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The Ombak Putih Credit: Ruth Whitten

In the wake of Wallace – the legacy of an original conservation champion

Posted on: 30.01.12 (Last edited) 3 December 2012

Fauna & Flora International’s Tony Whitten, Regional Director of Asia-Pacific shares his thoughts on both the history – and future – of conservation, with a grateful nod to a little known hero. Part two of Tony’s blog will be posted on Friday 17 February.

Sitting around the dinner table, rocking gently while anchored off a coral-fringed, forested island, a motley group of new friends raised their glasses with me and drank to the 189th birthday of Alfred Russel Wallace: the ‘David Attenborough of the Victorian era’.

For decades, Alfred Russel Wallace has been my hero. He was a naturalist who spent four years in the Amazon then eight years in Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago collecting specimens of insects, snails, birds and mammals for his own study and for sale to museums and private collectors.

For most, when he is remembered at all, it is for being the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. The manuscript he sent from Ternate to Charles Darwin for comment proved to be the stimulus Darwin needed to put his own thoughts on paper – which soon after became The Origin of Species and ‘turned the world upside down’. That manuscript and two pieces by Darwin were read together at a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Wallace was an everyman. He was unusual in his age in that he did not travel to foreign lands as part of a ship’s complement or with teams of staff, living in relative luxury. Instead he travelled alone with a few assistants and boat crew, endured great hardships and disease, but stayed ever focused on his natural history collecting. Thanks to his endeavours, some 1,000 species new to science were identified, some of which he named himself.

Although Wallace left school at 13, he later became a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote 21 books and some 750 papers not just on natural history, but also on topics as diverse as the identity of Shakespeare, vaccinations, spiritualism, railways, and socialism. One of his books, The Malay Archipelago, was very popular in his day and amazingly is still in print.

I was honoured a few years ago to be asked to pen an introduction to the new edition. This introduction led me to be contacted by Seatrek, the first company to take people on adventure cruises to eastern Indonesia on traditional, hand-hewn, ironwood ‘pinisi’ schooners, converting what were originally cargo ships into comfortable accommodation. The Seatrek management wanted advice on how to design cruises based on the journeys and findings of Wallace, on how to have some impact on the communities and the conservation of biological resources they encountered, and thus on how links could be made to FFI.

So, I now find myself on the two-masted Ombak Putih sailing past the far western tip of New Guinea, in the area known as Raja Ampat. This area has become famous over the last decade as a hotspot for diversity because it appears to be the world’s most biodiverse region for coral reefs – ‘reefs on steroids’.

It has the most impressive species lists ever compiled for a coral reef system of this size, as well as a low human population density, communities which mainly have a subsistence economy with close ties to their resources (generally marine), and a local government which seems serious about managing its resources for the benefit of the communities – in part through tourism development.

Two nudibranch seaslugs in Wallace’s Channel between Gam and Waigeo Islands Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

Two nudibranch seaslugs in Wallace’s Channel between Gam and Waigeo Islands Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

On land, Raja Ampat has extensive forests and many endemic species, most famously beautiful birds of paradise and huge birdwing butterflies. Few of the forests are threatened by large-scale commercial logging, but informal mining (especially for nickel) using less-than best practice methods, by possible oil palm plantations, and by incomers as part of the official transmigration programme who have little or no respect for the sustainable management of the surrounding biological resources are all having growing impacts.

Our colleagues at Conservation International, WWF and The Nature Conservancy have been active here for a decade but in our consultations with them we were convinced that there is ‘space’ for FFI to work in this amazing region and to build on their pioneering steps. The ‘space’ is especially present in the terrestrial sphere and in ‘ridge-to-reef’ approaches which give attention simultaneously to the forests, coasts, and sea. Coincidentally, a German forest-focused NGO has recently asked FFI to consider managing their conservation projects with some of the local NGOs and communities of Raja Ampat, and I was to meet some of those, as well as local government leaders.

A group of Heart ascidians Polycarpa aurata on a reef in the Dampier Strait Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

A group of Heart ascidians Polycarpa aurata on a reef in the Dampier Strait Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

Wallace’s travels were rarely straightforward – on just one leg he dealt with running aground on shallow reefs ten times, having a crew desert him, losing two of his men for a month on a remote island, losing four anchors, having sails devoured by rats, being often short of food and water, trying in vain to get his small craft to oppose the fierce currents that pushed him off his intended course, and hunkering down when the weather was atrocious.

We have also now had a Wallace moment, albeit of a modern type. We had an appointment to see the leaders of the kabupaten or district government in their new capital, Waisai. Neither the ship’s captain nor any of the crew had been there before so we assumed, reasonably, that its location was as indicated on a tourist map and the nautical charts. I was called up to the bridge at 6am because, although we were where we should have been, there was no sign of human life, let alone a capital.

A lone man in a small fishing canoe emerged from a creek and he told us the town was actually six hours away! When we eventually arrived, we had a positive meeting with the Deputy Regent of the District and other senior staff (who were forgiving of the mistake we had made), and we discussed areas of possible future cooperation.

But for now, it’s back on board.

Read part two: birds of paradise.

Written by
Tony Whitten

Tony is Fauna & Flora International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director and oversees a huge array of projects including tiger conservation in Sumatra, marine and coastal work in Cambodia, and REDD+ projects in Kalimantan. With a broad range of technical expertise, he has written numerous books from the ecology of Indonesia's islands to freshwater fish and land snails. Tony also co-chairs the IUCN SSC Cave Invertebrate Specialist Group.

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