Jeffrey Neilson's Blog from the Malay Archipelago

Gunung Gede: The Arctic element in Java’s mountain flora

Wallace visited Java after having already spent 7 years collecting in the outer islands of the archipelago. He first visited the eastern part of the island, where he seemed more impressed with architectural remains from the Majapahit empire and the earlier great Buddhist monument of Borobodur than with the business of collecting natural specimens. Perhaps, at long last, it was time to reduce the prodigious pace at which he had been hitherto collecting.


 View of Gede Summit from Cibodas Botanic Gardens

According to Wallace, “by far the most interesting incident in [his] visit to Java was a trip to the summit of the Pangrango and Gede mountains”. Wallace was fascinated with the transition from tropical to temperate vegetation types as he ascended the 3000-metre mountain and the prevalence of so many familiar European plants at the summits. According to biogeographer Jeremy Smith (1986), it is now widely agreed that the autochthonous element (that which has evolved locally) of Java’s alpine flora is indeed very small, with numerous plants linked to either the northern or southern temperate zones, and an even greater number found across both these zones. The pioneering work of Dutch botanist C.G.G.J. van Steenis earlier in the 20th century (presented most impressively in The Mountain Flora of Java, 1972, with its stunning collection of 57 colour plates) links 90 alpine plant genera with Asian origins and only 15 with Australian origins. Endemism at the species level, however, is extremely localised and is sometimes restricted to individual mountain tops, as Wallace  comments (incorrectly as it turns out) in relation to Primula Imperialis or Royal Cowslip found on the summit of Gede-Pangrango.

Such tropical alpine regions are in fact isolated islands in a sea of highly diverse lowland rainforest, with which they share very few species. Equipped with the enlightening excitement of evolutionary thought, Wallace began to ponder the origin and migration pathways of these remarkable ecosystems. Wallace was acutely aware of the high level of species endemism and low generic endemism, thus suggesting relatively recent colonisation. In his later groundbreaking work on biogeography, articulated most comprehensively in Island Life, Wallace presented an explanation of this oddity of plant distribution with an entire dedicated chapter: On the Arctic Element in South Temperate Floras (Chapter XXIII). Here, Wallace presented a distribution theory based on an alpine corridor dispersal system. He noted the ‘wonderful aggressive and colonising power of the Scandinavian flora’ that he found and the geologically recent landscape-forming events provided by glacial action and volcanism. In a letter to Wallace following publication of Island Life, Darwin however objected to Wallace’s explanation, commenting that it was “rather too speculative for my old noddle”.


At about 3000m altitude in the alpine meadow covered with 'Javanese Edelweiss', Anaphalis Javanica

It was in fact Darwin, in the Origin of Species, who had originally hypothesised about the southward march of northern temperate plants during the recent glacial epochs and the retreat (north and south of the equator) following subsequent warming. In their theorising, both Wallace and Darwin were severely handicapped by the prevailing belief in the general permanence of continents and oceans. (Before the time of Alfred Wegener, Wallace would not have been able to incorporate the role of ‘Continental drift’ and the fact that few mountains would have even existed in the region prior to the late Tertiary collision of the Indo-Australian plate with the Eurasian plate). Today, there is still much speculation regarding the origin and migration pathways of Malesian alpine flora and the presumed existence of an ancient mountain bridge between the Himalaya and Java.

Arriving at the main gate to the Gede Pangrango National Park, we were told that stricter management controls meant that it would not be possible to spend more than one night in the park (we had been planning on spending two). This, however, meant that we had a spare afternoon to walk around the adjacent Botanic Gardens at Cibodas. The gardens were first set out in 1852 by Johannes Ellias Teijsmann, then curator of the Bogor Gardens, and when Wallace visited in 1861, there were “many beautiful trees and shrubs planted here, and large quantities of European vegetables are grown for the Governor-General’s table”. Today, this 125-hectare garden is spectacularly laid out amongst manicured lawns and hosts more than 5000 specimens, including the worlds largest flower (Amorphophallus titanum of Sumatra), a recently landscaped moss garden and a surprisingly large number of Australian casuarinas, eucalypts, melaleucas and even Araucaria hoop pines.


