Voices from the Rainforest: Jone Niukula, Rainforest Trust Fellow

Rainforest Trust projects thrive thanks to the important conservation work of people on the ground. Our Voices from the Rainforest series brings you news from our projects in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific — from the perspectives of those working in and for the rainforests.


Inspiring Iguana Conservation in Fiji

Jone Niukula. Photo by National Trust of Fiji.

Jone Niukula has experience managing the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park and Yadua Taba Wildlife Sanctuary, both natural heritage sites in Fiji. He has contributed to endangered species conservation programs for the Critically Endangered Fiji Petrel and endemic iguanas. Since 2002, Jone has worked for the National Trust of Fiji.

Why did you become a conservationist?

After studying Geography and Geology at the University of the South Pacific, I was quite excited about finding work in the environmental field. I lived close to the National Trust Director’s home at that time, and she invited me to apply for a job at the Trust. When I applied, I learned that the Trust’s main purpose was not only to protect nature, but our cultural heritage as well.


Tell us about a time that you felt you had made a difference as a conservationist.

I like to believe that my strength lies in communicating and working with the traditional landowners and the native community. My work includes overlooking the iguana conservation program in Fiji and achieving positive relationships with the community that helps run the programs through their support and involvement.

What has surprised you the most in the field?

The existence of different kinds of species in a relatively small country like Fiji. In addition, the species are endemic or at least a sub-species or race special to an area and found nowhere else in the world.

What inspires you most or makes you proud about being a Fellow?

I believe I’m one of the few, if not the only, Fellow from a Pacific Island country this year. So my participation in this program shows the significance of our fauna and flora in the Pacific and the conservation work that is currently being carried out.

I’m also happy to participate because I have the opportunity to be a part of the protection of a unique iguana species that occurs only in the Pacific that’s also a delicacy for the traditional landowners. Tell us about a conservation challenge in your job.

Tell us about a conservation challenge.

A major conservation challenge in Fiji is convincing landowners to surrender their land or resources to save a species. Fijians have come to realize in the past few decades the value of natural resources and that they can receive money if they surrender land or resources. Fortunately, for a few programs, some species of concern have cultural value that will certainly support the need to save them.

Tell us about a conservation success.

Monuriki Island was identified in the Iguana Specialist Group meeting in 2004 as a priority site for conservation of the Fijian Crested Iguana (Brachylophus vitiensis). However, before 2004 and until 2009, there have been numerous requests made to the landowners to remove goats that were introduced to the island in the 1970s and were a major cause of degradation on the island.

In 2010, a team from the National Trust visited the landowners to request for the removal of iguanas for a captive breeding program. This was well received by a newly installed chief who also stated that he would order the removal of that goats, which surprised and excited the visiting conservation team.

And in 2015, the first 32 captive-bred Crested Iguanas were released back on Monuriki Island. In 2017, the captive breeding program was brought to an end when 16 of the original 20 iguana founders, and an additional 32 captive bred offspring, were released. Only a few young iguanas remain in captivity at the moment and are set for release in June.

Between February and June 2017, 35 wild iguanas (not passing through captivity) were caught and marked. Many of these were young animals that would have hatched after the goat and rat eradication was completed in late 2011. This sample of iguanas revealed that, within five years, the small remaining population of iguanas is reproducing and recruiting back into the recovering habitat.

Why is conservation important?

This question can have different answers depending on which stakeholder you are in the program. But the most important answer is to save species and ecosystems from being lost forever from this world.


Header image: The Fijian Crested Iguana. Photo by Benjamin T.

World Lion Day: The Role of CGI in Conservation

Disney’s The Lion King reboot has made quite an impact. Everything in the film — from the vast African savannas down to the dung beetles — is created from computer generated imagery (CGI), making for an unparalleled visual experience. While filmmakers and critics are discussing how the technological advancements will change the way that movies are made, The Lion King also brings about a new question: Could advanced animation play a role in the future of conservation? 

The wide variety of surreally life-like animals in the opening ballad “Circle of Life” almost fools audiences into believing that Africa is filled with an abundance of thriving species, living together in the same fantastical ecosystem. The sad truth is that the immense landscapes and unique species featured throughout the film face serious danger from human influence, habitat loss and the climate crisis.

