On Alite Reef near Malaita, Solomon Islands. Photo © Hugo King-Fretts

Journey to Tikopia: Conservation Challenges in Remote Melanesia

In November 2016, my wife Sarah and I found ourselves on a domestic flight from Honiara bound for the small coastal town of Gizo in the Western Province of Solomon Islands. I first travelled to the Western Solomon’s in 1996 as a young marine science student, eager to learn all I could about the ecology and culture of this breathtakingly beautiful region. Solomon Islands occupies a large part of my heart, and although I’d visited this nation of islands more than 50 times in the past two decades, this trip was going to be unique. We were about to join the Zegrahm Faces of Melanesia expedition upon the Caledonian Sky, and my levels of excitement were on par with my inaugural journey 20 years earlier.

I’m far more accustomed to travelling in 23-foot banana boats and living in leaf huts when I visit the Solomons. But this expedition would enable me to evaluate firsthand how tourists and rural Melanesians viewed each other, whilst allowing me to visit some of the most far-flung locations in Melanesia. It also presented an opportunity to share with my fellow travellers the ways in which The Nature Conservancy is partnering with local communities in Melanesia to conserve some of the most diverse and vulnerable places on our planet.

Over the next eight days we visited numerous remote and spectacular locations throughout Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, where we had the opportunity to view some of the most diverse coral reefs on earth and obtain glimpses into communities’ lifestyles that were in stark contrast to the day to day realties for those of us upon the ship.

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Bodaluna Island, Papua New Guinea. Photo © Rich Pagen

One of the most well-recognized benefits of tourism to these remote communities is much-needed revenue, but it quickly became apparent that our visit benefited them in other ways. Our arrival was a spectacle of great interest and much amusement wherever we travelled, providing a welcome change in pace to the day to day subsistence lifestyle. One elder at Utupua, in the Santa Cruz Islands told me how the cultural dances that communities put on for us also provided his tribe with a reason to come together and celebrate their cultural heritage.

Of all the places we visited, the tiny and densely populated island of Tikopia left the largest impression on me. Located at the most southern extent of Solomon’s island arc, the inhabitants of Tikopia are of Polynesian origin. We had travelled from Utupua to Tikopia through the night, and in the morning I snorkelled through Tikopia’s fringing reefs. The reefs were devoid of large reef fish and dominated in places by macro algae, a stark contrast to the healthy reefs we had SCUBA dived on at the sparsely inhabited island of Utupua the day before.

Clearly, even at this extremely remote location the level of subsistence fishing pressure was sufficient to place this ecosystem under considerable stress. I ruminated over just how fragile life can be and considered some of the management measures that the communities might need to consider putting in place to give their reefs and their fish stocks a better chance of recovery.

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Diving off Tetepare in the Solomon Islands. Photo © Brad Climpson

In other regions of Melanesia, such as Manus Province in Papua New Guinea and Choiseul Province in Solomon Islands, the Conservancy is assisting communities and government partners with establishing ridges to reefs protected area networks. These protected area networks are helping to conserve biodiversity, enhance food security and build communities resilience to climate change.

That afternoon we went ashore to Tikopia. As I watched some of the cultural performances I struck up a conversation with one of the Tikopian men beside me, John, who was also enjoying the dances. He was surprised I spoke Solomon Pijin, and I was equally surprised to learn he had just returned from spending six months in my home country of New Zealand, where he had been picking apples. John told me how he had only recently returned to Tikopia in order to be there for Christmas. I really love it here, he told me, it’s my home. But the biggest problem we have is the remoteness, he said. It’s a three-day boat trip from the closest airport, and a boat only comes every one or two months.

Just then a new dance group came running out to perform. This is my group John told me excitedly, and I want to show my relatives in Honiara their performance, and with that he whipped out an iPhone from his pocket and began to film the dance.

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Ritual men’s dance on Ureparapara, Vanuatu. Photo © Hugo King-Fretts

Later on that afternoon, when the custom dances had finished and while many of the guests were busy buying carvings, John took a small group of us on a walk around the island. At the half way point we came to a section on the beach where the sea met the cliffs, where we had to scramble up and over a seawall. The community built this sea wall last year, John explained, as he stopped to help one of the guests navigate a particularly difficult patch. He went on to tell us how it had taken his community months of labour, but that they had to do something as sea level rise and increased storm events from climate change had completely eroded the beach in recent years.

As we left Tikopia, I brought a wooden spear which I told the carvers I would hang upon my wall in my house to always remember them. Then I exchanged my contact details with John in case our paths should overlap in the future. Smiling faces and laughing children waved us goodbye as we took the Zodics back to the Caledonian Sky.

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Playing Tika, a traditional spear-throwing game, on Tikopia in the Solomon Islands. Photo © Hugo King-Fretts

I felt a pang of regret that I hadn’t been able to spend longer on Tikopia, to learn and share a little more. In the past decades I’ve had the privilege of visiting some of the most culturally and biologically diverse places in the Western Pacific. Observing the impacts of overfishing and climate change on the tiny outlier of Tikopia drove home to me that we have well and truly entered the Anthropocene, and conservation efforts at local and global scales are more critical than ever before.

All images are courtesy of Zegrahm Expeditions.
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