 Rainforest Orchid, Mt Gede

The gardens are located directly adjacent to the National Park. It was in 1889 that 240 hectares of this forest were first incorporated within the gardens, later becoming the first Nature Reserve in the Netherlands East Indies. The Indonesian Government established the 21,000 ha National Park in 1980, following it’s earlier designation as part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977. Biosphere Reserves are selected as open-air laboratories to test and demonstrate innovative approaches to conservation and development that consciously recognise the role of humans within the landscape. The Cibodas Biosphere Reserve is located less than 100km from the capital Jakarta and experiences strong human pressure from competing land uses while performing a critical ecological education role within Indonesia. The park is home for several endangered species such as the Javan Hawk-eagle and the Javan white gibbon, and hosts more than 40 known species of orchid.


 Telaga Biru or 'Blue Lake'

The base of the mountain was once draped in luxuriant tropical rainforest with a structure and composition similar to adjacent islands, but it is now largely given over to wet-rice agriculture, timber plantations, horticultural crops and tea estates, with an ever-encroaching zone of peri-urban development. We commenced our ascent of the mountain in the pre-dawn hours of the following morning, at an altitude of 1250m, walking through the sub-montane rainforest mostly in the dark before arriving at Telaga Biru lake. It was in this zone that Wallace commented on the beauty and diversity of tree ferns,

“of all the forms of tropical vegetation they [tree ferns] are the most striking and beautiful. Some of the deep ravines which have been cleared of large timber are full of them from top to bottom; and where the road crosses one of these valleys, the view of their feathery crowns, in varied positions above and below the eye, offers a spectacle of picturesque beauty never to be forgotten”


 “of all the forms of tropical vegetation [tree ferns] are the most striking and beautiful" ARW in The Malay Archipelago

In this forest, we also admired the abundance of epiphytes, such as the Asplenium ‘birdnest’ ferns and numerous orchids, and came across a group of ‘lutung’ leaf monkeys. A highlight for us in this forest was a glimpse of the Javan Hawk-eagle (which, according to the IUCN red list is now critically endangered), as it flew down the mountain above the tree line.


 At the hotsprings not long after dawn

 The vegetation became less bulky as we continued to climb with increasing quantities of moss covering the trees, until we arrived at some hot springs (at an altitude of about 2100m): here we stopped to soak our bodies and first came across the beautiful Rhododendron javanicum, a member of the vireya subgenus group of rhododendron found throughout the mountains of Southeast Asia and New Guinea.


 Javanese Rhododendron

At 2500m, we arrived at Kandang Badak (literally ‘the rhinoceros stable’), although the Javan rhinoceros has long been locally extinct. The only surviving population of Javan rhinoceros is a critically endangered group of less than 60 individuals found in Ujung Kulon National Park at the westernmost part of Java (there are none in captivity). Unfortunately, as many hikers spend the night at Kandang Badak prior to their final ascent to the summit, the ground is littered with instant noodle packets and the used propane cylinders that are now popular with hikers the world over. Wallace also based himself at Kandang Badak, trekking to each of the twin summits of Gede and Pangrango. We continued on to the volcanic summit of Gede, through the stunted elfin moss forests, crustose lichens and increasing abundance of European-type plants such as raspberries and strawberries. Few plants we saw in this zone, however, matched the remarkable form of Balonophora elongata (see photo), a parasitic fungi-like plant that sucks nutrients from the roots of host plants and, being devoid of the need for chlorophyll-based photosynthesis, is covered by red nodules and bulbous white flowers.



The bizarre plant, Balonophera elongata

At the summit, few plants have successfully adapted to life on the poorly developed rocky soils, although the attractive, red-leafed Vaccinium are certainly common (see photo). Other dominant plants in this alpine zone were species of Albizzia and Gaultheria. While the Pangrango peak is now dormant, Gede is an active volcanic crater whose last major eruption was in 1941 and the ground is littered with volcanic debri. To the southeast of the summit is the alun-alun, now a spectacular alpine meadow, but actually an old crater itself. We camped (strangely alone considering that more 500 visitors can climb the peak on a weekend) by a stream running through the alun-alun amidst a dense covering of Javanese edelweiss (Anaphalis sp): many Indonesians place important spiritual and social value on this ‘eternal blossom’ and conservation activities at the park concentrate on preventing excess plucking by visitors. The vegetation on the southern wall of this extinct crater-meadow is noticeably richer and more diverse than that on the northern side, since the former is comprised of more developed soils while the latter is still dominated by volcanic debri. It was here that we came across some of the temperate plants of Australian origin with a stand of Leptospermum.


