Greetings from the the edge of the Sulawesi rain forest! I’m back on this blog after many months and we’ve started our fifth and final field trip of this NSF-funded research project. I had some hesitancy referring to the previous Flores trip as an expedition, although in the end we needed our standard “trekking and portering, camping and solar-panel” routine. This Sulawesi trip is definitely not such a logistically challenging endeavor! I’m sitting now in a clean, quiet, cool field station just across the river from the forest. It’s Sunday morning (and also the Muslim holy day of Idul Adha), and my laptop is running on mains electricity, and connected to the internet (albeit at ~5 kBps)! We’re working in the Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park (previously Dumoga Bone NP), and the park director and his staff have been wonderfully welcoming and accommodating.
The events and route leading to this place have felt strangely smooth, a result of much good fortune so far, as well as perhaps an “inner” shift in my own approach to these trips. I arrived in Manado a couple weeks ago and traveled with Arief Hidayat, my official research counterpart and an invaluable guide and colleague, to the small town of Kotamobagu—more on this fascinating place in a later post. Though Bogani Nani Wartabone is a large (>200,000 ha) and biologically valuable park, few people other than hardcore birders visit it, and I appear to be the first foreign researcher to have been here in a couple years. During a discussion with the park rangers, several potential sites were suggested for our vegetation work, and Arief and I spent a few days surveying the options. Our very first stop was this Toraut site with its field station and decent forest, and even though we looked at other sites (including the beautiful, cool Mengkang valley), it was soon obvious that Toraut was the best choice when all factors were considered.
The most surprising thing about Toraut is that it still exists! The National Park was set up in 1984 as part of a World Bank-funded project to create and protect an irrigation system for the large, flat Dumoga valley, which had been the site of both spontaneous and directed transmigration since the seventies. Presumably as part of the original park setup, the field station was constructed across the Toraut river from a large area of lowland forest (200-400 m ASL). I actually visited this station as a tourist in 1990, and remember there was already an active research presence here, with active labs and a grid of animal census trails. While I have not yet been able to confirm the details, I know a fair amount of subsequent fieldwork was carried out here in the eighties and nineties, including by the Ecology of Indonesia team, members of the Wallacea project, and a team from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). The only botanical publication I know of is by Whitmore & Sidiyasa (1986), which, while providing an excellent overview of the forest, does not go into much taxonomic detail; it will however be a great pleasure to imagine following in Whitmore’s forest steps!
Despite its promising start, in recent years all I have ever heard about Bogani Nani Wartabone is how serious the encroachment across the park boundaries has been, and I had imagined that this station, if it still existed at all, would be stranded in the middle of some corn field or coconut plantation. Hence my delight to arrive at a freshly painted, tidy station (now renamed Pusat Bina Cinta Alam, or “nature care center”), and to cross the same river I remembered into cool, tall, bird-filled lowland rain forest. Finding out later via satellite images that (illegal) forest conversion to agriculture has proceeded far into the park on either side of this forest wedge (see photo) did not detract much from the wonderful news that the park staff had managed to protect this small patch across from the station. The hardest struggle here at Toraut was reportedly during the nationally-chaotic period following decentralization in 2000, when the entire forest was staked out by villagers for conversion to gardens. That the forest wasn’t all lost is a testament to the rangers’ dedication, and to the very real effect of announcing an area to be a “research forest,” an effect which can be observed elsewhere, including at our beloved Cabang Panti station in the Gunung Palung National Park. One of the deciding factors for me in picking this site rather than Mengkang was that so doing feels like a way to honor and reinforce the efforts of the park office in protecting this spot. Our plots will also contribute in a small way to infrastructure development here, which could have a positive knock-on effect on further visits, especially by local university students. For any of you interested, you can also stay here as a tourist: just $10 a night for a room, and I can vouch for the high quality of the food (just $2.50 a meal)!
All this said, the forest is quite heavily disturbed. The Minahasa people of North Sulawesi are very eager consumers of bushmeat, and the forest here is full of a dense network of hunting trails, with bat trap nets everywhere (more on the bushmeat trade later). The population of Sulawesi black macaques that was studied here when the station opened has withdrawn far up the hillsides. Many trees on the outer sides of this forest wedge have been been removed and the outer forest is a low tangle of rattan and secondary vegetation. However… patches of tall, undisturbed forest remain, and it has not been hard to find representative spots in which to locate our 50-by-50 m plots. Our farthest site, just a 40-minute walk from the river, is on a gorgeous ridge, far from the sound of motorbikes and chainsaws.
The “human vs. nature” context of each of the various places we’ve visited for this project has been very different, leading me to different kinds of reflections on nature, science, and humanity while in the field. Here, I will not be sleeping “deep in the forest” but instead living on the edge of a village, within a short stroll in one direction of a kios selling soda, snacks, and coffee, and in the other of a giant irrigation dam where teenage couples giggle and chastely court in the setting sun. I suspect that the inescapable juxtaposition of forest and people, of government protected land and villager needs (both real and perceived), of “wilderness” and “disturbance,” and of my own personal engagement with the beauty of plant nature in the day and the television-borne aspirations of a youthful developing nation at night—all will require me to reconsider the various human/nature narratives that influence me. I do know for sure that I am very grateful to have the time, resources, and comfort to pay full attention to this fascinating place over the coming weeks.
Whitmore TC and Sidiyasa K. 1986. Composition and structure of a lowland rain forest at Toraut, Northern Sulawesi. Kew Bulletin 41(3): 747-757 (URL).