Indonesia: The giant cuckoos, enormous gingers, and pretty leeches of Halmahera

By Tony Whitten | The World Bank: East Asia & Pacific | March 19, 2009

Judith Schleicher and I have just left the eastern Indonesian island of Halmahera, which was the subject of my first blog post a year ago. We were there on the second supervision mission – something which must sound pretty dull. In fact it was a real pleasure to meet with friends in the project team again, to see how well they are doing, and pretty exciting to have two days and two nights in the forests of the northern block of the Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park to see – despite the rain – some of the biodiversity and human impacts in the area. P.T. Weda Bay Nickel kindly allowed us to use their helicopter to get into the forest, landing at the junction of three abandoned logging roads within the northern (Lolobata) section of the national park.

Burung Indonesia is doing a fine job of executing this project and has already developed solid relationships with government, civil society and private entities to form a strong and informed constituency of concern for the protection of this new national park.

(After the jump: More about Halmahera Island’s wildlife – including birds, trees and leeches – and photos.)

The visit was especially useful and significant because we were with Moh. Tabur, the national park’s director, and it was his first chance to get into this area. The project manager, David Purmiasa, has been involved with Halmahera for over ten years and is somewhat of a local institution. He is greatly respected and much liked. He’s also a good birder and was able to tell us the names (English, Indonesian and scientific) of the birds we heard or which screamed overhead. During our one full day we were lucky enough to see quite a few of the 24 North Maluku and Halmahera endemic birds, such as Goliath Coucal (the largest cuckoo in the world),Halmahera Cuckoo-ShrikeBlue and White Kingfisher, the endangered Chattering Lory,Ivory-Breasted PittaWhite-Streaked Friarbird and Dusky Brown Oriole the last of which is a real “birders’ bird” (one that is unexciting to all but the most avid expert).

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly given its name, we didn’t see the Invisible Rail, and this time we missed out on seeing the island’s bird of paradise, the extravagant Wallace’s Standardwing, but I at least had seen these displaying excited in the light of dawn a few years ago on my first visit to Halmahera.

The practice and impacts of logging on Halmahera tend to be very different from on Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo). On Halmahera the loggers are really after a single tree, the dammar or Agathis. This is the only species in the forest with has very high value, so when the large trees have been cut down, hoisted onto trucks and taken away, there is little incentive for others to come in and take out more. Also, of course, the population levels are relatively low. As a result, the logging roads tend to degrade after the logging companies have left, and the roads we walked along were eroding badly and were becoming overgrown. It would take a great deal of investment to make the roads serviceable again.

We had a great team supporting us from the national park and a local village. The simple shelters they constructed were great and we looked forward to the food (always the most important part of camping), even if it was the same each time – fresh rice, corned beef, chilled sardines, and noodle soup.

After dinner on both evenings we took our flashlights and wandered – sometimes up to our waists – along the rivers to see what we could see. We encountered quite a few species of frogs, prawns (whose eyes burned red in the light), a host of various spiders, and the most beautiful leech I have ever encountered – bright yellow and black stripes. The first one we saw was lying, bloated with blood, on a fern leaf, and the second was firmly attached to a frog. Our second evening was interrupted by pouring rain, something of a hallmark of our brief visit. We were almost permanently wet or damp and we developed that aroma characteristic of all rainforest fieldworkers. Putting on damp clothes in the chill of a new dawn is a sensation one should not miss.

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