 Vaccinium varingiaefolium near the Gede Crater

The next morning we walked down a far steeper trail to the Gunung Putri entrance gate, and through ‘rasamala’ plantings. Rasamala is a popular native hardwood timber species whose natural stands have been severely depleted by timber extraction. The Gunung Putri entrance also offered a starker look into the severe human pressures facing the park than Cibodas: here vegetable gardens were encroaching into the park despite somewhat token attempts by the park authorities to reforest the gardens using pine trees.


Vegetable gardens merge with timber plantations at the margins of the National Park

Smith, J. (1986). Origins and History of the Malesian High Mountain Flora. In High Altitude Biogeography (eds. Vuilleumier, F and Monasterio, M).

Oxford University Press, New York .

Van Steenis, C. G. G. (1972). The Mountain Flora of Java. Brill, Leiden.

Halmahera and Wallace’s Greatest Prize: The Standardwing Bird of Paradise

We boarded a tiny speedboat crammed with 27 other passengers from Ternate across to the comparatively large, resource-rich and still sparsely populated island of Halmahera. After our recent experience with overcrowded boats in North Sulawesi, and with our hosts from Birdlife Indonesia ominously supplying us with inflatable life jackets beforehand ‘just in case’, I’ll admit it was a rather nervous 60-minute crossing to the town of Sidangoli on Halmahera. Wallace made only two trips to this western coast of Halmahera (he also made a short trip to the southern coast on his return trip from Waigeo), while his assistant, Charles Allen, spent many months collecting on the island.

Wallace considered his two brief visits to the west coast (to Jailolo and Dodinga) largely as failures in terms of collecting, and our main aim for the trip was to search for what Wallace considered his greatest prize, the Standardwing Bird of Paradise, Semioptera wallacei. Wallace actually came across the bird on neighbouring Bacan Island, the only other place apart from Halmahera within its known range. At that time, Wallace’s assistant, Ali, returned from hunting birds ‘much pleased’ to say “Look here, sir, what a curious bird”. Quoting from ARW:

“I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself, when fluttering its wings, and that they remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird.”

The range of Wallace’s Standardwing marks the westernmost extermity for this unique family.

Most people searching for the Standardwing, known locally in Halmahera as ‘burung bidadari’ or ‘fairy bird’, start by visiting local bird expert, Pak Anu. Having located a lek near his farm at Tanah Putih outside Sidangoli, Pak Anu became the unofficial custodian of the site. Like most birds of paradise, these fairy-birds exhibit eccentric mating rituals where the males return daily to the same display trees in the forest, known as a lek. Sadly, this initial lek was destroyed during Maluku’s four-year religious war that followed the fall of Suharto. Pak Anu then located another lek further into the forest and built a house, again acting as site custodian and charging Rp250,000 (about 30USD) in management fees for groups visiting the site. Burung Indonesia (the local affiliate of Birdlife International) had arranged for Anu to act as a our guide for two days and we arrived at his house late in the afternoon as several pairs of the endemic Moluccan Hornbill, Blyth’s Horbill, were charting routes across the valleys. It was here that we truly felt ourselves on the eastern side of Wallace’s Line, with white cockatoos and parrots a common sight.


 Pak Anu's Birding Hut near Sidangoli

We woke at three in the morning and walked the 2-kilometer track towards the Standard-wing’s Lek in the pre-dawn darkness, along with a group of enthusiasts from Birdquest. In silence, we all assumed our positions in the leaf litter on an eastern-facing slope and were soon treated to the first distinctive call of the Standard-wing before the metallic green breast feathers became visible. At least three males then went about their display that involved frantic leaps more than five metres into the air, posturing and a great variety of calls. The entire group sat silently transfixed for the early morning show, which lasted about half an hour before the birds noisily disappeared into the forest to forage.

Worryingly, however, this lek is also now under threat. It is located on secondary forest that holds no formal conservation status and the name ‘Tanah Putih’ itself (literally, ‘White Land’) holds a clue to its likely demise. Approval has been granted for cement extraction at the site, and Pak Anu has given up all hope of conserving the site. His search for an alternative habitat in the local area has borne some results and he offered to show us a site in less damaged forest where he has recently observed Standardwings.

