Silent Forests

Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.

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Indonesia’s markets are a feast for the senses. Fresh fish, coconuts, spices and colorful fruits tempt the eye and beckon to shoppers. Alongside foods, goods, and innumerable other curiosities, a less familiar commodity is often displayed: wild birds.

Bamboo and wire cages stacked four high crowd aisles and hang from the rafters. They contain colorful parakeets and delicate songbirds like mynas, bulbuls, and barbets whose songs blend into interwoven melodies. Their graceful notes soar, but they are all held captive, for sale.

At least 1,615 bird species are found throughout the Indonesian archipelago, including 419 endemics and 132 globally threatened species. Of these, 300 species are commonly sold, and it is estimated that 22% of households in the country own pet birds.

In Indonesia, a long history of owning pet birds exists, especially in Java. According to an old Javanese saying, “to be a real man one must have a wife, a house, a dagger, a horse and bird.” Consequently, many Indonesian men keep caged birds outside their homes or shops. Birdsong competitions, called Kicua-mania, are also popular pastimes, earning the owners of exceptionally sonorous birds thousands of dollars in prize money.

The countries deep seated bird-keeping tradition and its abundance of species have made it a global center for the pet bird trade. This trade contributes nearly $80 million to the national economy.

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A new study of bird markets in Sumatra seems to have confirmed a link between Indonesia’s thriving caged bird trade and plummeting bird populations in the wild.

Using market data and expert opinion, researchers from Princeton University recently found that commonly traded Indonesian bird species whose value was increasing but were harder to find at markets showed declining populations in the wild.

Additionally, they found that many species found to be experiencing population declines were not listed on the IUCN Red List or listed as declining globally.

“Basically we have a clear imprint that the trade is affecting the birds, and we now need to try and figure out the ones that are declining,” said Bert Harris, Rainforest Trust’s Chief Biodiversity Officer and co-author of the report.

Indonesia’s national obsession is slowly emptying its forests of birds and other wildlife. Despite being home to some of the most species rich ecosystems on the planet, the poaching of birds, mammals and other species is silencing rainforests.

The enormous demand in Southeast Asia for wildlife drives a booming illicit trade. Geckos, hornbills, pangolins, pythons, cockatoos, and a huge variety of song birds are among the many species traded in vast quantities.

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With many wildlife populations on the Asian mainland already exhausted, Indonesia’s extensive forests are now becoming the main supplier of wildlife for the entire region.

However, while newspaper headlines regularly herald the most alarming examples of international wildlife smuggling, experts are warning that the domestic pet trade may pose the biggest threat for Indonesia’s birds.

Visiting a village with my students in Sulawesi, two parrots catch our eye from a house window. They are White Cockatoos (Cacatua alba), also known as Umbrella Cockatoos for their large and striking head crest. Found only in tropical rainforests in Indonesia’s eastern islands, they are classified as endangered.

Noticing our interest, a pair of young boys from the house invite us to admire the birds. To them they are beautiful ornaments to be proudly displayed and shown off. Chained to a metal pole, they seem ghostly shadows of their wild selves.

Will Indonesia’s forests soon become haunted by the sounds of birds and other wildlife vanished from the landscape?

Learn more about Rainforest Ambassadors and Where There Be Dragons.

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Salamanders Lost, Salamanders Found, Salamanders Saved

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Two enigmatic salamander species thought to be lost to science for nearly 40 years have not only been recently rediscovered, but Rainforest Trust and a consortium of international conservation groups have securely protected the last of what these endangered species call home.

Rainforest Trust and five partners recently purchased a 2,279-acre property in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes Range in northwestern Guatemala. Known as the Finca San Isidro, the parcel contains critical habitat for the Long-limbed Salamander, listed by the IUCN as Endangered and the Finca Chiblac Salamander, listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered.

The destruction of San Isidro’s cloud forests appeared imminent due to plans to convert the area into a coffee plantation. Having been convinced of its immense conservation value, however, its owner instead opted to sell the property for conservation purposes to Rainforest Trust’s local partner, Foundation for EcoDevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO).

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Finca San Isidro is home to a plethora of amphibian species, including the recently discovered Cuchumatan golden toad (Incilius aurarius) and the distinctive Black-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis moreletii). Ten of the 20 amphibian species that live in or near the property are classified as Critically Endangered or Endangered by the IUCN.

