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  • Overview
  • Objectives
  • Skills you gain
  • Costs to Consider
  • Site Conditions

Structure of the expedition

The expedition starts in one of the Natewa villages at 4pm on a Sunday.  The students will be staying in homestays for the first two nights in a traditional Fijian village.  On Monday, the students have the opportunity to participate in the activities that make up daily life in a Fijian village, starting with cooking their own lunch in an earth oven. They learn about the traditional crafts such as mat weaving and tapa making through hands-on workshops with the local women, and then have some free time in the afternoon to play volleyball or the local game of paniwith the children. The day concludes with a farewell party that usually includes singing, dancing, and if the weather permits, a bonfire. By this point, the students have gotten to know their host families and some of the other Fijians well and the goodbye is bittersweet.

On the Tuesday morning the group will trek up the mountains (approx. 3 hours) to a camp in the heart of the Natewa National Park.  On the Saturday afternoon the group will be taken by vehicle to the marine site and will be based in the Natewa Bay Marine Research Centre until leaving early on the following Satruday morning.

Week 1 – Forest week

During their 5 nights in the Natewa National Park the students will complete the following:

  • Forest measurements: Students will be working in teams completing measurements of 20m x 20m quadrats to collect data on the diameter at breast height (DBH) of all woody species, canopy height, quantity of vegetation at different heights from a touch pole, canopy density, evidence of disturbance (e.g. cut stumps) and sapling density.  These data will then be used to calculate carbon levels and degree of disturbance of each of the sites. In addition surveys of the woody plant species are being undertaken.
  • Butterfly surveys: These surveys are aimed at describing the potential new species of Swallowtail butterfly that was found last year as well as quantifying the butterfly and moth communities.  Techniques will include sweep netting, fruit trapping and light trapping.
  • Bird surveys: Students will be working with an experienced field naturalist completing point count surveys where all birds seen or heard are identified. Mist nets will be used to gather data on under-storey bird communities. In addition, from a bird banding programme taking place in the park, students will be able to access data to derive patterns and trends in breeding, moult patterns, longevity and movement between years.
  • Mongoose abundance and impact on macro-invertebrates: Mongoose are an introduced species and have had a big impact on reptiles, amphibians, ground birds and macro-invertebrates in Fiji.  Students will be helping to determine the abundance of mongoose at different sites across the peninsula from the amount of bait taken and indirectly from the abundance of macro-invertebrates in the leaf litter.  In addition, there is a project looking for previously thought extinct species of land snails.

In addition to the above practicals the students will also complete a course (in camp) on Pacific Island Ecology which has been written by Professor Martin Speight from Oxford University and summarises some of the major publications on Pacific Island ecology from the last 10 years.

Week 2 – Marine week

During their marine week the school will be completing one of the following options:

  • PADI Open Water dive training course: This course involves a combination of theory lessons, confined water dives, and open water dives to gain an official SCUBA qualification.
  • Pacific reef ecology and survey techniques course: This consists of lectures and in water practicals either by diving (if a qualified diver) or snorkelling. The lectures which cover an introduction to coral reef ecosystem, coral and algal species, mangrove and seagrass ecology, economically important invertebrates, identification of coral reef fish, reef survey techniques, threats to reefs and marine conservation. Following each lecture the students will then complete an in-water practical by diving (if already qualified) or by snorkelling and these are often aimed at assisting the stereo video surveys and the 3D reef modelling.
  • PADI Open Water referral course: For this option students need to arrive having already completed their theory and pool training components. This course takes three days to complete, after which students will join the Indo-Pacific reef ecology and survey techniques course practicals.