Impressive as the display at Sidangoli was to us, Pak Anu stated that it is nothing compared with a lek he has discovered on the eastern peninsula of Halmhera, at a place called Labi-Labi, where her claims up to a 50 birds congregate each morning. The site is located on the fringe of the recently established Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park (the first park in Halmahera), but is accessible only by chartered boats and a full-day travel. According the IUCN, population numbers of the species are not believed to approach the thresholds for population decline anhd it is currently evaluated as ‘Least Concern’.

In the late afternoon, we trekked for 3 hours through regenerating secondary forest to a riverside camp from where we would join Anu for a forest walk up the mountain in search of a possible new Standardwing lek. Unfortunately, Anu managed to get us lost in the dawn darkness the next day and we arrived at the site just after sunrise. In what would appear to be a good conservation sign for the species, however, we caught sight of at least one individual before it noisily dissapeared again into the forest.

Revisiting Ternate: birthplace of natural selection

The twin cone-shaped peaks of Tidore and Ternate rise abruptly from the deep Molucca Sea and each climbs sharply up to an impressive 1,700m above sea level. As our plane flew in from the west, we were offered a fantastic view of the mountain with its ‘perpetually faint wreaths of smoke’ and then swung around to the East, where the town of Ternate sprawls across the mild slopes at the base of the volcano. Only three weeks before our visit, an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, with an epicentre located 120km to the north, had caused minor damage to infrastructure in the city. Wallace maintained a regional base on this ‘earthquake-tortured island’ for three years, and it was from here that he sent the now-famous ‘Ternate Paper’ titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type to Darwin in 1858.

Soon after arriving, we began our search for the house where Wallace had spent ‘many happy days’ while exploring the Eastern archipelago. Initially, our hosts from the local affiliate of Birdlife International pointed us towards an old (but recently renovated) house now being used as a political party branch office. It seems that this house was identified based on oral accounts from local elders of where Wallace had stayed. From the Malay Archipelago, we are provided with the following clues: a floor plan of the house; having thick stone walls up to three feet in height; it being located just above the Portuguese-built fort; the Sultan’s palace being located less than a mile to the Northeast; and it being a 5 minute walk to the beach. None of these clues seem to even remotely fit the house we were shown and we immediately rejected this as a likely candidate.

In their Insecurity, the Portuguese had actually built a number of forts in Ternate. We visited ‘Kalamata’ fort, right on the waterfront facing directly neighbouring Tidore, where Spanish cannons would have once pointed straight back at their Iberian rivals. Located about 10km south of the city centre, this fort however was also quickly discounted. The second fort was ‘Tolokku’, the oldest remaining in ternate, but also on the water front and located North of the city centre. The third Portuguese fort, ‘Gamalono’, is also located north of the Sultan’s palace. The only fort whose location fits Wallace’s description seems to be the ‘Oranje’ fort, which is widely believed to have been built by the Dutch following their invasion of Ternate in 1607. We walked the streets just above this fort and found a number of houses apparently built during the same era as Wallace’s, with stone floors and thick walls up to about 3 feet (and with timber walls above this). We even asked to see inside two likely contenders to see the floor plan, none of which fit the floor plan described in the Malay Archipelago. Much urban development has now taken place in this district and, considering also that the house had been ‘rather ruinous’ even when Wallace stayed there, we concluded sadly that the house had in fact been long bulldozed and no longer exists.


 View of Tidore from Kalamata Fort

All the same, this house-searching exercise was a great excuse to explore the various historical sites of the town, delving into the fascinating 500 year history that this tiny island has bore witness to. The Portuguese first arrived in 1512, shortly after their conquest of Malacca and soon after arranged a treaty with the Sultan (our Tourist Brochure, however, informs us that “Unfortunately, Portuguese betrayed the agreement and killed Sultan Khairun” – such are the Portuguese remembered in Ternate today!). The Sultanate had already grown fabulously wealthy by selling cloves, nutmeg and other luxuries to traders from Malacca and from more remote countries such as India and China. Starting with the Magellen expedition, which traded with the Sultan of Tidore in 1521, Spanish interest in the Moluccas was intense as they established an alliance with Tidore and intermittently controlled Ternate as well. In the Malay Archipelago, Wallace quotes from Sir Francis Drake, who visited Ternate in 1580, at a time when the Portuguese were taking refuge on Tidore following a popular rebellion that followed Sultan Kairuns’ murder.

