There are 320 islands in the Fiji Group of which only four are of significant size. The largest (and also the most populous) is Viti Levu, followed in size by Vanua Levu, Kadavu and Taveuni. Taveuni has a particularly interesting natural history as documented on this page.
The vast majority of Fiji’s land mass is volcanic in origin, with some reef-formed limestone and coastal sedimentary formations. The major islands are generally mountainous in the interiors which creates a rain shadow effect. The western sides of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu are drier and less thickly vegetated than the eastern areas. The difference in the rainfall between the two sides is striking. The eastern side of Viti Levu, where the capital city of Suva is located, averages 300 cm in precipitation whereas in the western side where Nadi International Airport is found, averages about 165 cm. Thus on any given day, your chances of getting wet are much greater on any of the larger islands’ eastern sides, rather than in the west. Plan your vacations accordingly.
In general, a great deal of Fiji’s territory has not been overly developed, over-fished, over-grazed or severely exploited. On the contrary, its varied terrain provides a variety of habitats for flora and fauna. These include lowland and mountain rainforest, mangroves and swamps, mixed grasslands and inland waters. The ocean environment includes coral reefs, lagoons and deep pelagic areas all of which team with fish. As many visitors can attest to, Fiji’s reputation as a world-class dive destination is well deserved. In Fiji’s rich reef system one may find a multitude variety of marine life all within a few square meters.
A variety of plants and animals occupy the terrestrial areas including birds, reptiles and amphibians. Fiji’s flora and fauna is not so diverse as the South Pacific islands that lie closer to the Asian landmass such as the Solomon Islands but not as poor as that of islands further to the east such as French Polynesia.
Unfortunately man has introduced plants and animals that have wreaked havoc on the population of some indigenous species. Take the case of the mongoose. It was brought to Fiji to control rats in the cane fields. The mongoose ended up decimating species of the snake population (which were harmless) and went on to destroy many varieties of ground nesting birds. In general, because of the presence of man and man- made introductions of plants and animals, the lowland regions are the most modified. On the other hand, in the mountain areas, the native species of flora and fauna are the least adulterated. Some of the better known introduced plants are synonymous with the South Pacific and include orchids, Plumeria and of course the coconut palm.
Some of the reef areas and lagoons of the more populated islands have also been drastically altered. Over fishing, run-off from pollution and sewage from urban areas have lowered fish populations and injured natural habitats in and around the capital of Suva as well as Nadi and Lautoka areas of Viti Levu. Fortunately for Fijians (and visitors) much of the aqueous environments on the outer islands are pristine or at least relatively healthy.
Generally Fijians share an innate conservationist streak because of their culture which dictates that much of the land must remain communally owned in perpetuity. However this does not always insure that land will always be tended properly. As the population grows, economic necessity rears it’s head. There is always the temptation by a village chief to make a quick buck by clear-cutting pristine rainforest or allowing hotel developers to reclaim mangrove swamps (which are breeding grounds for marine animals) and turn them into golf courses. Fijians must also guard against over fishing, decimating endangered species (such as turtles) and plundering the reefs for small tropical fish which are in turn Natural Historysold to aquarium enthusiasts in the U.S. or Europe.
However, there is hope that Fiji’s natural heritage will remain intact. As eco- tourism becomes more popular some lands are set aside for hiking, camping, bird watching and other recreational activities. Many of these schemes are funded by grants from the New Zealand government which should be commended for its efforts at preserving Fiji’s natural heritage. The National Trust of Fiji is also making inroads in conservation activities.
Those interested in reading up on Fiji’s natural history should purchase a copy of Paddy Ryan’s Fiji’s Natural Heritage, a wonderfully illustrated book by the best nature photographer in the South Pacific.
Among Fiji’s 20 species of reptiles, one of the most noteworthy is the crested iguana, Brachylophus vitiensis, a species discovered less than 20 years ago on a tiny island off the coast of Vanua Levu (Fiji’s second largest island). It is assumed that the original home of the iguana was South and Central America. The species’ discoverer, the late John Gibbons, speculated the iguanas may have drifted from the Americas on large pieces of floating vegetation and ended up in Fiji. Both species of iguanas have been successfully bred in captivity.