Fiji wildlife author and photographer Paddy Ryan tells of how he captured the shots of the newly described, endemic iguana in Fiji.

Photographing this handsome male iguana taught me a lesson I thought I had already learned. Whatever the accepted scientific orthodoxy is, the reality is often very different.

During the ten and half wonderful years I spent teaching at the University of the South Pacific I spent many a happy day (and night) in the rainforest looking for things to photograph. Iguanas were always high on my list of subjects. I never saw a single one.

While the Monasavu hydro dam was filling I explored the tree tops of the drowning trees and found specimens of Mann’s forest gecko, the montane tree skink (which was undescribed at that time), tens of tree frogs, scorpions and giant millipedes, but not a single iguana.

Fiji iguana featured on the front cover of National Geographic Explorer magazine
Fiji iguana featured on the front cover of National Geographic Explorer magazine

The only iguana I ever saw in the wild was the crested iguana which I was lucky enough to see on Yadua Taba. I figured that the only specimens of the banded iguana I’d ever photograph would be captive specimens.

That changed when I visited Matava Resort on Kadavu.

I casually mentioned that I’d never seen a banded iguana in the wild to my lovely hostess Mere. “We get them here all the time” she said. I rolled my eyes – as a biologist you hear this sort of thing regularly ( … “you should have been here yesterday!”). “There’s one over there” were her next words.

I followed the direction she was pointing and there, in the branches of a flame tree, was a beautiful female iguana.

During my ten days at Matava I saw five different individual iguanas, including, and this was a very encouraging sign, a tiny juvenile.

Brachylophus buabula Banded iguana, juvenile, Kadavu, Fiji
Brachylophus buabula Banded iguana, juvenile, Kadavu, Fiji

I caught the male depicted in the National Geographic Explorer cover and enlisted the help of several friends to “wrangle him” on a convenient tree while I took a series of shots. He didn’t enjoy this process much and hissed at me several times.

Finally, just as I was about to put him back in the tree I had taken him from, he launched himself from his perch and grabbed my knuckle in his mouth. I can tell you that they bite tenaciously and I had to be careful while releasing myself that I didn’t hurt him. I bled profusely and still have a minor scar two years later. He looked pretty pleased with himself when I put him back.

I processed the photos when I got home, happy that I now had shots of the banded iguana for the third edition of my book Fiji’s Natural Heritage. That’s how things might have stayed except that scientist Robert Fisher wrote to me to ask if I had any iguana shots.

I happily shared the Kadavu photos with him and was bowled over when he told me it was a new species (now called Brachylophus bulabula).

A female (left) and male (iguana) from Kadavu
A female (left) and male (iguana) from Kadavu

From there, things snowballed. National Geographic used the shots on their website and then in a TV documentary about science advances during the previous year. That led to the editor of National Geographic Explorer contacting me and this extraordinarily beautiful animal starring on the cover.

I’m hopeful that this picture will help inspire the school children who see the magazine and make their teachers a little more aware of the extraordinary biological treasures that Fiji hosts.

Nature Fiji is doing this locally and I am delighted at the initiatives this young organisation has undertaken and more optimistic about the future of these treasures than I have been for a while.

National Geographic Explorer is a classroom magazine for grades two through six. Its pages invite students to explore the world and all that is in it. This website provides an extension to the magazine and allows students to explore in a fun, safe, online environment”.

For those interested in technical details the photo was taken with a Pentax *Ist D (a 6 megapixel SLR) with a 100 macro and twin flash guns.

Written by Paddy Ryan.