During the 18th century, Ternate was the headquarters of the VOC (the Dutch East Indies Company) and, following the Dutch destruction of clove plantations elsewhere in the Indies, the sole site of clove production in the world. This monopoly only truly ended after the British takeover of the island during the Napoleonic wars and subsequent expansion of clove cultivation in Zanzibar and the West Indies. Clove plantations are still abundant on the island, although it is primarily kretek cigarette factories in Java that fuel demand rather than global trade – current prices are hovering around 3USD/kg, a far cry from the once famed ‘worth it’s weight in gold’ value (especially with today’s gold prices up to 23,000USD/kg!).

The end result of the singular colonial and pre-colonial history of Ternate, the seismic instability of the region, and the nationalist politics of post-independence Indonesia, is a city where crumbling ruins are strewn amongst rambling kampongs. Probably the most impressive of all the forts in its day, ‘Oranje Fort’ is easily overlooked altogether if approached from the west, where the grounds are littered with rubbish. The interior of the fort is now being used primarily as a ramshackle boarding house for local police families and other government offices. The Sultanate still possesses symbolic power on the island, with a well-maintained keraton and the current Sultan also involving himself in both regional and national politics.


 Old Dutch canons lie amidst the kampongs of Ternate

Sadly, the tumultuous history of the island has resurfaced again in recent years. A full-scale religious war between Christians and Muslims caused social devastation across the Moluccas from 1999-2002, apparently triggered by a minor brawl in Ambon and fuelled by years of religious resentment and displacement of traditional elites from top political jobs in southern Maluku. The conflict was heavily exacerbated by interference from external groups and the poor capacity of security forces to maintain neutrality. By the time a peace deal was struck in 2002, an estimated 5,000 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. More recently, a tight result in North Maluku’s gubernatorial election in September 2007 led to massive street rallies and violent clashes between supporters of the two opposing candidates. When we visited twelve months later, the dispute was still unresolved. It was therefore a shock to wake up on our last morning in Ternate (September 29) to hear noisy street protests and fiery orations outside our hotel. It turned out that a decision had finally been made and the new governor was to be installed in Ternate that very day, resulting in clashes outside the parliament building (about 100 meters from our hotel). Having been caught in the middle of a political riot in Makassar nine years before, when I was forced to run across a runway to board a plane just before the airport was occupied by a mob, it was with some relief when we made it through the heavy security presence at Ternate airport and boarded our plane back to Manado.

In Search of Maleo Birds: North Sulawesi

We left Manado city shortly after arriving on September 23, unfortunately finding Wallace’s claim that the town was ‘one of the prettiest in the East’ no longer holds true. Yes, the surrounding volcanic peaks still strike a picturesque backdrop, but the gridlocked traffic and featureless streetscapes have now assumed the same characterless uniformity as in most other major Indonesian cities.

We went straight to the Toka Tindung mine site on the east coast of Sulawesi’s northern peninsula (a medium-size gold reserve was discovered here in the mid-1990s, and Meares Soputan Mining is set to commence production in the coming months). The company’s Contract of Work area appears to lies across the path that Wallace would have walked from Batu Putih to Likupang after collecting and observing the remarkable Maleo birds on a remote and uninhabited black-sand beach. Mine management was generous enough to allow us to stay at the camp during our visit and provided logistical support to allow us to undertake our main objective: attempt to view for ourselves the remaining Maleo birds still nesting on the beaches of Tangkoko Dua Saudara Nature Reserve (TDSNR).

Maleo Nests at TDSNR

Most birding guidebooks now dismiss TDSNR as a key nesting site for Maleos: numbers are low with their eggs having been long considered a delicacy amongst local communities. Indeed, Wallace also attests “they are richer than hens’ eggs and of a finer flavour, and each one completely fills an ordinary tea-cup, and forms with bread or rice a very good meal”. His subsequent week-long collecting trip produced 26 well-preserved specimens of the unique bird. Wallace, however, has not been the only Maleo egg collector in the last 150 years, and the bird is now considered to be the most endangered bird species on Sulawesi . The Maleo is a member of the mainly Australo-Papuan Megapode family, and practices the unusual habit of communal nesting and does not actually incubate its eggs with its own body heat. Rather, a number of Maleo birds will each lay one large single egg in a communal nest excavated on one of Sulawesi ’s black-sand beaches and then retreat to the forest, allowing the sun to heat the sands and incubate the eggs. Three months later, the eggs hatch and the chicks claw their way to the surface to start their life in the absence of parental support.

