Fragile Habitats: Indonesia
A Biodiversity Hotspot – As the center of mammalian and marine biodiversity, Indonesia holds a special place in global ecology. It was once a natural paradise, bursting with marine and terrestrial life of all kinds in every one of its 17,000 islands. The surrounding sea was also an underwater eden, harboring more coral and fish species than anywhere else in the world.
Great Threats – Due to a combination of destructive terrestrial and marine threats, Indonesia has unfortunately lost much of its natural beauty in recent years. Deforestation has eliminated most of the rainforest, and poorly managed tourism, overfishing, and coral bleaching have destroyed many coral reefs. There are, however, still a few locations that have retained much of their biodiverse integrity. Due to their remote locations and low populations, Borneo and the Islands of Komodo are two of the most intact.
Komodo’s Underwater Life – Spending four nights on a liveaboard travelling around the islands of Komodo provided an in-depth look at the marine biodiversity of fish and corals. We went diving on coral reefs, accompanied by Dr. Lawrence Blair, an anthropologist and explorer known for his travels around Indonesia, and Calvin Beale, a manta ray researcher who helped ban legal manta fishing in Indonesia. These reefs were a mixture of underwater pinnacles, reef slopes, and vertical drop offs, and each one has varying corals and fish.
Batu Bolong – Batu Bolong, in particular, showcased a healthy coral reef ecosystem. It surrounds an underwater pinnacle in the middle of a channel between two islands and is fed by fast moving and nutrient rich currents that come from deep below the sea. Not only are these currents bursting with all kinds of smaller life including fish schools and moray eels, but they also bring in large animals like sharks and rays who stay on the reef’s outer edge.
Underwater Exploration – After rolling backwards off the boat, I looked in the water and was surrounded by more life than I had ever seen in one place. Schools of brightly colored anthias flashed in and out of the reef like fireworks. A huge whitetip reef shark glided by far below, and a giant moray eel slithered through the corals. Under every rock, behind every coral, and beneath every overhang, another unique showcase of biodiversity revealed its beauty.
The Manta – I was looking at a fascinating box fish feeding on algae when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and Calvin was pointing into the deep blue. Barely visible at first, it was a manta ray, one of the most graceful creatures in the animal world, swimming by. Its massive twelve foot wingspan was revealed as it glided past. Suddenly, however, it did an awkward twist in the water before swimming out to the blue once again.
Trapped in the Fishing Line – I thought nothing of the manta’s awkward twist, but once I looked at the photos with Calvin, I realized that something was wrong. A long piece of fishing line was attached to the manta’s right cephalic fin. The fishing line had cut off the cephalic fin, which mantas use to feed themselves more effectively, and the fin was only attached by a thin piece of skin. Luckily, the manta’s twist broke the fishing line, and solved the problem. Unfortunately though, the fin will still fall off, and the manta will have to work so much harder to feed.
Threats to Manta Rays – Discarded fishing lines are only one of the conservation issues for mantas. The biggest threat is the black market trade for manta ray gill rakers. They are marketed in Chinese medicine to cure everything from chickenpox to cancer to infertility, but the gill rakers have absolutely no medical value and are full of toxic ammonia. Even more interesting is that these gill rakers have only been used by the Chinese since the late 1980s, when shark fin traders wanted to expand the market to include mantas.
Problem Villages – Today, some villages in Indonesia have based their entire livelihoods around fishing mantas. Lamakera, located to east of Flores, was the leader in this trade and once speared hundreds of mantas every year for sale to the Chinese. (I recommend watching the movie “Racing Extinction” for more on this subject). With a relatively low population and a reproductive rate more similar to humans than other fish, mantas were not prepared for this catastrophic trade that wiped out countless numbers.
An Economically Viable Recovery – Luckily, Calvin conducted surveys in several parts of Indonesia, and his population and reproduction data helped convince the Indonesian government to put a ban on fishing manta rays. This ban also became economically beneficial for the Indonesian government because of high profits from tourists coming to see the mantas. Calvin and his team discovered that a live manta will produce up to 1.9 million U.S. dollars through direct tourism value, and a manta killed for its gill rakers will give 500 dollars to the fisherman. To come up with these numbers, the scientists compared direct profits from manta tourism and the top market prices for gill rakers. Now, the killing of mantas have subsided because of Calvin’s data, and in many areas, the species is recovering.
The Orangutan Strife – The Bornean Orangutan was recently classified as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means they are in extremely high risk of extinction. Rampant deforestation to supply the logging trade and a huge demand for destructive palm oil are the main culprits for this horrific decline.
Pet Trade – The demand for baby orangutans in the pet trade is another pressing threat. Scientists estimate that three to five adults are killed during a single baby orangutan capture as they try to defend the helpless youngsters. These brutal captures and deadly deforestation habits have quickly severed orangutan populations in the past 30 years, and they are now fighting for survival.
Feeding Stations – We traversed the river on a noisy klotok boat and visited many feeding stations along the Sekonyer River. These stations have been set up for scientists to track orangutan numbers and supply extra food for recently released animals. The Camp Leakey Station has been key for orangutan conservation and has released hundreds of individuals that were seized from the illegal trade. Many of the rehabilitated animals continue to use the feeding platform and more than twenty of them arrived during our brief visit.
Who Showed Up – They would sit down on the platform and sort through the bananas, eating as much as they could, and on their way out, they grabbed as many as possible. They showed their human-like nature as they came close to us and revealed why they are locally known as the “man of the forest”. Without these stations, the population would decline even further and scientists would have little chance of accurately monitoring this species.
Mountain of Trees – On our third day, after another orangutan encounter, our boat briefly went out into the sea. Something huge was waiting for us. At first, I thought it was an island I hadn’t seen before, but as our boat drew near, I realized the object was a massive cargo ship overflowing with freshly cut timber. It was shocking to have a visual of deforestation in Borneo. Thousands of hectares of rainforest, and probably many orangutans, had perished to fuel this mountain of logs.
What can you do – To be saved from extinction, Borneo’s wildlife and last remaining rainforest need revised eco-friendly government policies or the remaining forest will face the same fate. You can help protect these forest by managing your consumption of unsustainable palm oil, which happens to be in nearly 50% of American supermarket products, and switch to products with sustainably-farmed palm oil. You can check for eco-friendly labels to make sure the products are farmed sustainably.
Necessary Action – Indonesia’s natural world faces some daunting threats. Its species are losing vast amounts of habitat and reaching critically low populations. Government’s need to enforce manta ray protections and large companies need to farm more sustainably or these species will be doomed to extinction. I hope Indonesia’s governments and corporations will become committed to species and habitat protection and the remaining ecosystems will be protected for years to come.