West Papua province is home to the majority of the ocean’s diversity. More fish species and complex coral species—more than 1,700 fish species and more than 600 rare ones—may be found in its waters than in any other place on Earth. These numbers represent 75% of all documented species.
A flowing bank disperses wealth over the ocean. Its intricate ocean currents cut a rich array of habitats from the limestone islands and link the region to the larger Indo-Pacific. Translucent commensal shrimp clings to the swinging arms of yellow sea anemones.
The World’s Most Extraordinary Mangrove Forest Rises from the Shallow Bays
West Papua province’s forest is the unsung hero of species variety and climate regulation. You can watch the trees in a mangrove absorb carbon from the atmosphere as their leaves drop off and float away into the water if you stand below them for a little while.
The nursery is down below, tucked away in the mangrove’s roots. In this expertly designed maze, young fish of all species find safety from predators, currents, and storms. The plentiful reefs are at risk from terrestrial runoff, which the mangrove acts as a liver to filter.
A machete is necessary for even a brief hike through the West Papuan rainforest, one of the most extensive rainforests on Earth that is still intact. The forest has been overrun by thousands of different plant species entangled in an almost unmanageable tangle.
It overwhelms the senses, but the noises of the jungle—the overlapping cries of hundreds of other bird species, the buzzing and chattering of insects, and a symphony of tree frogs—may be the most potent.
The outdoors is teeming with life. Exquisite aliens known as the birds of paradise painstakingly maintain underground dance floors, morphing into almost fantastical beings when they are in the throes of pleasure.
Biodiversity is a Crown Jewel of West Papua Province
There is, however, another side to this tale. West Papua’s natural riches have been the industry’s focus throughout a challenging and sometimes upsetting political history. The illegal fishermen overran this area using longlines, shark fins, and dynamite fishing to strip-mine the reefs. The perpetrators of this last tragedy launch homemade explosives from a boat, destroying the reefs’ rich life and stun-killing all the fish within a 30-foot radius.
Paradise at Risk
These illegal loggers also cut down Mangroves to create room for piers and barges, while they removed lowland woods for oil palm plantations. The garbage from logging activities targeting the West Papuan rainforest’s trillions of dollars worth of hardwood coated the beaches and turned the rivers brown.
The stunning fauna and the traditional West Papuan knowledge were in grave jeopardy by the late 1990s. This wealthy province is battling against time to modernize conservation traditions into legislation.
An Oath to the Sea
Just before dawn, rain began to fall through the clouds, and the island started to light orange as our ship approached the recently constructed ranger station and dock. The last practice of using yellow ribbons from dried palm leaves to adorn everything was evident everywhere.
To see these villages make a holy promise to the sea was why we returned to the Fam Islands of Raja Ampat, Indonesia, in 2017.
Insights Into the Future
In 2015, the provincial governor of West Papua province established the first Provinsi Konservasi, or conservation province, in the world, taking into account both the exceptional achievements in Raja Ampat and the difficulties that West Papua faced.
The proclamation was particularly forward-looking in its intention to put thorough ecosystem-based safeguards from ridge to reef, promote sustainable development practices across all industries, and give people the capacity to manage and safeguard essential natural resources.
It was declared a natural conservation province after the governor’s order. Conservation International and the provincial and federal governments drafted legislation to codify existing marine conservation regulations.