'Captain Chaos' and the team in search of Maleos

With three representatives from the mine joining us, along with two local guides, we became a group of eight and decided (perilously it would later seem) to hire a small motorised outrigger canoe at dawn to inspect the more remote beaches of TDSNR in the vain hope that some Maleos might still be glimpsed nesting. Wallace did his collecting in the month of September, so we figured we were, at least, looking there in the right season. Still, it was somewhat of a surprise when, less than half an hour later, we viewed a pair of Maleos on a small beach backing onto thick forest. The moment, however, didn’t last long. For two reasons: firstly, the Maleos are nervous nesters and disappeared into the forest before we were within 100m of the beach; secondly, at precisely the same moment as we saw the Maleos, one of the outriggers on our heavily over-loaded canoe snapped and the canoe quickly heaved to one-side and passengers and equipment were thrown into the water. Fortunately, the cameras were somehow held above water and appeared to be OK at the time as we swam into the tiny nesting beach (we later discovered that battery chargers were seriously affected such that we couldn’t do any further filming during the trip). We then spent much of the morning trying to dry out our belongings, examining the Maleo nests and walking through the nearby forest while waiting for a more substantial boat to collect us. Considering Wallace’s own uncanny misfortune with boats, both in the Atlantic and in the eastern archipelago, we decided that our capsizing, while walking in the footsteps of Wallace, was somehow a positive omen for the rest of the expedition.


Shipwrecked on the Maleo Beach

We later visited, what was claimed to be, another Maleo nesting site at Rumasung further to the east, but still within the reserve. However, despite a birding observation tower having been recently built by an international NGO, the site was heavily degraded, completely dominated by weeds and didn’t appear to offer much at all in terms of bird habitat. In fact, the eastern slopes of TDSNR, located nearer the major port town of Bitung , have been heavily cleared for timber and continue to be encroached by local coconut farmers. TDSNR only covers 8,718 hectares anyway and its habitat value is already seriously threatened. In 1859, when Wallace visited the area, it was celebrated not only for the Maleo birds, but for the other two great endemic icons of Sulawesi wildlife: the anoa and babirusa. The anoa are wild, dwarf buffaloes that Wallace claims to have “been the cause of much controversy, as to whether it should be classed as ox, buffalo, or antelope”. The babirusa, or ‘pig-deer’, is a warthog-like animal with tusks that grow up from both the lower and upper jaws, the latter of which then curiously curls back towards its forehead. Both species are hunted for their meat, such that the babirusa has long been extirpated in the reserve and only a few individual anoas may remain in the mountain peaks (many claim that these too have already disappeared). The Minahasan people, the dominant ethnic group in and around Manado, are renowned throughout Indonesia for their eagerness to eat anything and everything that moves, and a lively bush meat trade exists in the region that continues to threaten remaining populations of these and other endangered animals in Sulawesi.

Degraded Maleo habitat at Rumasung

Despite the problems facing the nature reserve, it also possesses the highest densities of red-knobbed hornbills, crested black macaques and spectral tarsiers in all of Sulawesi . We spent the next few days in the reserve, enjoying the fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities provided by these animals. In late afternoon, we came in close contact with a troupe of crested Black Macaques (about 3000 individuals are thought to remain in the reserve). Endemic to the northern peninsula, these primates have complex social structures led by matriarchs, huge sharp canines and a generally curious and playful nature. An ongoing internationally-funded monitoring project is underway in the reserve and, apparently well-accustomed to the presence of humans, these baboon-like monkeys allowed to get remarkably close, running about us and posing for photos.

North Sulawesi's endemic Crested Black Macaque

Then, just before nightfall, we were taken to a massive fig tree in the forest and sat around waiting…… waiting, looking at nothing in particular. Then, suddenly, emerging from within the tree itself, a number of tiny furry creatures began to appear, as if from nowhere. The Spectral Tarsier is said to be the worlds’ smallest primate, and would jump energetically from branch to branch and then freeze looking back at the torch lights. Then, almost as quickly as they emerged, these shy and nervous creatures with feather-like tails and massive eyes apparently too big for their body, disappeared into the forest, jumping from tree-to-tree at about waist height.

