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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 pani with 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 Peninsula or to a forest camp near the coastal village of Moana.  On the Sunday morning the group will be taken by vehicle to one of the marine sites, based in either the Natewa Bay Marine Research Centre or the Dakuniba Marine camp until leaving early on the following Saturday 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.
  • Ethnobotany surveys: This team will help conduct interviews with local communities about how wild plants are being used and harvested for food, building materials and medicines. Voucher specimens will be collected for confirmation of identification.
  • Invertebrate surveys: These surveys will be largely aimed at describing the butterfly, moth and fly communities across the peninsula, including the l new species of Swallowtail butterfly that was found by Operation Wallacea in 2017.  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 impact surveys: 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 by trapping and marking individuals.  Dietary studies and camera trapping will also be used to better understand the feeding behaviour of these invasive animals.

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 following years 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 three years of surveys were published as a report on the biological value of the Natewa peninsula (see https://www.opwall.com/uploads/2020/01/Fiji-Terrestrial-Report-2019.pdf).

 

Research locations in Fiji – week 1 will be spent at the Natewa or Moana Camp.  The second week will be spent at the Natewa Bay marine research station or the Dakuniba Marine Camp.

The main findings over the three 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, 51 bird species, 10 herpetofauna species, 25 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/).

 

2020 forest research objectives

  • To date 114 plots 20m x 20m have been surveyed by Opwall teams for carbon levels and forest structure. In 2020 the objective is to increase the coverage of the peninsula in different forest types and levels of disturbance to increase to at least 200 plots which should then allow the carbon storage across the peninsula to be estimated more accurately.
  • One of the most important bits of information that has been requested by the University of South Pacific team that is charged with identifying the boundaries and economic benefits of a new Natewa Park, is understanding how the local communities utilise and benefit from the flora of the reserve. One of the objectives for 2020 is to complete a survey of a range of villages on the peninsula to gather ethnobotanical data.
  • To date, only one population of the Natewa Swallowtail (Papilio natewa) has been discovered and gaining a better understanding of whether this species is truly limited to a tiny area of the peninsula is crucial. If so, it will probably qualify as the most threatened of all the surviving Swallowtail species. Data needs collecting on the food plants being used and their distribution across the peninsula and the whole of their range will need to be included within the proposed new national park boundaries. In addition a plan for the conservation of this species is being developed during 2020.
  • To date, there have been expert led surveys of butterflies, land snails and spiders with a Natewa collection of butterfly and spider specimens due to be analysed by specialists at the Natural History Museum in London to describe additional species new to science or new records for the peninsula. The 2020 invertebrate surveys will concentrate on surveying Diptera using a range of sampling techniques to increase the species list of this Order from the peninsula. Having extensive lists of various species is a necessary step in proving the biological value of the Natewa peninsula.
  • Analysis of point count data from the first 3 years work on the Natewa Peninsula suggest the population of the Natewa Silktail may be as low as 4000 birds, which is well below the previous estimates of 6000 – 12,000 birds. Additional point count data are needed particularly from areas with differing levels of forest disturbance because this species is negatively impacted by forest disturbance levels. Any additional observations on the breeding behaviour and success rates of the Natewa Silktail would be useful and an output from this years’ survey work should be a proposed conservation plan for the species.
  • Additionally, the standardised point count surveys need to be continued to census trends in local bird communities over time and also to determine relationships between avifauna community composition and habitat disturbance in the study area. This will allow for the first empirical appreciation of how forest clearance and degradation impacts upon Fijian bird communities; a key outcome in understanding the consequences of continued habitat destruction in the archipelago.
  • Additional exploration of the forests needs to be completed both to confirm the presence of Yellow billed Honeyeater (recorded from Dakuniba and a new species for the peninsula) and the relative abundance of Friendly Ground Dove which appears to have been reduced by the presence of mongoose on the peninsula. In addition, the extinction of the Long-legged Warbler not recorded since 1973 from Vanua Levu needs to be confirmed from checking some of the very steep slopes that form the habitat for this species on Viti Levu.
  • The constant effort mist netting also needs to be continued so data on plumage configuration, breeding times, movement patterns and longevity of endemic Fiji bird species ca be established.
  • The estimate of mongoose numbers on the peninsula vary from 175,000 to 400,000 animals and obtaining more precise data on the population levels of this invasive species and the impact it is having on the native fauna will be an important element of future funding applications for their removal from the Natewa Peninsula.

 

2020 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. Whilst the Natewa Bay is not being proposed at this stage to be part of the new Natewa national park, it is likely to form a major additional attraction for visitors to the new national park.  Having both a marine and a forest element to the proposed National Park would make the Park are more popular destination for visitors.

To date the surveys have resulted in species lists for the fish communities and identified a range of reefs to be monitored annually to determine changes.  In 2020 the objective is to complete the following surveys:

  • To describe from stereo video analyses, the fish communities in terms of species, abundances and size classes at 5m and 15m below Spring low water mark associated with a series of reefs around the Bay.
  • To complete coral intercept surveys of the reefs studied for the fish communities to determine coral cover and distributiop and abundance of macro-invertebrate species.
  • To complete 3D mapping of the reefs studied for the fish communities to determine the physical complexity of the reefs (rugosity, fractal complexity etc).
  • To use the Allen standardised methodology to provide data on the Bays’ reefs to the international coral atlas project.

 

  • Learn about Fijian culture and customs
  • Join teams discovering new species to science in the forests
  • Work with scientists on butterflies, plants and mongoose
  • 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 filtered tap Fiji Spring water since the pipe comes directly from the top of the mountain to the camp.

The marine camp is down around the shoreline of the largest bay in the South Pacific. The whole coast 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
  • Vusaratu Village
  • Natewa Camp
  • Moana Camp
  • Natewa Marine Research and Training Centre
  • Dakuniba Marine Camp

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Preparation

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