by Kirstie Jones
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Our first day in Palau made me realize that, unlike the United States where the environment is often an afterthought, this is a place where people take pride in their connection to the natural world and work hard to protect it.
As we took a bus tour through the countryside our guide explained the ties the Palauan people have to the lands of their ancestors and pointed out villages where people still lived off the land through agriculture and fishing.
Though tourism is important to Palau, major hotels and chain food restaurants don’t dot the landscape as they do in Guam. Instead, Palau has structured its tourist industry around educating visitors on Palau’s natural wonders. During the bus ride I noticed many signs denoting conservation areas as well as informational boards discussing the different environments of Palau.
Even though it had only been a short plane ride from Guam to Palau I felt like I had traveled to a completely different part of the globe. The dense jungles we saw during our river boat cruise and waterfall hike could not have been more different than the hotels and strip malls we had seen in Guam. When we stopped at a site with stone ruins to eat lunch countless rails darted through the grasses.
Only a week ago at the Guam Department of Agriculture I had witnessed the struggle to revive the ko’ko’ population, a close relative of the rails. Their presence here further emphasized how untouched Palau was compared to the other Micronesian island we visited, where foreign intrusions such as those that brought the brown tree snake had greatly influenced the environment.
On our second evening in Palau we met with representatives from the Department of Conservation and were given a presentation on the Ngederrak Conservation Area where we had been diving during the day. Once again we were given insight into Palauan’s drive to maintain a connection to the land and the sea that surrounds their islands.
We learned that in 2001 local knowledge and traditional laws were instrumental in the implementation of a two-year moratorium on fishing, entry and collecting of flora and fauna in 5.8 square miles of Ngederrak reef. This moratorium was extended to 4 years and eventually resulted in Ngederrak’s designation as a permanent marine protected area.
Our work in Ngederrak collecting substrate and invertebrate data has allowed us to help the Department of Conservation to quantify the life in this protected area and to be a part of Palau’s effort to continue to protect and preserve its environments.
Kirstie Jones is a junior majoring in environmental studies at the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.