As of September 2008, current species tallies for the Bird’s Head include over 1628 species of coral reef fish (including 1430 in Raja Ampat alone and at least 25 endemics known only from this region), 603 species of hard coral (75% of the world’s total and over ten times the number of coral species found in the entire Caribbean), and 57 species of mantis shrimp (including 8 endemic species known only from the Bird’s Head). Other important features of the Bird’s Head include karst forests full of rare orchids, birds of paradise, tree kangaroos, regionally-important green and hawksbill turtle rookeries, whale and dolphin aggregations, and the world’s largest Pacific Leatherback Turtle nesting beaches in the Jamursbamedi-Warmon coast of the Northern Bird’s Head.
As more is discovered about Raja Ampat, its global significance continues to grow. There is now clear evidence that the coral around Raja Ampat may be naturally more resilient to fluctuations in temperatures, and thus more likely to withstand the impacts of global climate change. Powerful ocean currents carry larvae from Raja Ampat to reefs in other parts of Indonesia and the Pacific, making Raja Ampat the heart of the “supply chain” of species. This transport may help to replenish other reefs which have been damaged by disease, bleaching, overfishing, and other detrimental activities.
Without question, Raja Ampat and the broader Bird’s Head Seascape rank as global priorities for marine conservation!
Until fairly recently, Raja Ampat’s isolation and low human population have played a large part in keeping its reefs healthy and thriving. However, the region’s rich coastal and marine resources have made it a target for economic development ranging from fisheries and marine tourism, to more destructive activities such as oil and gas exploration, mining and logging. And thus the paradox of Raja Ampat – world unique, globally outstanding, literally bursting at the seams with biodiversity – yet highly threatened.
Local governments and stakeholders require strong support in developing effective, sustainable coastal and marine resource management that conserves biodiversity while benefiting local communities. To date, that support is coming from a highly dedicated team of over 200 international and local conservation NGO staff focused on improving the management of Raja Ampat. Working in concert with the local and national government and other local institutions and stakeholders, two international conservation NGOs, Conservation International (CI) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as well as the Indonesian government’s Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Program (COREMAP) are facilitating the management of the 7 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) recently declared in Raja Ampat. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and local NGO, Papua Sea Turtle Foundation, play a key role in sea turtle conservation in the archipelago. In addition, the three international NGOs—CI, TNC and WWF—have an ambitious partnership throughout the Bird’s Head Seascape.
Together, these organizations have focused on a comprehensive three-pronged approach to conservation in Raja Ampat.
The first initiative has centered on the scientific characterization of Raja Ampat, including its biodiversity and the important large-scale ecological and oceanographic processes that influence this diversity. Besides generating world record species lists and describing dozens of new and endemic species, this initiative has also succeeded in revealing patterns of genetic and oceanographic “connectivity” that are critical to understand in order to develop plans to manage the region’s marine resources in a sustainable manner.
The second set of strategic conservation activities, conducted simultaneously with the scientific characterization of Raja Ampat, has focused on creating an “enabling environment” for effective conservation and collaborative management of Raja Ampat’s rich marine resources. Over the past 5 years, the various conservation teams have worked intensively with the local government and citizens in the 124 remote villages of Raja Ampat to both better understand their development aspirations and align them with a sustainable vision for the area while also dramatically increasing local understanding and appreciation of Raja Ampat’s biodiversity, the threats to it, and the need for local leadership in effectively managing it. So far, the response of local traditional leaders and village chiefs has been overwhelmingly positive.
The final strategic initiative (based upon the scientific understanding and strong local community support generated by the first two strategies) has been to facilitate the establishment of an ecologically-connected network of marine protected areas (MPAs) across Raja Ampat. In May 2007, the Raja Ampat government declared a network of seven MPAs that together covers nearly 900,000 hectares and approximately 45% of Raja Ampat’s coral reefs and mangroves. Effectively implemented, these MPAs should ensure the long term health and sustainability of Raja Ampat’s marine ecosystems. One outstanding achievement has been the work of the local NGO, Papua Sea Turtle Foundation, which has run a highly successful turtle nest program in the major rookery of Sayang-Piai in the Kawe MPA, effectively eliminating turtle poaching and protecting over 2000 green turtle nests in the past 2 years.
These three initiatives have made impressive progress over the past 7 years, but there is still much work to be done. Raja Ampat’s MPA network needs to be “operationalized” and the restrictions on destructive and unsustainable fishing practices strictly enforced. Marine tourism development must be carefully managed to provide optimal benefits for local communities while minimizing its “footprint” in the area. Perhaps most importantly, we face a continuous uphill battle to impress upon policy-makers and community leaders the need to wisely conserve and manage this area, as the seemingly inexhaustible global demand for commodities ranging from fish to minerals to timber products continues to create strong short-term financial incentives to mine all of these resources from Raja Ampat.
Hopefully, with the continued dedication of conservation NGOs, the local and national government, and local stakeholders, and the firm support of the marine tourism sector, the reefs of Raja Ampat will continue to thrive.