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Following a great explorer to a forest people in Indonesia

Tony Whitten's picture

I'm a wildlife biologist.  I'm among the very few lucky World Bank staff to get paid to climb up mountains, go down caves, trek through forests, meet remote forest inhabitants, and to argue the conservation case with senior government officials. But how does this fascinating work translate into Bank projects? Well, it means I work on pure biodiversity conservation projects, on others' projects to add biodiversity value, and on pioneer biodiversity initiatives. It's rather appropriate that I should be writing my first blog on the small Indonesian island of Ternate. It was from here, exactly 150 years ago in 1858, that naturalist and traveller Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin from a small house somewhere close to my guesthouse.

His subject was his ideas on the evolution by natural selection, a conclusion he had reached during his travels around the 'Malay Archipelago'.  This took Darwin aback, since Wallace's ideas coincided with his own, which he had carefully put together over some 20 years of observation and thinking.  The shock of this co-discovery pushed Darwin into finishing his own book, On Natural Selection. which, as was said at the time, 'turned the world upside down'.    Both men had observed the dynamic of life which gave rise to the evolution of new species, and noted that isolated islands had suites of species found nowhere else.  


The team crossing the Aketajawe river. See the full slideshow of the trip.
Such is the case for the large island to the east of us, Halmahera, where I've spent the last few days.  Referred to locally as a 'sleeping giant', this island is rich in minerals and timber but has only very recently started to be exploited.  These and nearly islands form what is known as the North Maluku Endemic Bird Area, which has no less than 26 species not found elsewhere. 

Up to 2004, Halmahera was the largest Indonesian island (18,000 km2) not to have any protected area.  But thanks to the efforts of BirdLife International and official conservation staff, the Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park (ALNP) was then declared.  I'm managing a $1 million grant from the Global Environment Facility given to local NGO Burung Indonesia, the official BirdLife International partner here, to work over a period of four years with government to transform the 'paper park' into an actively managed and effective national park. We're working to have support by all the various stakeholders around its boundaries - a major nickel mine, timber concessionaires, government agencies, surrounding communities, and the nomadic and Forest Tobelo, a small group of semi-nomadic people who live within the forests.

Meeting Papa Kahoho, the 70 year-old patriarch.
The number of Tobelo still living a nomadic life within the park boundaries is probably very small indeed (if any remain), but there are a few semi-nomadic families.  Since the Tobelo recognize no social level above family, there can be no one who truly represents them, meaning that the process of consultation has to be done family group by family group.


After a surprisingly good night sleeping on a concrete floor in Payehe village, we slogged upstream for half a day to meet with the oldest, most respected and most remote family, headed by the 70 year old patriarch, Papa Kahoho. The walk required us to repeatedly cross the fast-flowing Aketajawe River fringed by beautiful forest and above which we occasionally caught glimpses of the endemic cockatoo and parrot, and also of Blyth's hornbill flapping slowly and noisily in search of fruiting trees.

Papa Kahoho's family were living among some thick vegetation 10 meters above the river, making sago flour from the truck of sago palms and setting snares for pigs and deer.  They expect to use such shelters - which blended into the surrounding forest - for about two weeks before moving on.  With the help of a settled Tobelo interpreter, we chatted about their use of the forest, the trends in animal populations, the history of his family, and his knowledge of other Tobelo groups. 

Papa Kahoho's family expected to use these shelters - which blended into the surrounding forest - for about two weeks before moving on.  See the full slideshow of the trip.
Although he was about 4 km outside the national park, we need to be sure the rules and regulations of the park accommodate the traditional uses of these people. To make sure of this, the project will have a professional anthropologist to work with the Forest Tobelo around the park. We were very lucky to have been able to spend time with Papa Kahoho and I was struck by the minimal impact they had on the forest and its wildlife. 

Their way of life will surely die out before long; some of his children and grandchildren are pretty much sedentary and are being influenced by the dominant and enticing lifestyles and expectations found even in remote rural areas of Indonesia.  Even so, we will do what we can to avoid adding to their problems.

Comments

Submitted by Noonathome on
Dear Dr. Whitten, I am one of the Indonesian phd student who work in Lambusango forest and study the bird and butterfly community. It's been great to visit your blog and to know that you still have the time to create great postings. Please visit my blog http://wildlifewisdom.wordpress.com/2008/05/03/sulawesi-the-land-of-wallace/ or my other blog (in Indonesian) http://noonathome.wordpress.com

Dear Nurul Great to hear from you and thanks for the comment and the links. It's good to se you are getting the information out. Good luck with the final stages of the writing up for your PhD, and I hope one day we'll actually meet face-to-face.

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