29 Feb 2016

Cyclone Winston affects community conservation areas in Fiji

Nasau Village headman and Vatuira SSG member, Inisio Navuasese - Photo Fiji Times - Jai Prasad
By Sialesi Rasalato

A Category 5 Storm – Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston became the worst natural disaster ever to hit Fiji after it ravaged through the Pacific Island nation on February 20th, 2016. The severe storm had tracked between the two main islands of Vanua Levu and Viti Levu crossing 9 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). (5 marine and 4 terrestrial) before moving onto the West then passing close to Monuriki Island, a site of national significant under Fiji’s National Biodiversity and Action Plan. TC Winston had winds and gusts measuring at 325 km per hour, the strongest ever to be measured in the lower Southern Hemisphere.

The super storm has left behind 42,000 homeless people, at least 42 lives lost and damages estimated at one billon Fijian dollars. Among those that were affected were members of the BirdLife Pacific communities who have championed nature conservation actions in their respective villages, district and province.  Homes and properties in two villages that support BirdLife’s work in Fiji, namely Yanuya and Nasau were completely destroyed. Both villages are traditional guardians of Monuriki and Vatuira islands respectively and in association with BirdLife Fiji partner NatureFiji-MareqetiViti have formed site support groups (SSGs) for their local forests.  Monuriki hosts the largest colony of Wedge tailed shearwater in Fiji and is also a safe haven to the critically endangered Crested Iguana.   Whereas, Vatuira is home to eight species of seabirds including 22,000 pairs of Black Noddies among the largest known black noddy colony in the South Pacific and an internationally significant IBA.   

Obtaining information on how the violent storm has affected these conservation areas is difficult.  We have not yet been able to contact our local site support group (SSG) members since the cyclone moved on. However, a local newspaper – The Fiji Times - has interviewed two members of the SSGs from both communities and this is what they have to say.

Nasau Village headman and Vatuira SSG member, Inisio Navuasese said 10 houses in his small village were completely flattened. "We have only two houses and are barely standing and they are being used as places to eat," Mr Navuasese said. "There is barely any food left and we are surviving on what we could save from our farms." He said the biggest need at the village and all of the other villages in the district was food supply and tents that could provide temporary shelter for the homeless.

Yanuya Village Headman and Monuriki SSG member, Akuila Lati said most of the villagers were sleeping outside after the cyclone hit their village. "When it rained on Sunday and Monday afternoon, we were soaking wet and just slept under what we could find to shelter us from the rain. We have water now which was one of the most important things that we needed to get before anything else. Food will be a major need in the next couple of days”.

“It is early to say anything in regards to the impact TC Winston has on the native wildlife of these two sites but once the immediate needs of the islands landowners have been met a monitoring team will assess the islands conditions” says Don Stewart, BirdLife Pacific Regional Director. The BirdLife Pacific Team believes that there will be significant seabird losses as many of the resident species would have been raising young most of which are likely to have succumbed to the intense winds and rain.

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