires that aid the harvest and helped clear the land for the next planting, leaving the smell of burnt sugar in the air.
Mongoose, of which we saw three that day, aren’t the only threat to Fiji’s native wildlife.
Pollution, deforestation and ignorance are also having a negative impact, and the small island nation doesn’t have the money to throw at mitigating their effects.
The Principal, whose family moved to Fiji from England when she was in her early teens, and her husband, who is Fijian, are taking us to see the iguana at Kula Eco Park, a small captive breeding centre for endangered species in the Coral Coast region of Viti Levu.
Bald Pommy Bloke had impressed the Principal with his liking for lizards a couple of evenings earlier at the couple’s Lautoka home, in the west of Viti Levu, by leaving the dinner table every five minutes to chase or photograph the geckos making loud smoochy sounds and running along the rafters.
Kula Eco Park, touted as Fiji’s only wildlife park, is nestled in a valley of coastal forest.
It also serves as a free environmental education facility for children, helping build an awareness of conservation practices.
Everyone else pays F$20. It seems a bit steep, although about the same price as a marguarita at the Sheraton in Denarau – but the park, which works in co-operation with the National Trust of Fiji, the Endangered Species Recovery Council of San Diego and the Parks Board of New South Wales, Australia, is privately- owned and the operation is run by an American couple, staff tell us.
Its main objective is to preserve and protect the wildlife in Fiji through research and education.
It was previously a bird park, set up in the late 1980s, that had been abandoned by its owners. Most of its birds had been left dead or dying.
The property was bought by Kula Eco Park Management in 1997 and has since won awards for excellence in tourism as Fiji’s best attraction in 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006.
Wooden walkways wind through the forested property, with information provided on plaques regarding the various uses of the native vegetation; plants that have for centuries been the suppliers of food, medicine, clothing, colours or dyes, tools, weapons, shelter, fuel, drugs, beauty products and birth control.
The walkways link large walk-through aviaries, home to various native birds including the peregrine falcon, barking pigeon, red musk parrot, sulphur parrot, golden dove, orange dove and honey eaters.
They take you past a tank of critically endangered hawksbill turtles and enclosures of Fiji’s only native mammal, the flying fox fruit bat (a sign warns not to get too close to aptly named Stinky, a friendly bat who will come right up to visitors and wee all over them in excitement), the critically-endangered Fiji crested iguana and the vulnerable banded iguana.
The Fiji crested iguana is thought to have rafted in from South America 13 million years ago and is one of the world’s rarest lizards.
The species, hard-hit by feral goats destroying its native habitat and predation by the mongoose, cats and rats, once inhabited 14 islands in the western part of Fiji but is now found on only three islands-Yadua Taba, Moturiki and Macuata.
Yadua Taba, a wildlife reserve where goats have been eradicated, holds 98 per cent of the population – about 6000 of the crested iguana.
Kula Eco Park, with the help of Taronga Zoo in Australia, is a key player in efforts to conserve the species and currently houses a colony of 28, the largest captive population of its kind, as part of a breeding programme.
The crested iguana is stockier and larger than the banded iguana, and can grow up to 76cm in length.
It also has a taller spiny crest along its back from the nape of its neck to its tail, with spines of up to 1.5cm.
According to park information two tribes regard the iguana as their totem, and its name vokai is not allowed to be mentioned in the presence of women or the offender may be beaten with a stick.
Many native Fijians are said to be terrified of the crested iguana because it changes colour from green to black when it gets grumpy, and will open its mouth and lunge at its attacker if threatened.
The handsome brutes on show at Kula have been busy trying to dispel this fear.
A bunch of the friendlier residents are there to greet visitors at the door, and even seem to enjoy posing for photos.
Bald Pommy Bloke, with iguanas on his shaven head, shoulders and in his hands, reckons he’s got his money’s worth before even entering the park.

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