“The Cuchumatanes Range has long been identified as an epicenter for endangered amphibians and one of the highest global conservation priorities,” said Dr. Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust. “We are delighted to provide urgently-needed assistance to establish the first nature reserve in the region.”

The Finca Chiblac and Long-limbed salamanders were discovered in the 1970s. The salamanders, however, were not seen again until Carlos Vasquez, amphibian conservation coordinator at FUNDAECO, rediscovered them while leading a scientific expedition in 2014. These species, which represent new genera, provide fresh insight into the evolution of new-world tropical salamanders.

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“The establishment of the San Isidro Amphibian Reserve – the first nature reserve in the Western Highlands of Guatemala – is a great conservation success,” said Marco Cerezo, executive director of FUNDAECO, whose organization will oversee management of the reserve. “It marks the beginning of a regional effort to support the protection of forests in the northwest of Guatemala, a region of exceptional biodiversity. Thanks to all our partners that came together to create this sanctuary for unique and endangered amphibians.”

Organizations that supported this project include FUNDAECO, Rainforest Trust, the Amphibian Survival Alliance, Global Wildlife Conservation, World Land Trust and the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

Rainforest Trust would like to thank George Jett and an anonymous donor for their generous support of this project.

Visit Rainforest Trust’s Flickr album to view more photos of endangered species living in the Cuchumatanes Range.

The Last Sea Nomads

Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.

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My students and I struggle to keep up with our guides, Laoda and his father Tadi, as they plunge down the steep edges of Wakatobi’s coral reefs in pursuit of fish. Between navigating the current, avoiding sea snakes and figuring out the home-made spear guns, it is not easy for us. Meanwhile, Laoda and Tadi resurface again and again with snaggle-toothed grins and fish in hand.

Laoda and his family are Bajau, an ethnic group that has for centuries lived nomadically on the sea, plying the waters of the Coral Triangle. Traditional hunter gatherers, the Bajau fish with net, line and spear while diving to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers.

In the last few decades many Bajau have been forced to settle on land by the Indonesian government, though a few still call the ocean home. Disillusioned by government promises and life on land, some Bajau have returned to the old nomadic ways. In places like Sampela, the Bajau village we are staying in Sulawesi’s Wakatobi islands, they have built stilt villages up to a kilometer out to sea and live a subsistence based lifestyle almost wholly dependent on the ocean.

Immersed in this aquatic lifestyle, the Bajau have an encyclopedic understanding of their marine ecosystem and the animals that live in it. They deftly hunt and forage wild foods, navigate by currents, tides and stars, and use nature for medicine and material.

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Their expert traditional knowledge is intuited from close contact and experience. It is also a way of life, interwoven in their spiritual health, culture and beliefs.

Traditional Bajau cosmology – a combination of animism and Islam – reveals this complex relationship with the ocean, which for them is a multifaceted and living entity. There are spirits in currents and tides, in coral reefs and mangroves that must be respected and appeased.

Traditional and subsistence based ways, like the Bajau’s, have helped sustain a healthy natural world for centuries.

This is especially apparent in rainforests. Indigenous peoples in Amazonia are renowned for their extensive knowledge of their rainforest environments. Like the Bajau, many indigenous peoples in the Amazon maintain a subsistence lifestyle that causes little impact on the lands they inhabit. The ecological knowledge that fosters this lifestyle is needed more than ever to protect the planet’s biodiversity as human populations grow and global demand for resources increase.

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As my students and I spoke with Bajau fishermen some interesting patterns emerged. No matter their method of fishing, all cited their love of the ocean as a major motivator for what they do. In fact, the idea of an ocean without fish, without reefs was almost incomprehensible to many of them.

Yet, coral reef ecosystems face a gauntlet of challenges in the 21st century. Overfishing, coastal development, siltation and climate change seriously test the future of Wakatobi’s reefs. The Bajau depend so thoroughly on these beleaguered ecosystems that climate change and shifting sea chemistry could eventually make it difficult for them to even find enough food to continue their traditional subsistence-based lifestyles.

Wrapping up our discussion, I queried the fisherman on the strangest thing they had ever seen on the sea. I was surprised by their answer, “We are Bajau. There is nothing strange to us. We know everything in the sea.”

Despite the Bajau’s deep traditional knowledge of their ocean homes, will it be enough to save them?

In my next post, join me as our class continues to explore Indonesia learning about the archipelago’s unique wildlife, and the illegal trade putting it in jeopardy.

Learn more about Rainforest Ambassadors and Where There Be Dragons.

