Expedition to Seram

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
April 17, 2012

Expedition to Seram

After Gunung Palung in Borneo, the next fieldwork site for our ‘Xmalesia’ project is Seram, one of the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia. We picked Seram because of its seasonally dry climate, biogeographically strategic position, and relatively large area of remaining lowland forest. A large National Park, Manusela, occupies 189,000 ha in the east of the Island, and contains a variety of habitats, from coral reefs to the high montane grassland of Mount Binaiya (3,019 m), and I had long wanted to visit it.

The memorial to Georg Eberhard Rumphius, in Ambon

The expedition was planned for October and November 2011, and I took a quick reconnaissance trip in September. I was greatly assisted by Fransina Latumahina, an entomologist from the local Patimura University, who took several days away from her master’s studies in Yogyakarta to escort me to Ambon, the provincial capital. Fransina is writing up a dissertation on ant samples she collected in different habitats around Ambon: she had over 1,000 species to sort through, many of which will be new to science. While in Ambon, I was excited to locate the memorial to Georg Eberhard Rumphius in a high school courtyard; Rumphius was the first serious naturalist to work in Indonesia, producing the amazing plant book Herbarium Amboinense, covering over 1,200 species (just translated for the first time into English).

The reconnaissance went well, and I was warmly received by the Manusela Park staff, who seldom have researchers interested in the park, and even less frequently botanists; the parrots and cockatoos of Seram are its most popular natural attraction. I rented a car in Masohi to travel the well-paved but precipitous new road over the central mountains, and found what I hope will be a suitable lowland forest area on the north coast. The central mountains are primarily limestone and karst, and while often loaded with endemic species, this represents a different geology from that of the other expedition locations. However, the large northeastern plains of Seram occur over sandstone, and by trekking a couple days up the rivers into the foothills we should be able to find low rolling hills on sedimentary rock that will match our other expedition locations.

The beautiful rainbow bark of Eucalyptus deglupta in Seram’s lowland forest. This is the eucalypt that occurs farthest from Australia, even reaching the Philippines.

While taking the road on the way back through the mountains I was able to get cellphone reception, and was shocked to hear that my wife Kinari was seriously ill on a fundraising trip in Boston. I began perhaps the fastest trip ever made from Seram to Boston, arriving less than 48 hours later. Kinari pulled though, but I stayed in the US with her; we had to call off the full expedition planned for October, and have still not been able to reschedule the trip. Our project field botanists, Endro Setiawan and ‘Acun’ Hery Yanto, had been very excited about the trip, and have been disappointed at the ongoing delay. So I decided to capitalize on their eagerness and test the approach of ‘parataxonomist-led’ exploration that we have been discussing a lot recently. With the agreement of our main project collaborator, Dr. Teguh Triono, and with official permission already granted to our project, I sent them on a two-week plant collecting trip. They will hopefully visit two sites different from the one we plan to visit for the full expedition, and they are almost certain to come back with some very interesting finds. There has been very little serious plant collecting in Seram since expeditions by Dr Masahiro Kato and his team in from 1983-6 (see e.g. Kato, 1990), and on an Operation Raleigh expedition in 1987. The next few blog posts will document their trip, partly in their own words.

Endro sent this before leaving for the forest:

“We left from Jakarta on April 2 at 01:30 [on the night flight]. It seems like a dream: we will travel to a distant land where we never imagined we would be. That’s what made us unable to sleep on the plane!

Gandaria (orange, Bouea macrophylla) and rambutan (red, Nephelium lappaceum) for sale in Ambon. Photo: Endro Setiawan

At 7:30 we arrived in Ambon [‘Ambon Manise’], a town famous since Dutch colonial times. By the side of the road, we saw gandaria fruits for sale [Bouea macrophylla], which gave us great expectations that there also will be fruit of other Anacardiaceae species in the forest. Ambon is a small but busy city, and we even got stuck in morning rush-hour traffic. We arrived at the lodge and immediately fell asleep, because we had not slept all night.

We spent two days in Ambon, and saw some of the city while we were coordinating with KSDA [regional conservation office] to get the specimen collection permit. Ambon is not so different from West Kalimantan, with an active ‘hanging-out coffee culture!’ The only difference is that they call the coffee houses here rumah kopi rather than warung kopi; the most famous is a place called the Lela Coffee House.

Ambon was peaceful [it has not always been], and at night Sam Ratulangi Street becomes a place for culinary tourism. We tried grilled fish with a typical sauce called colo-colo: chopped chilies and tomato in lemon juice. It was extraordinary!

Sunset in the Spice Islands, from Masohi. Photo: Endro Setiawan

On Wednesday afternoon we crossed the strait to Seram on the express ferry, a trip of two hours with magnificent views of blue ocean and high mountains. From the port of Amahai we went directly to Masohi, the capital of Maluku Tengah regency. Masohi is an old town, inaugurated by the Soekarno, Indonesia’s first President, and apparently the same age as Palangkaraya [in Central Kalimantan, once planned to be the capital of Indonesia]. But the conflicts made this a ghostly quiet city. Lots of roads and many large buildings, but deserted.

Over the Easter weekend while preparing to leave for the field, we amused ourselves fishing (both Endro and Acun are passionate fishermen), but fishing here is very different from Kalimantan. We have some learning to do!

After everything was ready [the hardest to find was old newspapers!], we left for the forest to collect plant specimens. In Masohi there are many fruits at this time: durian, gandaria, mangosteen, guava, mango, and langsat. We went with great anticipation that there would be much wild fruit in the forest. And we also hope to see the beautiful nuri Seram parrot, the kuskus [a marsupial], and swim with some morea [giant freshwater eels] in the river.”

I haven’t heard from the team since Monday. Hopefully all is well, and they have many amazing plants to tell about.

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