A story from Tanimbar Islands, Western South-east Maluku
by Fahrul P. Amama
It’s the end of the rainy season and the Monsoon breeze is still blowing humid air from the east, along with rain clouds from the Pacific Ocean, through Maluku Region. A Cassa 212 with 20 passengers from Ambon flies over the Banda Sea heading the South to the Tanimbar Islands, known as the forgotten islands of Indonesia. These islands lie between Timor and Papua on the South-eastern edge of Indonesian territory, closer to Australia in the South than to the provincial capital Ambon (06o 35’- 08 o22’ S; 130o 40’ – 132o 03’ E). There are 67 islands in the Tanimbar group, most of them tiny, separated by shallow waters and ringed with mangrove forests and coral reefs. The three main islands with significant forest are Yamdena, Larat and Selaru.
After about two hours flight, this propeller plane approaches Yamdena Island, the largest of the Tanimbar group. A long black cloud hangs over most of the southern shore of the island, reducing visibility, and the plane has to drop low, searching for a fissure in the cloud, before starting its final descent. When plane bursts through the low cloud a magnificent view unfolds of a broad, flat island still covered by semi evergreen rainforest. The remoteness of Tanimbar Island has helped protect it from the ravages experienced by forest in much of Indonesia, and Yamdena supports the most extensive tracts of monsoon and semi evergreen forest in eastern Indonesia. However, this rich green carpet is vulnerable. Tanimbar's limestone geology and small size make it very vulnerable to soil erosion and reduced water supplies if forest is cleared.
As the plane passes low over the forests of southern Yamdena we can see the green canopy from the window. Below us, a flock of stunning bright white birds flies over the dark green. It is not hard to guess that these are the Tanimbar Corella Cacatua goffiniana, one of the main reasons for this journey: to take action for threatened parrots in Tanimbar.
Indonesia is one of the two most important countries in the world for biodiversity conservation. This exemplified by the psittacines: 77 parrot species occur in Indonesia and the country is the most important in the Asia Pacific region in terms of the number of threatened parrot species, the Maluku region itself supports 32 parrot species. Two of them are endemic to the Tanimbar Islands: the Cockatoo, Tanimbar Corella C. goffini and Blue-streaked Lory Eos reticulata. Both are currently considered ‘near-threatened’ but are vulnerable to exploitation and habitat loss across their small island range.
The plane is getting lower, approaching the small airfield at Saumlaki. Saumlaki is the only large town in the Tanimbar Islands and is the headquarters of the Government of the new District of Western South-east Maluku. As we drive into town, the small island atmosphere is disturbed by the activity of a newly developing District. In the town center, many new buildings have been constructed for housing and government offices. Western South-east Maluku District owes its existence to a radical law passed by the Indonesian Government in 1998, decentralizing many powers to provincial and local governments. However the delegation of power has not been followed by funding for the new administration or for development of these poorest regions of the country. As a result there is a great risk that the new local government, under-staffed, under-skilled and lacking income, will turn to the forests and land on Yamdena as one of the most obvious sources of support.
The next day, when we wandered though the crowded market close to the harbour, familiar calls attracted us to the edge of the market area. There was a stall with at least 27 Blue-streaked Lory Eos reticulata, crowded in a tiny cage. Trappers from Laroembun, a small village in eastern Yamdena, caught the Lories by using snares. They are selling the distressed birds cheaply, not more than 2 US$. From previous survey reports, we already aware that trapping is carried out openly and is a normal activity for the people.
The reports and our finding in the Saumlaki market on my first day on the island have shown us how important BirdLife Indonesia’s work for the conservation of the Tanimbar parrots is. The communities on Tanimbar are poor, very religious, and have strong traditional systems for managing land and resources. However their traditional systems have not coped well with new commercial pressures from outside the island (such as the demand for Parrots), or with the conflict between the system imposed from central Government in Jakarta in the past, and local ways of managing resources. Environmental education can make communities aware of the threats posed by these new problems, and the new opportunities that they have under a decentralised government. At the same time it can make them aware of the unique species and habitats that there are on Tanimbar, and increase their sense of pride in the islands environment.
common that it is a problem for farmers, should we be worrying about its conservation?” Well, there are many examples of birds which were apparently common becoming threatened or even extinct (look at the passenger pigeon). We also know that the forests on Tanimbar are under increasing threat from local owners of chain saws. Habitat loss and trapping could combine to produce a devastating reduction in the population. Now, whilst there are still significant number of the birds, is the critical time to work out how Corellas and people can co-exist and the birds’ survival can be ensured. We need to know how we can help individual farmers who suffer most from the loss of crops to the birds. At the same time we need to change the attitude of people on the island so that they agree that trapping is not something that should be part of daily activity on Tanimbar. The good news is that there seems tIn some places, at certain times of year, the Parrots are significant problems for farmers. During my friend’s previous visit he saw flocks of 100s of Cacatua goffini raiding rice crops close to the edge of the forest. When we hear such reports it is natural to ask, “If the species is soo still be time to take action on Tanimbar, the challenge is to use that time effectively!"