As a conservationist, I have always been passionate about saving the environment and the organisms within it. However, when you routinely have to choose between removing a used baby nappy that has become entwined with a delicate piece of coral or leaving the artificial item behind, you face a moral dilemma. Most of the time, fishing lines and other materials have become so interlinked with the reef that their removal will actually result in further destruction.
It has therefore become increasingly clear that in order to preserve reefs to the highest degree, you must not focus entirely on under the water, but on the locals that depend on it. For example, in Beqa, the locals do not have sufficient waste management options and disposal, which makes pollution of the reef all the more likely. Policies can be implemented to protect the entire ocean, but unless people respect the regulations and are provided with an alternative to the damaging practices on a local level, the policies will be useless.
Fortunately, conducting research on Beqa allows you to integrate with the communities, both above and below water. It is rare to attend a marine conservation programme and be still so involved with locals in the community. This way, we can educate locals on the importance of preserving the reef and try to come up with solutions together which protect the ocean.
After all, the best conservation work is often that which involves the local community and uses their experiences and expertise to help form effective policy. Another good example of this is in Monuriki, also in Fiji.
Monuriki has been identified as a Key Biodiversity Area by Conservation International. It is particularly important as a tropical dry forest and as a location critical to the beautiful Fijian Crested Iguana. Populations of key species were becoming dangerously low, as their habitat and food sources were declining. The first efforts to conserve the island began in the late 1990s, and it was discovered that the major threats to the dry forest and its native wildlife were invasive rats and goats.
In 2010-2011, an eradication programme targeting goats and rats was implemented, in order to try and bring the ecosystem back to a balanced state. To do this, the landowning unit in the village of Yanuya was heavily involved. In order to muster the goats, they called on the Yanuya Rugby Team! The way that this was done is an example of how effective conservation plans can be when the local community is an integral part of the process.
After the programme was successful, monitoring of the key species began. Within 5 years, the small population of Fijian Crested Iguanas was reproducing and recruiting back into the recovering habitat, while the native forest, previously replaced by invasive plants, became far more present than before.
The programme continues, with the renewed investment in the local communities through the Ranger Programme for Fiji iguana conservation. Locals are involved as rangers and habitat managers, educating tourists while keeping human impacts on the island to a minimum. With the project providing services to the ecosystem and people living in it, stakeholders are always interested, and the community is thriving.