Indonesia is a megadiversity country, but even by its exceptionally high levels of biodiversity, Sulawesi stands out for its bewilderingly rich, charismatic and, at times, quirky species. The island, whose shape resembles a hyper-extended letter K, is the 11th largest in the world.
Sulawesi’s shape and rugged terrain were forged by the collision of land masses from Asia and Australasia that brought with them their own unique flora and fauna, which subsequently went into evolutionary overdrive as rapid speciation ensued.
There are a staggering 127 mammal species in Sulawesi, of which 62 percent are endemic just to this island. If bats are removed from this list then the number of endemic mammal species rises to almost 99 percent. Among the 233 species of birds, more than a third are Sulawesi endemics.
o document this vast array of poorly understood wildlife as a first step in identifying and prioritising areas for protection, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF)—with support from the UNDP/GEF EPASS project, Rainforest Trust, and Fondation Segré—have just completed the first ever systematic camera trap campaign for Sulawesi.
Over the course of a year, WCS-MoEF-community field teams surveyed two of the island’s flagship protected areas: Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park and the Tangkoko Forest Management Unit. The findings offer invaluable scientific data and rare insights into Sulawesi’s little known species, including the first ever photographic record of arguably Sulawesi’s most elusive bird.
Here, we highlight some of the exciting discoveries.
Babirusa and Sulawesi warty pig
Of Asia’s 11 threatened species of wild pig, two are endemic to Sulawesi. The babirusa, listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is an ancient species of pig that is hairless and has enormous tusks growing through its upper jaw.
In stark contrast, the Near-Threatened Sulawesi warty pig has a jet-black coat and a white ‘war paint’ looking fur line across its face. Both species are hunted to supply the Christian food markets in North Sulawesi. Yet despite this threat, our surveys found that these species, encouragingly, still occur both inside and outside of the protected areas.
The Endangered lowland anoa and mountain anoa are dwarf species of buffaloes that more closely resemble deer. They have become flagship species for protection.
As Lukita Awang Nistyantara, the Head of Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, put it, “The anoa is a Ministry of Environment and Forestry priority species and we’ve set a goal to increase its population size. So, we’re delighted with these new findings from inside the park because we’ve just established the first ranger patrol teams, which forms part of our site-level management implementation.” He continued, “We’ll now use these data to direct our teams to focus on protecting the critically important forest anoa habitat identified”.
On the nearby island of Sumatra, wild pigs and deer sustain populations of tiger, clouded leopard and dhole. Yet, even though Sulawesi has an equally rich and diverse prey base, this has not given rise to the island’s own large carnivore. Instead, the island’s apex mammalian predator is the sleek and slender Sulawesi civet.
Weighing around 6 kg (13 pounds) with a diet of rodents, birds, and palms fruits, this largely arboreal mammal is one of the least known species from Sulawesi.
Thus, an exciting finding was summed up by UNDP’s Iwan Kurniawan, “these surveys not only succeeded in obtaining the first island-wide records of Sulawesi civet after a 20-year absence but also the very first records of the species from Bogani Nani Wartabone and Tangkoko, two protected areas supported by the UNDP/GEF EPASS project.”
Sulawesi contains seven endemic species of macaque. Our camera traps reveal where two of these species—the Critically Endangered black-crested macaque and Vulnerable Dumoga macaque—have neatly separated their range. The surveys also captured another one of Sulawesi’s distinctive peculiarities with the first ever record of a pure white ‘black’ crested macaque!
Agustinus Rante Lembang, Head of the North Sulawesi Natural Resource and Conservation Agency noted, “there may only be 9,000 black-crested macaques left in the wild, yet about 60 percent of these occur in Tangkoko. It’s only 84 square kilometers, but you see its importance for the species’s survival.”
This unique but Vulnerable bird incubates its eggs in nests that are heated either by the sun on Sulawesi’s pristine beaches or by the warmth of underground volcanic activity at inland sites. Maleo eggs are roughly five times as large as that of a domestic chicken’s and, because of this, highly susceptible to poaching.
To prevent egg theft, WCS has been employing ex-bird poachers as nest guardians. Since 2001 they have overseen the release of 12,515 chicks in four key nesting grounds in and around Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, which has become a stronghold for the species.
WCS’s Sulawesi Program Manager, Iwan Hunowu, who has been studying maleos for 12 years, noted that “the camera trapping showed maleos using new forest corridors connecting beach nesting grounds to the national park.”
Unfortunately, forest loss and fragmentation due to the encroachment of small farms threatens to sever vital linkages between these nesting sites and forest refuge inside the national park. “Because of this,” adds Hunowu, “we’re now working with local communities to fully protect these corridors through improved agroforestry schemes.”
Perhaps the most incredible discovery of all was recording the first ever photograph of the endemic Sulawesi woodcock in the wild. Previously known to inhabit high elevation forests over 1,700 meters, here it is recorded at 1,100 meters from the Duasudara mountain in Tangkoko—a finding that extends its distribution to the easternmost part of the island.
The significance of this exciting discovery was captured by WCS Indonesia’s Communications Manager, Tisna Nando. “I’m from Sulawesi and an avid birder,” she observed. “This is actually my dream bird. I’ve never seen one in the wild, only in guidebooks and 18th century paintings. Now we have this beautiful photo from Tangkoko!”
Sulawesi really is a rich treasure trove of awe-inspiring biodiversity that inhabits the island’s rugged and lush forest landscapes. WCS and MoEF are working together to document these species and fully protect them for future generations. Who knows what surprises our future surveys will uncover?
This article was originally published on National Geographic