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The Vatthe (meaning “eye of the sea”) Conservation area is located in Bay Bay, on the Northern coast of Santo (the largest island in Vanuatu). Covering an area of 2,720 hectares it is believed to contain the only extensive alluvial and limestone forest left in all of Vanuatu. It extends westward to the Jordan River (one of the largest rivers in Vanuatu) and southward, covering the black sand beach of the bay, the Matantas River, and four kilometres to the top of a raised limestone cliff 400 metres above sea level. It has three caves that serve as roosting sites for insectivorous bats; one is “taboo” and can only be entered by the High Chief of Matantas village after performing a custom ceremony.
Within the conservation area there lives a snake spirit, Alawuro, who is the guardian of Big Bay and its forest. Alawuro lives in a cave of a limestone cliff overlooking the magical forest and sees all that goes on in Big Bay. He rides in his white horse to the village and warns them when he is not content with any happenings in the village. Sometimes Alawuro appears to villagers or visitors in their dreams. Alawuro helped protect the Big Bay forest by cursing a planter, Mr. Bardo, the builders of the first road to Matantas village, and a school teacher who was afflicted with lasting severe headaches. These people were led to flee the area. The villagers of Sara and Matantas fear and respect Alawuro and believe that it helped them establish the Vatthe Conservation Area.
Vatthe’s vegetation is grouped into seven broad plant groups, the alluvial plain forest, species rich forest, species poor Namatal (Kleinhouia hospital) & Nakatambol (Dracotommelon vitiense) forest, Bin Tri (Antiaris toxicariia) Forest, Swamp Forest, Coral Limestone Forest, Savanna and River Jordan riparian vegetation. The species rich forest is dominated by Melektri (Antiaris toxicariia). Two hundred and sixty five (265) species of plants (trees, shrubs, palms and vines) with traditional uses have been identified in this area. The conservation area provides food, custom ceremony, building materials, and medicine for the Matantas and Sara people. They harvest Nangai (Canarium indicum) nuts and Bin Tri seeds and sell them at the markets.
Vatthe harbours bird species of a richness and diversity unlikely to be exceeded elsewhere in Vanuatu. A total of 48 species of land and freshwater birds, out of the total 74 species of land and freshwater birds recorded for Vanuatu by Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand (1993) survey, are found in the region. This is 75% of the land and freshwater birds found in Vanuatu. Six out of Vanuatu’s nine endemic species (Ducula bakeri, Megapodius freycinet laryardi, Zosterops flavifrons, Ptilinopus tannensis, Phylidonyris notabilis) are known to use this forest. Vanuatu’s only endemic genus, the Vanuatu Flycatcher (Neolalage banksiana), is observed to be common. The endangered Royal Parrot Finch (Erythrura cyaneovirens) and Incubator (Megapodius freycinet laryardi) are also found in Vatthe. The Incubator Bird (Namalaus) is classified as vulnerable due to habitat loss and over exploitation and is listed as a priority species in what is known as the IUCN Megapode Action Plan. Five species of bats have been recorded, two fruit bats (Pteropus tonganus and P. aneitianus) and three insectivorous bats (Aslliscus tricuspidatus, Hipposideos cervinus and Miniopterus australis). A herptofauna study conducted by Whitaker in 1993 found 10 of the 12 species of reptiles found in Santo are located in Vatthe. There is a total of 26 terrestrial species recorded for Vanuatu. Three endemic species (Cryptoblepharus novohebridicus, Emoia nigromarginata and E. sanfordi) occur at Vatthe out of a total of 6 known throughout Vanuatu.
Recent freshwater survey conducted by Keith Philippe at Matantas river in 2003, recorded 21 species of freshwater fish out of the 62 species known for Vanuatu. Of these, 3 are endemics. The area contains 13 species of crustaceans. The endemic fish species include Schismatogobius vanuatuensis, Microphis sp and Stenogobius sp. The two latter species are still undergoing description. Keith expects that the entire catchment of the Jordan River is very important for freshwater biodiversity
The Vatthe Conservation Area was established in 1994. It is listed under the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan Conservation Area Database and is registered in June 2004 under the Environmental Management and Conservation Act N0.12 of 2002. It has a management plan and a management committee.
The proposed site is significant in terms of it being the largest area in Vanuatu established for in-situ conservation of a wide diversity of flora and fauna. Vatthe's unique ecological diversity allows for the presence of many faunal communities, including 6 endemic species of Vanuatu birds, 3 endemic freshwater species, 1 endemic flying fox, and 3 endemic species of reptiles. This is not an exhaustive list as further research is likely to identify additional species of significance. Two internationally threatened bird species are also found in this conservation area.