Fiji Research Objectives

In 2013 the Nambu Conservation Trust decided to create the first community managed National Park in Fiji on their mataqali land (mataqali are land owning family groups). This was an important step since >95% of the best remaining forest on Fiji is mataqali land. The neighbouring Vusaratu mataqali also agreed to include their land in any protected area development and to participate in these surveys. In 2017 the first surveys were conducted in this area by the Opwall teams and these concentrated mainly around the Natewa forest camp. In 2018 though whilst based at the same camp the teams were much more mobile and began to explore other areas of the peninsula and the results from these two years of surveys were published as a report on the biological value of the Natewa peninsula (see https://www.opwall.com/uploads/2018/12/The-Biological-value-of-the-Natewa-Peninsula.pdf).

Research locations in Fiji – week 1 will be spent at the Natewa camp or at the new forest camp site for 2019.  The second week will be spent at the Natewa Bay marine research station

The main findings over the two years of the surveys have been:

  • The Natewa Peninsula encompasses approximately 55000 ha of the south-eastern section of Vanua Levu, Fiji, and retains large expanses of tropical lowland and hill forest.
  • The biodiversity of the Peninsula possesses an extremely high conservation value. To date, a total of two native mammal species, 48 bird species, 10 herpetofauna species, 13 butterfly species, 61 gastropod species, and 84 tree species have been detected in the study area.
  • This diversity is impressively representative of species assemblages across Fiji as a whole, given the size of the study area. The Natewa peninsula comprises only around 3.1% of the total land area of the Fijian archipelago, but 59% of terrestrial birds, 33% of native terrestrial mammals and 35% of reptiles known to occur nationally have been found here.
  • Faunal groups in the Natewa Peninsula also display high incidence of endemism, with 31.3% of birds (15 species), 33.3% of herpetofauna (three species) 30.7% of butterflies (four species) 36.1% of gastropods (22 species) and 31% of trees (26 species) found here being entirely restricted to the Fijian archipelago.
  • Numerous species are also very locally endemic to the study area. These most notably include the Natewa Silktail (Lamprolia klinesmithi) and Natewa Swallowtail (Papilio natewa),which are both entirely restricted to the study area. Note the Natewa Swallowtail butterfly described by the Opwall teams is the first new swallowtail butterfly described to science in over 50 years and wasn’t discovered as expected from somewhere like the Amazon or Borneo but from a remote forest site in Fiji!
  • A further six species and five sub-species found in the study area are endemic to Vanua Levu and its offshore islands.
  • The forests of Natewa also provide valuable ecosystems services, both locally to communities living in the Peninsula via flood prevention, soil protection and crop pollination, and also to global society through the carbon stocks they sequester. Initial analysis put carbon stock estimates in the study area at 20,732,148 metric tons.
  • The diverse ecological communities of the Natewa Peninsula are, however, highly threatened by anthropogenic pressures. Unregulated deforestation and forest degradation is extensive in the study area. Introduced Cane Toads, rodents, and most significantly the Small Indian Mongoose (Herpestes auropunctatus) also represent a serious threat to ground-nesting birds, reptiles, and other native wildlife. Between 175,000 and 400,000 mongooses are estimated to occur on the Peninsula.
  • The urgent conservation status of biodiversity here (and the Fijian archipelago generally) is demonstrated by the number of threatened species present in the Natewa Peninsula. One native mammal, two herpetofauna species, and two tree species are considered by the IUCN to be globally Endangered. A further two bird species, one lizard, six gastropods, and two trees are considered to be Vulnerable, and one mammal, one bird, two gastropod and one tree species are considered to be Near-threatened. Particularly notable examples of threatened species include the Endangered Fijian Free-tailed Bat (Chaerephon bregullae) and the Vulnerable Natewa Silktail (Lamprolia klinesmithi), and Shy Ground Dove (Alopecoenas stairi).

These initial surveys have led to great excitement amongst the local mataqali, regional government and large NGO’s such as BirdLife International about the prospects for protecting these areas to attract tourists to see the unique fauna of the peninsula.  BirdLife had already identified the Natewa forests as an Important Bird Area and had started work on getting ecotourism income to some of the mataqali, but numbers of visitors to date (other than through the Opwall programme) had been very low. In order to bring in good numbers of visitors, the development of a marine research centre on the peninsula would also be necessary since many visitors to the islands want to snorkel or dive.  The building work done by Opwall has created the basis for a marine centre.