Follow Jesse’s Instagram Takeover!

Rainforest of the Sea

Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.

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Out on a coral reef ecology lesson, my students and I snorkel over a dazzling world of swaying anemones, giant clams and colorful fish. Bobbing in the translucent waters we pass over hard and soft corals, sea fans, sponges and star fish. It is like swimming through a dream world of kaleidoscopic life forms, colors and sensations.

We are in the Wakatobi Islands, located off the southeastern coast of Sulawesi. These remote islands are home to the Wakatobi Marine Park, once famously described as “underwater nirvana” by legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Sitting at the edge of the Banda Sea, Wakatobi lies in the very heart of the Coral Triangle, an area stretching roughly between the borders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.

The Coral Triangle’s large area and extraordinary range of habitats make it the global epicenter of marine biodiversity on our planet. At least 500 reef-building corals have been described here, and more than 3,000 species of fish, including critically endangered species like Sea Turtles and Whale Sharks.

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Because of its staggering biodiversity, the Coral Triangle has often been called the “Amazon of the sea”. Like the Amazon the area it covers is vast, stretching over 3.5 million square miles of tropical-ocean and sustaining the lives of over 120 million people throughout the region.

Like rainforests, coral reefs are also imperiled by humans. They are fragile ecosystems, due in part to their sensitivity to water temperature. Global climate change is a particular threat to coral reefs as heightened water temperatures stress corals, causing them to bleach and die.

Pollution, coastal development, overfishing and siltation also threaten coral reefs. As rainforests are cut down in places like Borneo and Sumatra, the massive root systems that once held the soil in place disappear too. In turn, huge amounts of soil are washed into the ocean. These sediment loads wash onto reefs and the millions of species that call them home, while obscuring the sunlight corals need to photosynthesize and thrive.

Some studies have found that sedimentation from deforestation is a bigger threat to coral reefs than impacts from climate change. Mangroves and sea grass beds, which normally act as filters for sediment, are also being rapidly destroyed across some parts of the coral triangle, leading to an increase in the amount of sediment reaching coral reefs.

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Threats such as these directly affect the people who depend on these reefs for their livlihoods. People like the Bajau, one of the last nomadic marine communities in the world. For generations they have plied the waters of the Coral Triangle. Traditionally hunter gatherers, the Bajau spear fish and dive to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers. But as seas are fished out it has become harder for them to support themselves and their unique way of life.

As seas change and the older generation disappear, the Bajau’s rich traditional knowledge is in danger of dying out with them – knowledge that could play an important role in preserving the biodiversity and ecosystems of both the Coral Triangle and the world’s oceans.

Join us on our next post to learn more about the last sea nomads and their struggle to preserve their vanishing way of life.

Learn more about Rainforest Ambassadors and Where There Be Dragons.

Follow Jesse’s Instagram Takeover!

The Other Galapagos

Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.

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Our homestay village of Kedungmiri in central Java feels idyllic. About 170 families live in this rural hamlet nestled in a dramatic river valley. Lush rice fields frame a small collection of homes with a blue-green mosque standing prominently at its center. Scattered throughout the streets and alleyways are tethered cows and goats, prancing chickens and giggling children.

As our class gathers on rattan mats under the leafy shade of a village courtyard I unroll a large map of the Malay Archipelago for a lesson. I want to talk about Indonesia’s natural history today, but making sense of this complicated world of islands is challenging. It requires a discussion of biogeography: the distribution of plants and animals across space and time. And any discussion of biogeography must include my favorite science hero – the British naturalist explorer Alfred Russel Wallace.

Beginning in 1854, Wallace began an eight-year journey that took him 14,000 miles around the Malay Archipelago. Visiting every major island at least once Wallace discovered an invisible species boundary separating the faunas of Asia from Australia, known today as the Wallace Line. Animals, like tigers, live on the Asian side of Wallace’s Line and look much different than animals living on the Australian side, like marsupial kangaroos.

At the lines’ narrowest point, between Bali and Lombok, only 22 miles separate radically different groups of plants and animals.

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Scientists now know that Wallace’s Line corresponds with a deep water trench that acted as a barrier to animal migrations when sea levels were much lower during previous ice ages. The trench separated islands from one another and shaped distinct groups of plants and animals on each side.

