Sunday, September 30, 2007

Conserving A Paradise


WHEN a group of foreign environmentalists chanced upon a mother-and-son team preparing to barbecue a turtle for dinner on the beach in a village on the Island of Papua, they negotiated to buy the turtle from the locals.

When a group of foreign environmentalists chanced upon a mother-and-son team preparing to barbecue a turtle for dinner on the beach in a village on the Island of Papua, they negotiated to buy the turtle from the locals.

Once they paid for the turtle, they released it back to the sea. The mother and son then went off to look for a substitute meal, but not before being “counselled” about why their eating habit was bad for the ecological system.

Turtle flesh has always been viewed as a traditional source of meat in certain parts of the Bird’s Head Seascape, a region rich in marine species. It is a must-have, especially at religious festivals and feasts.

Picture perfect: The Bird’s Head Seascape, a hotspot for marine life with more than 1,300 species of fish recorded in the area.
But thanks to a campaign by environmental group Conservation International (CI) to educate the locals on the importance of preserving the turtles, many of them have not only given up turtle meat, they have also sold off their turtle-hunting spears – to the environmentalists.

“They are on board the idea of not eating turtle meat. The main issue is now finding an alternative source of meat,” says Dr Mark Erdmann, marine biologist and senior adviser to Conservation International’s Indonesian Marine Programme.

In Christian villages, pork is an alternative while fish and deer are the substitute meat in Muslim villages.

Erdmann, 39, has been based in Indonesia for the past 17 years. Most recently, he has been based at the Bird’s Head Seascape for research work. The region, named for its distinctive shape of the northwest corner of the Island of Papua, Indonesia, covers up to 18.3 million hectares of islands and reefs and is home to more than 150,000 people.

Surveys by CI since 2001 have recorded 1,302 species of fish and more than 600 species of hard coral. Take into account the whales, sea turtles, crocodiles, dugongs and many other species and you have what is believed to be the most bio-diversity rich region in marine life.

At a single site near Triton Bay, CI found more than 335 species of coral reef fish, a world record. The diversity in a small area like that is more than 10 times the diversity found in the entire Caribbean Sea.

The species were discovered and studied by Erdmann and Dr Gerry Allen, one of the world’s foremost experts on marine biology.

“We believe it is the epicentre of marine diversity. There are still more species to be found although we expect to find fewer from now on,” says Erdmann in a phone interview.

Erdmann applauds the idea of the auction, saying that the potentially significant funding would come in handy.
During a survey in September last year, 52 new species, including a shark that walks on its fins and a shrimp that looks like a praying mantis, were found.

To further support conservation efforts in this region, an auction will be held at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco next Thursday. The “Blue Auction” ( offers individuals, companies and organisations the chance to bid for the privilege of having their name or a name of their choice attributed to 10 of the newly discovered marine life species.

This inaugural auction is to enlist the help of participants from all over the world in a conservation exercise that is jointly organised by CI, the Monaco-Asia Society and London auction house Christie’s.

Erdmann applauds the idea of the auction, adding that the potentially significant funding would come in handy.

“The fact that it is the most bio-diverse area in the world alone makes conservation important. This region is also important to replenish the other parts of Indonesia, some of which are in pretty bad shape,” says Erdmann.

It is this biodiversity which has made the region of Raja Ampat (similar to the Sipadan Islands in Sabah) in the Seascape one of the “hottest” new diving destinations in the world, according to Erdmann.

While tourist dollars contribute to the economy, the sea is just as important to the locals who depend on sustainable traditional fishing techniques to feed themselves.

Going around in small canoes, they fish using hand lines and spears. These activities do not really impact the environment as such. However, things are not all that rosy as the Seascape grapples with several problems, especially illegal fishing. As is in many other parts of the region, blast fishing and cyanide fishing are two big threats.

Bomb fishing is a process using homemade bombs or other explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. Cyanide fishing, meanwhile, uses the chemical compound sodium cyanide to stun the fish.

“It is vital that these illegal activities are stopped,” says Erdmann, who adds that illegal mining and logging on the islands is creating toxic run-off, threatening the reefs.

To combat this problem of illegal fishing, the Indonesian government has set up a joint patrol system comprising the police, fisheries and local community members.

The efforts of the various stakeholders have also seen the implementation of a network of marine reserves within the seascape totalling 30,000 square kilometres.

“Our main aim is to facilitate the local government in Papua so that there is a proper management system for reefs and rainforests in the area,” says Erdmann.

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