Spectral Tarsier

On our final morning in TDSNR, we walked again into the forest at dawn and sat below a tree hollow where a female red-knobbed hornbill was locked up inside with her chicks. For days, we had heard the unmistakeable sounds of flapping wings in the canopy, and caught the occasional glimpse of the Sulawesi hornbill. We waited a while longer below the hollow and, sure enough, a male hornbill perched on a nearby branch, its bill loaded with fruits (probably figs) to provide to its partner inside. The various hornbills of the Malay Archipelago provided an ongoing source of fascination for Wallace:


The extraordinary habit of the male, in plastering up the female with her eggs, and feeding her during the whole time of incubation, and till the young one is fledged, is common to several species of hornbills, and is one of those strange facts in natural history which are ‘stranger than fiction.’

Male Red-knobbed Hornbill feeding family in tree hollow


My last objective before leaving the area was to determine on which beach exactly Wallace had spent his time collecting Maleos. The map provided in the Malay Archipelago suggests that it was Batu Putih. However, the beach now known as Batu Putih does not accurately correlate with Wallace’s description.

The place is situated in the large bay between the islands of Lembeh and Bangka , and consists of a steep beach more than a mile in length, of deep loose and coarse black volcanic sand or rather gravel, very fatiguing to walk over. It is bounded at each extremity by a small river, with hilly ground beyond; while the forest behind the beach itself is tolerably level and its growth stunted. […] the beaches beyond the small rivers in both directions are of white sand.

Rinondoran Beach, where Wallace spent a week collecting Maleo birds

The map in the Malay Archipelago also depicts a small off-shore island directly out from the beach. These features correspond accurately with Rinondoran or ‘Rondor’ Beach, a steep beach now lined by fishing boats where the mine is constructing a small barge port. It appears an unlikely nesting site for Maleos today, although some village elders claim to remember a time when Maleos did use the beach for nesting.

All photos by Yogi Dwinanto and Richard Geddes

Sumatra trip delayed

Unfortunately, my planned visit to Muara Dua and Lobo Raman in South Sumatra last week was cancelled when I came down with the Rubella virus, and I’ve had to stay put in Singapore for the moment. Rubella! I’m sure I was a vaccinated as a child. Perhaps this just goes to show the ‘tyranny of vaccination laws” as being ‘utterly powerless for good’ (borrowed from ARW’s submission to parliament on the matter in 1885). OK, so I admit that the small, but sometimes vocal, anti-vaccination lobby is now widely perceived as a crackpot fringe, but I couldn’t resist the link.

One colleague in the expedition however, Richard Geddes, was already waiting in North Lampung when I cancelled and made a short, forgettable visit to Muara Dua on Friday night. Muara Dua is now the capital of a newly formed Administrative District in South Sumatra and apparently quite a frontier town. With few western tourists visiting the area, the novelty of Richard staying in a local hotel was enough to raise the suspicions of the local constabulary, with 6 policemen knocking on his door late at night asking to see ID and to find out why he would even want to stay in Muara Dua. Apart from the disturbed sleep and high annoyance factor, nothing came of it. Richard left town the next morning. No one seemed to have heard of ‘Lobo Raman’ either, where Wallace actually did his brief Sumatran collecting, and that endeavour will have to wait for another time.

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Singapore

I have been based at the National University of Singapore since April, but had waited until now to visit Bukit Timah: waiting for the expedition to officially get underway; and waiting for our expedition photographer, Platon Theodoris, to make his way to Singapore.

It would be easy to dismiss the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve as a tiny, fragmented park and decry the present and past governments of Singapore for their short-sightedness in allowing the wanton destruction of Singapore’s natural heritage. Of particular frustration to many conservationists in Singapore was the construction of the 6-lane Bukit Timah Expressway in 1985, effectively cutting the reserve off from the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and creating an ecological island in Bukit Timah. However, I find it equally astonishing that a place like Bukit Timah still exists at all in Singapore. Yes, it’s true that the reserve is neatly framed on all sides by high-density urban development, and that two massive disused granite quarries scar the hill face, and that the summit is used as a telecommunications station. But, some impressive unlogged stands of Dipterocarps (Shorea, Dipterocarpus, Vatica and Shorea species) are amazingly still found in the reserve, and the amateur butterfly watcher (armed with a brand new copy of ‘A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore’) was able to spot amongst other, an Archduke (Lexias paradalis dirteana), a common tree nymph (Idea stolli logani), and a Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae, or perhaps its evolutionary mimic Papilio polytes romulus that so interested Wallace during his later travels in Sumatra).

