Comprising approximately 1,500 islands and islets in the remote Indonesian district of West Papua, Raja Ampat lies at the epicentre of the Coral Triangle, widely acknowledged as the marine equivalent of the Amazon rainforest.
But this archipelago within an archipelago is more than just a marine paradise. Thanks to its proximity to the island of New Guinea, Raja Ampat’s forests boast a number of spectacular species found nowhere else in Indonesia, including flamboyant birds of paradise and extraordinary marsupials.
The forests that cover Raja Ampat support an astonishing variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
Unlike the majority of Raja Ampat’s coral reefs, its forested islands have enjoyed only nominal protection from a variety of threats including illegal wildlife trade and deforestation, which are jeopardising the future of forest-dependent species.
Since 2014, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working with communities to design sustainable livelihood activities that are compatible with forest and wildlife protection. One particular individual has played a pivotal role in those efforts.
Maurits Kafiar – who was recently named as a 2021 Conservation Hero by the Disney Conservation Fund – grew up as part of an Indigenous tribe in central Papua. His insatiable appetite to learn about Indonesia’s landscape and wildlife led him to become one of the leading birdwatching guides in West Papua. Since joining FFI’s Indonesia Programme as a biodiversity and livelihoods officer, Maurits has been an influential pioneer in the development of Raja Ampat’s terrestrial ecotourism programmes and community-based conservation initiatives that both preserve species and respect local wisdom.
Maurits has inspired many communities to help protect Papua’s incredible biodiversity. Credit: Andhy Priyo Sayogo/Fauna & Flora International
His official job title – Indigenous Community Empowerment and Spatial Planning Coordinator – cannot begin to do justice to the wider importance of the role that Maurits plays. His infectious curiosity, friendly personality and natural storytelling skills make him a respected teacher, while his caring and inclusive approach to problem-solving minimises friction and finds win-win solutions for everyone.
Since 2016, Maurits has helped FFI reduce bird hunting in the Waigeo Island-Raja Ampat Nature Reserve by more than 80%, gain support from 22 local villages to protect forests and prohibit bird poaching, facilitate sustainable development plans together with communities and even inspire bird hunters to become bird protectors.
Raja Ampat is home to Wilson’s bird of paradise, found nowhere else on Earth. Credit: Bjorn Olesen
How did you become involved in conservation?
I was a birdwatching guide in West Papua and involved in bird ecotourism activities in several different areas of Papua Province. Through this work, I started to learn all about the names of bird species, their behaviour and the habitats they live in. The more I worked with birds, the more I realised how important it is to protect birds and their forest habitat, so I decided to get involved in conservation.
Why is it important to engage Indigenous communities in biodiversity conservation?
In Papua, almost every inch of land is customary communal land, so it’s really important to involve the Indigenous community in any conservation management system. If we want a conservation initiative to be successful, we have to actively involve Indigenous communities and get their support.
How have you engaged communities in Raja Ampat in conservation initiatives?
We actively encourage the community to get involved in biodiversity research. We conduct forest patrols with the community to detect threats and record and identify species, particularly birds.
We also work with them to map customary land and understand its traditional use. This is community participation at its fullest.
Maurits leads community members in conducting bird surveys and forest patrols. Credit: Andhy Priyo Sayogo/Fauna & Flora International
What do you consider to be the most important part of your job and why?
The most important part of my job is working with the communities to make sure village-level management of the forest is in harmony with government-level management, so that the forest can be managed effectively.
In Papua, almost every inch of land is customary communal land ... If we want a conservation initiative to be successful, we have to actively involve Indigenous communities and get their support.
What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved in conservation in Raja Ampat?
You have to work with your heart. You have to be open minded and dedicate your time, mind and energy to this work. And always keep your smiles up.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from nature?
The most precious thing I’ve learnt is that I am one with nature, and because of that I can understand more about animal behaviour.
A paradise kingfisher, one of the many spectacular bird species found in West Papua. Credit: Bjorn Olesen
What’s your favourite species of bird and why?
My favourites are the bird of paradise and the bowerbird. They have similar characteristics and I love watching their preening behaviour and dancing activities every morning. It always reminds me of the spirit and compassion of life.
In one word, how would you describe Papua’s wildlife?
Raja Ampat’s forests are home to more than 270 bird species, over 50 reptile and 40 amphibian species, and more than 30 types of terrestrial mammal, as well as 400 tree species. The future of this breathtaking biodiversity depends on the dedication and enthusiasm of people like Maurits. We’re grateful to have such a fabulous ambassador for this unique and irreplaceable wildlife haven.
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Credit: Bjorn Olesen