Sometimes there are those places, people and experiences that are so magical they make you feel like you just need to give something back. That feeling of awe and gratitude is common for visitors to the Kingdom of Tonga, where swimming with humpback whales, pristine clear water and unlimited coconuts are all key ingredients in inspiring you to do what you can. To repay the kindness shown by its inhabitants (human and humpback whale). For us, this meant travelling to remote Nomuka Island, meeting some incredible people working to protect what they love, providing veterinary care and medical supplies to the animals of the island, and most importantly: hugging some very cute puppies.
This was my third visit to Tonga and one of the best things about the islands is that there is a seemingly unlimited supply of puppies. This is obviously awesome, however it does raise some problems, and often the puppies are not very well-fed, cared for or healthy. Luckily on this trip I was joined by my partner Ángel (a wildlife vet) and some new connections - friends who lived on a small island in the Ha'apai group, and who shared a desire for action and change. So after spending some time helping on an amazing plastic bottle project in Vava'u, we boarded the long and bouncy ferry down to Ha'apai.
New friends: the Sheen Family & their Beach Barn - Nomuka, Tonga
Nomuka is a small tropical Island that belongs to the Ha’apai group. It's extremely remote, requiring two flights, a ferry and a small dinghy to arrive on its sandy shores from Australia. There are about 75 houses on the island, and the local animals are mostly domesticated - dogs and pigs, plus some cats, chickens, horses and ducks. There are also some local animals, like flying foxes and skinks, but the water is where it gets really special, with visiting humpback whales and whale sharks plus resident manta rays, leopard sharks and beautiful coral reefs. The islands are rich in nature and oceanic wildlife, but not so rich in hard cash money. So there are inevitable issues with animal welfare, particularly in a place where pigs outnumber people. So before we left Australia Angel called around for some medical donations and we collected what we could.
Once we arrived in Nomuka, we were welcomed by new friend and local Apiesa and a huge group of enthusiastic Tongan kids greeting the weekly ferry. Our new temporary home was the beach barn, an incredible off-grid existence built from scratch by the Sheen family. Dior, Tris and Dave have built not just a beautiful home, and an eco business (Whale Discoveries) but also many social and environmental projects. They've hosted vets in the past, as well as provided a waste collection service for the town, and helped to create a local society to protect the people and environment of their island (Nomuka Island Conservation Environment Society, or NICE)
From the 8th-12th of October, our awesome team of volunteers, a qualified vet and a Tongan-English translator visited every house we could on the island. We surveyed about 75% of the total population (57 families), asking questions about their animals (what and how many), what health issues they had, and if there was an interest in sterilization. General health exams were also performed on all animals where possible - almost all the dogs and most of the pigs were treated for internal and external parasites. Overall, parasite treatment was given to 150 dogs and at least 300 pigs.
We're so proud of what we achieved, and so grateful to everyone who played a part in helping to make this Pacific Hope project possible. Hopefully this is the start of big things - there is a lot of interest on the island for sterilization (99.3% of people said yes), and reducing the population of dogs to a more manageable number would help solve some of the issues of malnourishment and parasites. We plan to return next year to perform sterilizations, plus more general treatments, and ideally to build a model that can be used on other small islands. This may also include workshops, training locals, speaking at schools, and whatever we can do to try and make life a bit happier for the animals (and people) of this amazing island.
A HUGE thank you to Sydney University Veterinary Hospital, Balgowlah Veterinary Clinic, Seadog Veterinary Clinic (Cooktown), the Sheen family and visiting friends who donated medical supplies for the animals. And especially to Angel Grimaldi, not just for capturing all these beautiful photos, but also for all the time and effort you put into volunteering to help out the puppies (and pigs) of Tonga.