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

View towards Bukit Timah hill, the highest point on Singapore Island

It is, however, hard to imagine the reserve providing habitat to tigers, killing, so our esteemed hero tells us “on average a Chinaman every day’. (Indeed, Wallace’s hyperbolic statement should probably be treated with caution, even in 1854.) The last Singapore tiger is believed to have been shot in the 1930s, and the mammals remaining in Bukit Timah include the ubiquitous long-tailed macaque, various squirrels, the so-called flying lemur (not actually a lemur and properly called a Malayan Colugo), the Malayan pangolin, and the lesser mouse-deer. A new biological inventory of the park has just commenced (the first conducted since 1996), and it is with some trepidation that scientists await the findings. All the while, the debate continues over the possible reintroduction of locally extinct species into the park that would allow restoration of some ecological processes, but would be unlikely to maintain viable populations in the long term.

After dodging the numerous urban joggers and exercise groups ploughing their way to the summit on my first to Bukit Timah, I made an appointment with Senior Conservation Officer, Teo Sunia, who offered to show us around the, currently under construction, Wallace Environmental Education Centre. On the northern boundary of the reserve, the National Parks Board of Singapore is actively replanting a disused dairy farm with native species from the park. The old dairy farm hut is being renovated to accommodate an education centre and exhibition hall showcasing the history of the reserve site, including a proposed tribute to the work of Wallace. Teo explained that the opening of the new centre was planned to coincide with the International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May, 2009. Certainly, the memory of Wallace’s time at Bukit Timah was lingering on at the reserve, and also features in the exhibition hall at the main visitor’s centre on Hindhede Drive.

New Wallace Education Centre under construction at Bukit Timah

What of the French Jesuit mission where Wallace stayed for two months in 1852 after first arriving in the east? St Josephs Church and the Boys’ Town English School are located on the Northwest fringe of the reserve, and this is almost certainly where Wallace stayed during his collecting visits at Bukit Timah. This is where Wallace was so impressed with the generosity and sincerity of his ‘mission friend’, 'truly a a father to his flock'. St Josephs was established by Father Anatole Maudit in 1846 for the ‘jungle Chinese’ then establishing pepper and gambier plantations in the island’s interior. In ‘The Malay Archipelago’, Wallace does not mention by name his missionary friend. However, his family letters make reference to the French missionary just arriving back from Tonquin, which suggests that his host was indeed Anatole Maudit, whose grave is still found in the cemetery at the rear of the church.

St Josephs Church, Bukit Timah

St. Josephs Church, Bukit Timah, on the mission site where Wallace stayed for 2 months in 1854.

“Alfred who?” was the response of Father Edmond Chong when I inquired about the famous naturalist who had once spent time enjoying the ‘exceeding productiveness’ of Bukit Timah. I then decided it diplomatic to put aside a discussion of Wallace’s innovative contribution to evolutionary theory for another day with Father Chong, and returned to scale the local public housing block to gain an aerial view of the reserve.

Father Anatole Mauduit grave

Tomb stone at the grave of Father Anatolius Maudit beyond St. Josephs Church, Wallace's 'missionary friend'

All photos in Singapore by Platon Theodoris.

About this Blog

Higher Considerations: An expedition to revisit key Wallace collecting sites in the Malay Archipelago

If this [habitat conservation] is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.

ARW (1863), ‘Physical Geography of the Malay Archipelago’ Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, 33: 217-234.

The Australian Geographical Society has part-funded a 2008 expedition to revisit key Wallace collecting sites in the Malay Archipelago. The aims of the expedition are simple: i) to understand the ongoing environmental change taking place at each site; ii) comment on the conservation status of flagship ‘Wallace species’ in the region; and iii) find out how Wallace is being remembered by communities at each key collecting site.

This blog will contain entries following each visit to a Wallace site by the expedition team. Jeff can be contacted at

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