In 2018 a funding application to employ a team of local people to run an intensive trapping programme to remove the mongoose has been submitted.  If a national park were to be created then reduction or elimination of any invasive species that has significantly reduced the native amphibians, reptiles, ground birds and snail fauna would be a necessary first step.  However, simply removing mongoose from the peninsula would only be a temporary measure unless repopulation from the rest of the island was prevented. The Glenelg Trust, a wetland biodiversity protection NGO from Australia are working with Opwall and the Wallacea Trust to investigate the cost and funding for installing an invasive proof fence across the narrow neck of the peninsula in the same manner has been done extensively in parts of Australia and New Zealand.  The lead scientist from the Glenelg Trust on the Natewa project was the person responsible for designing the Yorke peninsula project in Australia (see http://theleadsouthaustralia.com.au/environment/feral-proof-fence-drives-biodiversity-revival/).

 

2019 forest research objectives

One of the best ways of generating income from protecting forests is to use funding sources such as REDD+ where a forest is packaged according to the carbon value, biodiversity and societal benefits and regular payments are made from a REDD+ fund to maintain the forests in their present condition.  The REDD+ funds are provided by wealthy nations to the forestry departments of developing countries to ensure the forests are maintained and the carbon saved from not logging the funded forests is then counted towards the donor nations national carbon budgets.  In 2018 carbon measurements were obtained from 30 study plots spread across the peninsula. It was hoped that the satellite imagery of the peninsula could be classified to produce maps of different forest types, but this proved impossible. The estimate of 20 million tonnes of carbon held in the Natewa forests was therefore calculated simply by multiplying the average carbon value across all the plots and multiplying it by the total forest area.  Since truly random selection of forest plots is not practicable (due to site inaccessibility with sheer cliffs in some places and the forest ownership spread amongst 51 different mataqali requiring protracted negotiations with each to gain access) then this estimate may be biased by the overall plot selection.  It was noted though in 2018 by the forest teams completing the carbon measurements in each plot, that after a short period of completing these measurements that the surveyors could estimate the carbon value by eye to within 20% of the measured value.  This means that it should be possible to produce a map showing the distribution of forest in at least 4 different carbon categories by sampling as many of the 550  x 1km x 1km squares that cover the  Natewa peninsula as possible and tying this to satellite data. The forest classification and mongoose impact survey team will be doing this during the 2019 season.  Quantifying the total area of forest in each of 4 different carbon classifications will then allow data from 20m x 20m squares in each of those forest carbon categories to be used to calculate the average for each category.  This mobile team will also help identify the presence in particular areas of some of the target species such as the Friendly Ground Dove which is a Fiji & Western Polynesia endemic and which has previously been recorded from the Natewa forests but has a very restricted distribution.  This species has been in decline throughout its range and in the case of Natewa, this may be due to high numbers of mongoose.  A second species is the Long-legged Warbler, which is known from only 4 specimens collected between 1890 and 1894 on Viti Levu and a single specimen from Natewa in 1973.  On Viti Levu there is a known small population occurring on steep sided forested slopes (presumably where they can still survive in the presence of mongoose) but the bird has not been seen on Vanua Levu since 1973.  It may be extinct on the island but the opportunity to send in teams of experts to remote forests in the Natewa peninsula probably gives as good an opportunity as any to determine whether this species still exists.

The new species of swallowtail butterfly has caused great excitement in the butterfly world but is only known from one area of the peninsula at the moment – finding additional areas where this species occur would be invaluable.  In addition, there are reptile, gastropod and a bat species that are all threatened and which have been recorded on the peninsula, so any information about their distribution across the peninsula would be valuable.

