Friday, October 19, 2007

Ecological Race Against Time in Raja Ampat

Since 2005, Geoffrey Gearheart, a marine biologist and sea turtle specialist, has been collaborating with the American foundation “Conservation International” to protect the marine sites of the Raja Ampat archipelago (West Papua). Nestled in the heart of the “Coral Triangle”, this high-biodiversity marine hotspot is now under serious threat..

Let it be said that this Franco-American biologist doesn’t beat around the aquatic bush. The devastation caused by human beings in Indonesia are of such massive proportions and occur at such lightning speed that wilderness conservation agencies have been reduced to “trying to save what’s still salvageable”. Such is the case of the Raja Ampat archipelago, which includes four main islands and a myriad of small islands located in Indonesia’s Papua province, also known as “Coral Triangle”. Thus named by the scientific community, this cluster comprises three eco-regions: Sulu-Celebes, Bismarck-Solomon, and Flores-Banda stretching over Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. “Raja Ampat accounts for 75% of the world’s reef-building, and with more than 1,200 species of fish, it is by far the earth’s richest seascape”, explains this sea turtle specialist, based in Bali since 2003.

“Most big environmental NGO’s are working there”, Geoffrey Gearheart adds, reminding the layman that the biodiversity value of this area is in fact “a recent discovery barely going back to 2001-2002 at most” thus confirming the statement that New Guinea is “the last frontier of the 21st Century”. In addition to this observation, Conservation International is mainly funded by wealthy American environmentalist, such as Harrison Ford, Gordon Moore and Rob Walton, and has started its conservation program in the region since a couple years. Relayed onsite by the local NGO Papua Sea Turtle Foundation (PSTF), the organization has only just begun confirming outstanding results, mainly on Piai Island. Back in 2006, patrols began monitoring the area. Shifts were comprised of a dozen men, sometimes even including former sea turtle fishermen themselves who successfully foiled sea turtle eggs poaching attempts. Since then, Piai Island once again became peaceful haven for these animals. With over 900 nests laid in the period of January-July 207, Piai is now on the map of Indonesia’s major green turtle nesting sites.

In December 2006, thanks to PSTF’s efforts, Piai Island – along with the islands of Sayang and Wayag – was declared a “Marine Protected Area (MPA)”. Indonesian-born PSTF’s director Ferdiel Ballamu has built a monitoring station equipped with a radio and uses two speed-boats to monitor the many lagoons (featured in the September issue of National Geographic). “Papuans now want to control their environment and its resources”, explains Geoffrey Gearheart. Bugis and Buton people from South Sulawesi, who are known throughout the Indonesian archipelago for fishing with explosives, still cross path with the boats intended for Balinese sea turtle-meat markets. Faced with these organized criminals who bribe local authorities to turn a blind eye on their lucrative activities to turn a blind eye on their lucrative activities, the PSTF patrol crafts have never hesitated to brandish make shift wooden M16 rifles to intimidate poachers when necessary.

Shark fishermen also constitute a frightening threat for Raja Ampat’s ecosystems and that of its sea turtle “in parts due to their fishing methods”, explain the biologist. Either they trawl two-kilometer long nets which eventually collect everything in their path including the sea turtles, or they longline with hundreds of hooks often baited with… turtle liver. “And when they don’t find sea turtles, they dynamite fish for bait in the lagoons”, adds Geoffrey Gearheart. Lastly, Chinese restaurants not only serve sharks fin soup as a delicacy, but sea turtle shells are also being consumed as “chips or crisps”, explain the environmentalist. It’s frequent to stumble upon reptile remains spewing out gutted – out bellies. In fact, Piai’s beaches were true turtle slaughter-sites before the PSTF began patrolling the areas.

This hands-on dedication could not exist without political good-will and community participation. “In West Papua, one must know how to work with the clans, the bupati alone cannot do everything”, comments Geoffrey Gearheart who admits spending more of his time protecting sea turtles than doing science. “It’s oftentimes necessary to use simple arguments related to their livelihoods when explaining to villagers the importance of protecting heir sea turtles”, he specifies. The priority, however, lies in the local authorities. The law of regional autonomy has been “a true disaster for Indonesia’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems”, he argues, because it has enabled the rise of countless local but nonetheless powerful politicians who are more inclined to get rich than to manage properly their natural resources. During the spare time he has, Geoffrey Gearheart tries to answer research questions related to turtle population genetics and distribution by pacing Argos satellite tags on green and hawksbill turtles. “This enables to monitor their migration routes from one island to the other”, he continues. “The sea turtle’s navigation system is still unknown”, explain this pragmatics idealist, who compares himself to “a farm doctor”, always at the bedside of sick islands. Baptized “Mr. Turtle” by this strong team of scientists sent to Raja Ampat by Conservation International, Geoffrey Gearheart says that marine program is relatively new for the foundation, and that its success and expansion will depend on other actions to come. Conservation International’s generous donors, who are amongst the wealthiest people on the planet, want to see concrete results. Therefore, they often travel in their private jets to personally visit the projects they are financing, and they are not the kind of people to be satisfied with tedious annual progress report.

Taken from The Communities of Indonesia n°4 – October 2007

No comments:

Post a Comment