Wallace’s passion for studying and collecting species was instrumental to understanding this boundary and contributed to the theory of evolution. In 1858, while bedridden with malaria on the remote island of Halmahera in North Maluku, Wallace wrote a letter to his friend, Charles Darwin. His letter described how evolution proceeds through natural-selection. Darwin had arrived at the same conclusion and hastened to publish his seminal work, On the Origin of Species. While both men are credited with the theory of evolution by natural selection, Wallace’s contributions are far less remembered.

As I wrap up my lesson on Wallace and biogeography I can’t help feeling wonder at the rich, intact natural world he must have seen and the pioneering discoveries he made in the name of science.

Today, Wallace would likely be horrified by the extent to which agriculture, commercial logging, and oil palm plantations have transformed much of Indonesia. Though humans have inhabited these islands for 40,000 years, most habitat destruction has taken place during the last century.

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Looking around the farming village of Kedungmiri, all is tranquil and harmonious. However, this domesticity is deceiving as it has come at the expense of the wildlife that once existed across Java and many other parts of Indonesia. The dense human landscape of farms and villages has replaced rainforests, along with many of the species that called them home. Over 350 of Indonesia’s vertebrate species are now threatened with extinction, and several species, like the Javan Tiger, have already gone extinct.

Yet, there are still places where one can catch a glimpse of the world Wallace knew. In the dense rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra and on remote mountaintops and isolated islands, Indonesia’s wildlife still thrives. Just as Wallace is the “other Darwin”, the Indonesian archipelago is “the other Galapagos” – an enchanting living laboratory to observe evolution and be amazed.

Stay tuned for our next post as my class journeys to Sulawesi, staying in the Bajau village of Sampela and exploring Indonesia’s “rainforests of the sea”.

Learn more about Rainforest Ambassadors and Where There Be Dragons.

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Journey to the East Indies

Explore our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago with Jesse Lewis, Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, as he leads a study abroad trip across Indonesia and blogs about the journey in this eight part series.

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We protect what we love, and we love what touches us. As an educator it is my firm belief that studying abroad touches young people in profoundly positive ways.

This summer I took a sabbatical from my role as Rainforest Trust’s Education Coordinator, to lead a study abroad course through Indonesia examining community, culture and conservation on our planet’s largest, and most biodiverse archipelago. Working with Where There be Dragons, a leader in the field of experiential education, our group of eleven students and three instructors took in parts of Java, the Wakatobi Islands off Southeastern Sulawesi and the mysterious eastern islands of Flores.

Taking young people out of their comfort zones and into the field – into the forests, onto the reefs, through the villages and bustling markets of Indonesia – is to learn about the issues affecting people there in visceral ways. It is a learning experience that imprints deeply on the mind and the heart. To do this is a country of such diversity, adversity and beauty as Indonesia, is life changing.

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Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. This sultry kaleidoscope of over 17,000 islands spans over 3000 miles – roughly the distance between New York City and San Francisco. Some of Indonesia’s islands are vast, like Borneo, the third largest on Earth. Many others are small specks of sand and coral speckling turquoise blue seas.

Straddling the equator between Asia and Australia, Indonesia encompasses an enormous variety of ecosystems: lowland rainforest, cool highland cloud forest, sandy beaches and colorful coral reefs. These diverse ecosystems harbor an astounding number of species ranging from Tigers to Tree Kangaroos. Such myriad habitats make the archipelago a living laboratory for evolution and amongst the hottest of hotspots for biodiversity on our planet.

Indonesia’s biodiversity is nearly matched by its rich cultural diversity. Radically different cultures have evolved here. From the spiritual Balinese to the non-Western beliefs of Papua, hundreds of languages and ethnic groups are all represented in this one improbably large nation. And, with over 240 million people Indonesia is set to become the third largest nation on Earth later this century. As one of the world’s largest emerging economies, Indonesia has sometimes been called the sleeping giant of Southeast Asia.

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However, Indonesia’s growth is increasingly coming at the expense of its natural resources. The country is ground zero for conservation as rainforests are cleared for oil-palm plantations, animals are smuggled for the illegal wildlife trade and the seas poached of fish. Nowhere else is so much biodiversity threatened by such rapid development pressure. This situation presents a unique opportunity to learn about the challenges local communities face in charting a sustainable future and their innovations to live in balance with a rapidly changing world.

In my next post, our group will learn how Indonesia is “the other Galapagos”, and delve into the fascinating story of one of the world’s greatest naturalist explorers: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Learn more about Rainforest Ambassadors and Where There Be Dragons.

Follow Jesse’s Instagram Takeover!