Vanuatu: Birds, Butterflies, and Trees

Stepping into the world of the islands of the Pacific is, for me, like entering a maze I have no hope of exiting. Since knowing only Easter Island, thanks to a faded picture in an English textbook, I subsequently made my acquaintance with Thor Heyerdahl’s Polynesian adventures. Lloyd Jones followed with the beauty of Papua New Guinea in Mister Pip a few years later. However, islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia remain a mystery to me, and here I look at them entirely from a geographic perspective, because we know the folly of lumping diverse races/linguistic groups into a single category. I start off with an apology in case the understanding I am now trying to arrive at, entirely from sources written in English and possibly from a Western perspective, ignores local voices and insights. This is not intentional and I’d be more than happy to be corrected, for the last thing I want to do is to learn a Eurocentric version of history.

Vanuatu, an archipelago in the Southwestern Pacific Ocean, falls in East Melanesia, east-northeast of Australia. The islands were known as the New Hebrides in colonial times, and were occupied by both the British and the French (the Anglo-French Condominium). The first stamps issued in Vanuatu were British Fiji stamps overprinted to indicate use for the New Hebrides, after which joint issues with the French followed. Vanuatu celebrated forty years of independence in July, marking the occasion with a nine-day parade. The stamps fittingly celebrate indigenous culture and biodiversity, even as they acknowledge the battle to preserve nature as the demands of modern living take their toll on plant and animal life.

All the stamps in my collection are recent, and as I’m still learning to trace a stamp’s history, please bear with my inept efforts for a bit. In this installment, I’m going to divide my Vanuatu stamps into two sets: the first focusing on plants, animals, and birds, and the second on people and scenery.

East Melanesia is considered a biodiversity hotspot, with the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu all home to a rich variety of plant and animal species, both native and imported. The Vanuatu government website emphasizes the need for conservation and sustainable use of resources on its islands, especially in the face of increasing damage to rainforest and freshwater ecosystems, and decline in the population of several plant and animal species.

The wonderfully designed stamps of Vanuatu bear testimony to the natural gifts on offer. Take a look.

The first stamp here features a tropical tree, Endospermum medullosum (whitewood and locally known as Waetwud), used for commercial timber in Vanuatu. It grows in rainforests and offers other value than just timber; the leaves are edible and the bark has medicinal properties. The Waetwud stamp was issued in 2002 to commemorate the Year of Reforestation. What first drew me to it was its unusual shape — and you can see from the butterfly stamp that Vanuatu is quite skilled at this.

The Eurema hecabe sulphurata is found in Asia, Africa, and Australia, and seems like a common variety. This was one of six butterfly stamps issued in 1998. The colours are so well done, and doesn’t the butterfly just look poised to take flight!

The royal parrotfinch featured in the third stamp is endemic to Vanuatu. Unfortunately, it is threatened by deforestation and trade — imagine confining such a lovely thing, taking it away from the freedom of fig trees and forest canopies into walls we just can’t stop creating. This stamp was issued in the Highland Birds series in February 2001.

Blue whales! The one on the left is one of three whale stamps jointly issued with New Caledonia in 2001 (colonisers weren’t terribly imaginative when it came to names, were they). The orchid on the right is from a 1982 issue of 14 stamps and the oldest in my Vanuatu collection, 20 years before the leaf-shaped stamp arrived!

Slim pickings this time, but with the next set of stamps, I hope to explore a little of Vanuatu’s languages and culture. I just learnt that Vanuatu has the largest number of indigenous languages per head in the world — over 108 for its population of ~300,000 people. This is a good reality check for an Indian, and I can’t wait to get into the history of the Ni-Vanuatu.

Main sources (apart from the mandatory Wikipedia references):

A woman from many places.