Animals gathering for “Circle of Life.” Photo by Disney, via Associated Press.

Lions like Simba and his family, the brave rulers of the grasslands in the film, often fall prey to big game trophy hunters. In fact, their population numbers have been cut in half since the debut of the original animated film in 1994. Supporting character species are also in danger. Mandrills like Rafiki are over-hunted for the bushmeat trade. A recent study estimates that climate change may wipeout meerkats, like Timon, within the next 50 years. The International Union for Conservation of Nature listed Giraffes as Vulnerable in 2016 and the Black Rhinoceros Critically Endangered in 2011. Even the worst characters in the movie, the Spotted Hyenas, are suffering from population decline. Not to mention, more than 20,000 African Elephants are poached each year for their ivory. And with the ban lifted on importing sport-hunted elephant trophies into the U.S. from certain African countries, the film’s elephant graveyard is a looming reality.   

But while the utopia of biodiversity The Lion King portrays may not be in sync with reality, the technology used to create it could be beneficial. The morphology of animals on the brink of extinction could be “saved” for future scientific analysis, not just entertainment. CGI could create the virtual simulations necessary to study vulnerable species and habitat in a way that does not disturb delicate ecosystems. In these ways, the perfection of CGI technology can serve as a form of preservation. These advancements could make it possible to not only learn about vulnerable species and their habitat, but see them through digital recreation. This could be incredibly beneficial for the future of conservation and conservation education. 

The central theme in The Lion King is understanding our place in the ‘circle of life.’ Since humans are the main threat to these species and their habitats, it’s our job to protect those that remain. If we don’t take immediate conservation action to mitigate anthropogenic threats and the negative effects of climate change, the only route for preservation may be a virtual one. 

Simba with Timon and Pumbaa. Photo by Disney, via Associated Press.


Header image: A male lion. Photo by Pieter.

Rainforest Trust Statement on IPCC Climate Change and Land Report

Today, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that protecting the world’s forests to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and prevent greenhouse gas emissions plays a critical role in climate action. 

While reducing fossil fuel use is vital to mitigating the climate crisis, emissions reduction alone will not halt global warming. The report primarily focuses on land conservation and discussed the drastic effects of deforestation and agriculture on the planet. “Land plays an important role in the climate system. Agriculture, forestry and other types of land use account for 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jim Skea, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “At the same time natural land processes absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to almost a third of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry.” 

Land conservation is crucial to the planet’s sustainability and protecting it will play a key role in mitigating climate change. But to conserve land successfully, we need to overhaul agriculture. There is a direct correlation between the climate crisis and global ecological stability. Deforestation both releases carbon dioxide directly into the atmosphere and destroys forests that absorb carbon from the atmosphere, making it a double threat to the climate crisis. “Deforestation is a significant part of the problem, but better management of the forests is an even bigger part of the solution,” said Francis Seymour, a senior fellow for World Resources Institute. “It’s not just the carbon spewed into the air when a forest is converted into something else, it’s that lost opportunity to keep that natural carbon-capture-and-storage factory up and running.” 

Rainforest Trust’s mission is identifying and protecting the world’s most vulnerable species and ecosystems. We collaborate with local partners to help communities self-develop the tools necessary to use their land sustainably. This UN IPCC report confirms that our 30-year-strong conservation model — saving rainforests with the people closest to them — is inherent to climate action. 

Amphibians and Trees Further Protected in Puerto Rico

The Sierra de Cayey, in the southeast corner of Puerto Rico’s Central Mountain Range, houses some of the island’s most important ecosystems. The site is crucial to Puerto Rico’s endemic amphibians and plants, as well as local birds. But expanding agricultural development threatens to destroy the region’s forests. The growing specter of climate change could also upend these fragile, climate-dependent ecosystems.

In light of these threats, Rainforest Trust and local partner Para la Naturaleza (PLN) have worked to protect these forests. And this summer, the two organizations purchased 112 acres of critical habitat in the area. The acquired property sits next to the Carite State Forest and expands the Ulpiano Casal Natural Protected Area, helping to grow this vital network of protected areas.

The Sierra de Cayey. Photo courtesy of Para la Naturaleza.