The bird survey team will be following up any sightings of the target bird species but also re-surveying a series of standard transects to compare numbers of all the Natewa bird species between years, as well as continuing with the mist netting to compile data on the plumage configuration and morphometrics on the Fiji endemic species and information on breeding season and longevity.

The invertebrate survey team will be following up any records of the target gastropods and the Natewa Swallowtail butterfly from other parts of the peninsula but also helping with completing an illustrated guide to the larger invertebrate species that can be used for visitors to the proposed park.

The forest structure and carbon team will be completing additional data collection on 20m x 20m squares in each of the forest carbon categories.

 

2019 marine research objectives

The Fijian Archipelago hosts a highly diverse and extensive marine environment encompassing an array of different marine habitats including; barrier and fringing coral reefs, mangroves, deep pelagic areas, and eelgrass beds. These habitats are considered to be internationally important sites for marine biodiversity and support numerous fish species, turtles and nesting seabirds. It is argued that the coral reefs of this region have some of the most species rich assemblages in the world. The waters of the Fiji contain 3.12% of the World’s coral reefs including Cakaulevu, the Great Sea Reef, which is the third largest coral reef in the world. Marine life includes over 390 known species of coral and 1,200 varieties of fish of which 7 are endemic. Currently 25% of Fiji’s waters have some form of protection or marine management plan.

Natewa Bay, which at over 1000 km², is the largest bay in the South Pacific, bounds the northern part of the Natewa Peninsula.  This bay has very low levels of fishing pressure and some superb reefs.  Moreover, due to geological faults the centre of the bay is over 1,000m deep.  Amazingly, no biological surveys have ever been completed on this bay.  The concept of the proposed Natewa National Park is not just to protect the forests of the peninsular but also the waters and reefs of Natewa Bay. Having both a marine and a forest element to the proposed National Park would make the Park are more popular destination for visitors.

In 2019 the objective is to establish a series of transects that will be monitored annually for fish diversity and abundance using stereo video and to examine any changes occurring in the reef structure using 3D modelling from data collected using Go Pros.

  • Learn about Fijian culture and customs
  • Join teams discovering new species to science in the forests
  • Work with scientists on land snails, butterflies and moths
  • Estimate populations of endemic bird species found only in the studied forests
  • Gain skills in diving
  • Dive in the previously unsurveyed largest bay in the South Pacific
  • Learn about Pacific Island ecology from published research in the last 10 years

The costs of a school group expedition can be highly variable. There is a standard fee paid to Opwall for all expeditions but the location you are flying from, the size of your group, and how you wish to pay all impact the overall cost.

You can choose to book the expedition as a package (which includes your international flights) or you can organise your travel yourself and just pay us for the expedition related elements.

If you are booking your expedition as a package, you also have the option of being invoiced as a group, or on an individual basis.

 

In Fiji the first two nights are generally in homestays in a small Fijian village down by the sea. You will have a shared room with another student from your school (teachers have their own rooms) and there are bathrooms with showers in each of the houses. In the forest camp you will be in tents (generally two per tent) but these are on platforms and under a sheltering roof. There are thin mattresses inside each tent and pillows. The forest camp has flush toilets and cold water showers. Drinking water is effectively on tap Fiji Spring water since the pipe comes directly from the top of the mountain to the camp.

The marine camp is down by the shoreline of the largest bay in the South Pacific The whole bay is very sheltered and accommodation will be in tents on platforms under a roof and with mattresses and pillows in each tent. There are flush toilets and cold water showers on site. Just like the forest site drinking water is piped directly (via a covered reservoir) from the top of the mountain to the camp.

Temperatures during the day are likely to be around 25 – 30 Celsius and drop to around 18 – 20 Celsius at night. A cooling trade wind blows from the east or south-east and stops the days feeling too hot, and the winds drop at night and pick up again by mid morning. The Opwall season is outside the wet season but there is always the chance of a rain shower.

Locations

  • Fiji
  • Natewa Camp
  • Natewa Marine Research and Training Centre
  • Vusaratu Village

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Preparation

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