Paradise on the rebound: The reef around Leleuvia is regenerating under protection of a traditional Fijian tabu. Photo by Mandy West

Paradise on the rebound: The reef around Leleuvia is regenerating under protection of a traditional Fijian tabu. Photo by Mandy West

By Jeff Moag

Colin Philp is an outrigger canoeist with a singular vision: to make a 24-acre speck of Fiji called Leleuvia Island into a world-class resort for paddlers. To realize his vision, he's using a mix of modern and traditional conservation methods, including the ancient Fijian custom of tabu. In Fiji and throughout Polynesia, the word means both 'sacred' and 'forbidden.'

On Leleuvia, an island that resembles nothing more than Hollywood's idea of a tropical paradise, Philp hopes to make a temporary tabu the foundation of a permanent marine protected area where the coral and sea life will flourish, and the paddling will be superb. When I arrived with my family in January, the beach was lined with kayaks, standup paddleboards, and one-man outriggers. A 12-person double-hulled canoe stood ready at the high-tide line.

As we waited for dinner in the open-air bar listening to a local band playing a mix of Methodist hymns and classic country, Philp methodically lapped the island in his V-1 outrigger. The next morning we took out the 12-man canoe with Colin steering and four of the Leleuvia staff providing the motive power. I flailed along gamely, while my 5-year-old daughter stood in the fast, stable canoe, pointing out the colorful corals and fish scrolling below us. The reef was most impressive within an area marked off by yellow plastic floats stenciled tabu.

The island and reef belongs to nearby Bau village, and falls under the chiefly jurisdiction of Ratu Epinisa Seru Cakobau, great-great-grandson of the cannibal warlord who conquered all of Fiji in 1871. The tabu now in force on the reef surrounding Leleuvia honors Ratu Epinisa's late mother, who died in 2012. Closing an area to fishing is a traditional sign of respect in Fiji, and has been an important stewardship tool for generations. Already the Leleuvia reef is producing bigger and more abundant fish than nearby waters.

There's precedent for such cooperation. "Fiji's strong conservation traditions, coupled with the fact that villages have traditional rights to both coastal waters and adjacent land, have paved the way for integrated conservation efforts," says Dr. Stacy Jupiter, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's programs in Fiji, which now has more than 170 marine protected areas.

These initiatives have been successful because they are based on traditional beliefs, and sustain the central way of life in rural Fiji. As Ledua Gagilala, a surfing guide originally from the outer island of Kadavu told me, "In the villages, if you don't fish you don't eat."

These protected areas are also effective because they sometimes compensate the villages for protecting the resource. Take for example the world-famous beqa shark-dive off the south coast of Fiji's big island, Viti Levu. Divers pay a $20 conservation fee to dive with the hundreds of sharks that frequent the lagoon. The fee goes to the village that has traditional rights to the reef. In exchange, village chiefs have placed a tabu on the reef.

The Upper Navua Gorge, Fiji. Courtesy Rivers Fiji.

The Upper Navua Gorge, Fiji. Courtesy Rivers Fiji.

Paddlers have been an effective catalyst for conservation in the interior of Viti Levu as well. The Upper Navua Gorge is a Class III slot canyon shrouded in jungle and fed by scores of waterfalls.

The gorge falls within the traditional jurisdiction of Nabukalevu and Waidiro villages, which established the Upper Navua Conservation Area through a partnership with whitewater rafting outfitter Rivers Fiji. The communities receive a share of the tourism revenue and supply nearly all of the company's whitewater guides. They also have a healthier ecosystem, which provides a sustainable source of traditional medicines and food.

We saw that first-hand on the river, when our boatman Moses Batirua pointed at the steep jungle embankment and began shouting to his cohorts in animated Fijian. I scanned the trees for whatever had caused the excitement. Wild boar? Some sort of Fijian bald eagle?

Moses parked our 14-foot raft in a small eddy and leaped ashore. Two more guides did the same. As the three rafts bobbed precariously on the edge of the current, the trio climbed 20 feet up a near-vertical embankment, where they plucked a few pale red fruits from a tree.

"Kavika," Moses explained between mouthfuls. "The first ripe ones this year."

WATCH A VIDEO highlighting rafting-supported conservation efforts in Fiji.