The Sierra de Cayey is home to 15 of Puerto Rico’s 18 endemic amphibian species. Amphibians like these often require precise microhabitats with specific climates to survive. But as development continues and the climate crisis upends ecosystems around the world, these microhabitats disappear. Protecting large tracts of forest is necessary to buffer the worst effects of climate change on amphibians.

These threats haven’t spared the secluded island amphibian populations of Puerto Rico. In fact, three of the area’s endemic species, the Villalba Robber Frog, Karl’s Robber Frog and Eleutherodactylus jasperi, are already likely extinct. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists all three as Critically Endangered, but scientists have not observed any of these species in at least 30 years. By expanding the reserve network, this new purchase reduces habitat fragmentation and prevents development. This protection will help reduce the cumulative impact of climate change and fragmented habitat for amphibians and other wildlife in Sierra de Cayey.

Eleutherodactylus wightmanae, an Endangered frog native to Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Para la Naturaleza.

But amphibians aren’t the only species to benefit from this new protection. The area is a Key Biodiversity Area and has some of the highest tree species diversity and endemism in Puerto Rico. Resident species include communities of ferns and lycophytes, as well as the Critically Endangered Palo de Jazmin, one of Puerto Rico’s rarest endemic trees. Human communities will also benefit from this protection, since these forests contain the headwaters of the Río Grande de Loíza, which provides water to over half of the people living in Puerto Rico’s capital.

Para la Naturaleza, who already protects 33,000 acres across the island, will integrate this property into the Ulpiano Casal Natural Protected Area and develop a management plan. Immediate management steps include marking boundaries, inventorying biodiversity and restoring degraded habitat.

“Expanding protections in Sierra de Cayey is vital to the future of Puerto Rico’s biodiversity,” said Angela Yang, Rainforest Trust’s Chief Conservation Officer. “Only through safeguarding these forests for wildlife and people can we secure a sustainable future for the island.”

Header photo courtesy of Para la Naturaleza.

This project was made possible through the generous support of our partner, Para la Naturaleza, donors to this project and the Conservation Action Fund, and the SAVES Challenge.

Increased Protection for Orchids and Birds in Ecuador

Ecuador’s Chocó forests are some of the world’s most biodiverse and endemic-rich ecosystems. But they are also some of the most threatened — Ecuador has one of the highest deforestation rates in South America. Rainforest Trust and local partner Fundación EcoMinga have been working to protect this region for years.

And once again, these efforts have paid off. Recently, the project around and in the Dracula Reserve acquired two more properties for a total of 153 acres. These properties expand the reserve and offer even more protection to this unique corner of the rainforest.

The Dracula Reserve derives its name from the “Dracula” orchids, or those in the genus Dracula. They’re named as such due to their doom-inspiring flowers, which often have long “fangs” and come in deep purples and oranges. The entire Chocó, stretching between both Ecuador and Colombia, is an orchid diversity hotspot — with new species discovered regularly. In fact, 30% percent of all known orchid species live in Ecuador and Colombia.

But the region has more than just flowers. Threatened birds such as the Endangered Chocó Vireo call the Dracula Reserve home, as does the Vulnerable Long-wattled Umbrellabird and Endangered Banded Ground-cuckoo. Researchers recently discovered a new frog species in the reserve and donated the naming rights to Rainforest Trust’s Species Legacy Auction last year.

The Dracula Reserve. Photo by Tatiana Jaramillo.

“Further protecting this incredibly diverse forest is an amazing and much needed protection for species, both known and unknown,” said Angela Yang, Rainforest Trust’s Chief Conservation Officer. “It’s incredible that in this area alone, researchers keep discovering new orchid species ranging from the size of a pinhead to the size of a baseball.”

These new protected properties offer more hope to the incredible and imperiled wildlife of Ecuador’s Chocó. Rainforest Trust and Fundación EcoMinga look forward to continuing their work protecting this magnificent ecosystem. In time, Fundación EcoMinga plans to connect each protected corner of the forests to create a large, united reserve for these species.

Header photo by Luis Baquero and Gabriel Iturralde.

This project is made possible by gifts to the Rainforest Trust Conservation Action Fund and the SAVES Challenge. We would like to thank the Orchid Conservation Alliance, Maria Flowers, George and Cathy Ledec, Bihua Chen and Jackson Loomis and Bojan Ninic for their leadership support.