New Guinea Expedition

by Cam Webb, Research Associate
June 4, 2013

Red bird-of-paradise

New Guinea Expedition

Red bird-of-paradise

Red bird-of-paradise displaying; (c) Tim Laman

After last fall’s trip to Seram, our next sampling location is in Indonesia’s West Papua province, part of the great island of New Guinea. Even by rural Indonesian standards, Papua is remote and expensive to reach, but because of this contains the last vast areas of unexploited forest. It is the “final forest frontier,” and under active assault by timber, oil palm, ranching, and mining interests.

For our project, Papua represents the eastern-most species pool in the gradient we are studying from Asian to Australian forests. With the help of many local friends and collaborators, I managed to get permission from the Indonesian government to do research in Papua. Historically this has has been difficult to obtain, due to the persistent tension between ethnic Papuans still hoping for independence and the Indonesian state. I visited Papua in 2005, and it has been a dream to come back and do forest research here. There is a great gap in knowledge about the biodiversity of Papua, and very few forest plots with published data. We do know that the general composition of the lowland forests is primarily Asian in composition (i.e., still some dipterocarps, and still few eucalypts), but the details of local and regional variation in forest composition are very few. Based on the results of any collecting that has been done, there are a great many undescribed species in the forests, and we can almost certainly look forward to discovering some.

I’ve been in the westernmost city of Sorong for ten days now, reconnoitering travel, access, and logistics options. Due to my prior uncertainty about these options, I had obtained permission for two sites that would have worked for our scientific goals: the Tamrau Mountains in the north of the “bird’s head” of West Papua, and the large island of Waigeo, northwest of Sorong. On my previous trip, I fell in love with the nature of Waigeo. I also have strong personal connections with people I’ve met there before. On arriving in Sorong last week and meeting up with old friends, it became clear (as is always the case) that these personal connections count for much and make everything easier. Thus I have continued to pursue Waigeo as our destination.

While not too far from the Moluccan island of Halmahera, Waigeo appears to have a thoroughly Papua forest composition, probably due to its rapid motion from the east (in geological time) and very recent arrival in its current position. New Guinea is geologically complex, formed of the accretion of many parts, and both Waigeo and the Tamrau Mountains originated as micro-terranes in the mid Pacific. Waigeo appears to be loaded with endemic species, such as the rare red bird-of-paradise, Paradisea rubra, sought by Alfred Russel Wallace when he visit in September 1860 (see chapter 36 of his ‘The Malay Archipelago’). Botanically, Waigeo is very rich, due to the wide range of habitats and substrates, from limestone pinnacles to ultrabasic shrubland, from lowlands on volcanic soils to montane forest (on Gunung Danai, which we hope to visit). For information about the vegetation of the Raja Ampat, see a report [pdf] I wrote for the Nature Conservancy.

The past ten days have been full of the usual stresses of organizing an expedition: reporting to officials, (re-)obtaining permits for protected areas, arranging a later visit by my scientific counterparts, buying supplies, solving logistical issues to move and supply a team of ten for a month in the forest (planes, taxis, and lots of boats), dealing with the death of my BlackBerry, etc. I am sometimes tempted to think how much easier it would have been for Wallace: he just turned up, rented a shack not far from the shore and started work. But of course, I don’t (yet!) have to deal with constant threat of shipwreck, continual fevers, extended periods of very little food, and perhaps worst of all, being cut off from loved ones by vast distances with months separating written communications. I get to call home every day and stay (while in the city) in a pleasant air-conditioned hotel!

giant Syzygium tree

Hengky Goram and a giant Syzygium tree, Waigeo, 2005

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the vital importance of respecting and accommodating the desires and social concerns of local landowners. This is still true today for Papua more than in almost any other part of Indonesia. All land here is traditionally owned by local clans (“marga”), and recent constitutional changes will only strengthen the effective control people have over their land. This has impacted our trip already: I found out when I arrived that access rights for the area I had hoped to visit have been contracted out to an external party, albeit with the best intentions for forest conservation. This has led to some internal division within the clan. I was advised by local traditional leaders that, even though I had been welcomed to visit, my working in that area would likely fuel this internal conflict, probably with negative consequences for all parties. Instead, I was steered towards the village of Kabilol on the western shore of the amazing Mayalibat bay. I had also visited the forest here in 2005, and remember a beautiful, undisturbed lowland area, into which I was admitted as—in locals’ memory—the first foreign visitor.

So, this morning I leave by ‘longboat’ to cross the ocean to Waigeo. I am traveling with a local traditional leader, Pak Hengky, and tonight we will meet with the Kabilol village elders to ask about access to the the forest area to the west of their village. My trusty assistants, Endro and Acun, arrived on Monday and have been shopping up a storm ever since. They will take the public express foot ferry to Waisai, on the south coast of Waigeo, and then hopefully join me tomorrow in Kabilol. There is no cellphone signal in Kabilol, but we will be making regular trips to Waisai. Hopefully, I will be able to send new blog posts every now and again. Wish us luck!

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