Fiji: The iguana that changed a luxury resort into a wildlife conservation role model

It's hard to believe the first Fijian crested iguana to be sighted on Malolo Island in close to 30 years literally fell out of a tree at a luxury resort. Was it curiosity that finally lured it out of its hiding place? Or could it have been an understandable desire to stay in one of Fiji's only over-water villas?

Fires and rampant agricultural clearing had wiped out most of the treetop dweller's dry forest habitat, with only small, isolated pockets remaining on the island. One of those bordered the adults-only Likuliku Lagoon Resort, where a surprised groundskeeper spotted the never-before-seen iguana behind one of its lavish beachside villas. Fearfully, he picked up the closest object he could find and hurled it at the beast, leaving it teetering on the edge of survival.

"He was worried that it would grow big and become a dinosaur," says Sialisi Rasalato​, group environment manager for Ahura Resorts, which owns Likuliku and its family-friendly neighbour, Malolo Island Resort.

The incident was reported to Steve Anstey, Ahura Resorts' group general manager, who instructed a staff member to accompany the herbivorous lizard to the main island so it could be identified and undergo veterinary care. As luck would have it, one of the world's foremost iguana experts, San Diego Zoo's Dr Robert Fischer, and Dr Peter Harlow from Taronga Zoo, happened to be there when the iguana arrived.

Though the reptile died shortly after, Fischer sent a tissue sample to the US for DNA testing, which confirmed that a distinct subspecies thought to be extinct had been rediscovered. The timing of this event was October 13, 2010 – a pivotal date in Likuliku's (and the Malolo Island crested iguana's) history, for it set in motion conservation efforts never before seen in this part of the Pacific, in turn leading to the resort's accreditation as one of National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World.

On the advice of Fischer and Harlow, the resort implemented non-native animal eradication and habitat restoration programs aimed at ensuring the survival of one of the world's rarest creatures. Bait stations were laid and cage traps set to snare feral rats and cats. Invasive plant species were removed. And a native plant nursery was established in 2012.

Further iguana sightings occurred sporadically during the months and years that followed. A juvenile male was captured near Malolo Island Resort in January 2011. A female was caught at Likuliku later that year. One was found in 2013. Then, in June 2015, six iguanas were tagged.

"That illustrated to us that the invasive species control was working," says Rasalato.

That realisation sparked a flurry of activity. Likuliku sponsored a three-month internship for a PhD student from the University of Georgia to conduct nighttime surveys, when iguanas are more easily spotted, and to consolidate data relating to the Malolo Island crested iguana. New iguana populations were documented, with more than half found to be juveniles – a sign that conditions were improving.

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Likuliku started its own captive breeding program next, and Rasalato was recruited as Fiji's first resort-based environmental officer in January 2017. In August that year, Likuliku's first two iguanas hatched naturally – a world first in captivity.

"In January 2019, the population on the whole island totalled 67, including ours," Rasalato says, proudly.

The resort's 11 iguanas – four breeding pairs, plus seven hatchlings that will be released into the wild once they've matured – are housed inside airy, purpose-built enclosures limiting the threat of wildlife-smuggling through 24-hour camera surveillance. Malolo, the original juvenile male found in January 2011, is still there, spreading his gene pool and acting as his species' ambassador during thrice-weekly educational presentations where he'll often scramble up guest's arms or perch on their head.

"We're now getting guests coming to stay because they want to see the iguanas," says  Anstey – proof that a purely ethical decision aimed at preserving a species can be a sound financial investment as well.

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FLY

Fiji Airways, Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia all fly direct to Fiji's Nadi International Airport from east coast hubs. Transfer to Likuliku Lagoon Resort by fast catamaran, private speedboat, seaplane or helicopter.

STAY

Likuliku Lagoon Resort's rooms cost from $1300 a night for two adults. Fijian Crested Iguana Experiences are included, as well as meals, welcome refreshments, free Wi-Fi and complimentary use of non-motorised water sports equipment. See likulikulagoon.com

Mark Daffey visited Likuliku Lagoon Resort as a guest of Ahura Resorts.

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