[The Jakarta Globe]: It takes six hours to drive from Kendari in Southeast Sulawesi to the town of Kolaka, and then another three hours to reach the Mekongga mountain range region, where a team of Indonesian and American scientists begin their trek — the real start of their epic journey. “If you get in there [the Mekongga mountain range], there is no guarantee you can get out,” said John A. Trochet, a field ornithologist at the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology at the University of California, Davis. “That’s the truth.” Since 2009, scientists from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), the Ministry of Forestry and the Bandung Institute of Technology have collaborated with American scientists from the University of California’s Davis, Berkeley and San Francisco campuses to survey one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. Their destination, however, is not an easy one to reach. “We have to cross a river six times and then it’s a very steep climb to the remnants of an old logging road,” said Trochet, who has broken a finger and hurt his ankles on past treks. “We follow the logging road, and in many places it’s a wall on one side and a vertical drop on the other,” he said. “In many, many places the logging road has washed away over the years. It’s just very difficult.” Sometimes more than 80 porters must assist the scientists with their equipment and all of the samples they collect as they head up and down mountains. “The reason this project is so big is because we are doing everything from plants to birds to microbes,” said Alan T. Hitch, assistant curator at the same institution at UC Davis. “These expeditions in modern times don’t really exist anymore.” A wealth of new species It has been about 80 years since the last extensive survey of the area was conducted. “There are so many insects that are undescribed and so many undescribed microbes,” said Rosichon Ubaidillah, head entomologist at LIPI. Despite difficult conditions and weeks of Indomie on the menu, the scientists smile with excitement as they describe expeditions that may be among the last of their kind. Several trips have yielded samples from different elevation classes, many of which still need to be identified. “Potentially on the vertebrae side, we have at least a few new species of frogs, definitely a new species of bat, probably a couple new species of shrews, and maybe a new subspecies of rodent,” Hitch said. More than 1,500 vertebrae specimens have been collected, he said, and fish and lizard discoveries may also be classified as new species. On the plant side of the expedition, 109 species have been collected including a new orchid and a new begonia species. “This is a new record for us, said Elizabeth Widjaja, a member of the botany division at LIPI, who has potentially found a new genus of bamboo. “For scientific purposes it is very important.” In addition to the discovery of the Garuda wasp, named after the national symbol of Indonesia, there have been new discoveries of a bright blue sawfly, a long-tongued bee, and numerous flies and tiny wasps, which scientists are currently in the process of describing. “We estimate that there might be as many as 100,000 different insect species in the region we’re working in, perhaps half of which are new to science, waiting to be discovered and described,” Lynn S. Kimsey, an entomology professor and the director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, wrote in an e-mail to the Jakarta Globe. Indonesia’s national collection has gained three species of birds from the expeditions. And that’s only the beginning. “Out of 80-odd different species of yeasts that we’ve isolated, 37 of them are new to science,” said Kyria Boundy-Mills, a curator at the Phaff Yeast Culture Collection at UC Davis. Cures in the making Although studies are still in their infant stages, scientists are excited about their potential yields. “We are finding potential activity in the plants and microbes that we are collecting in Mekongga — things that have potential for anti-cancer activity, potential effects on the nervous system, they might be new pain relievers or things for treating addictions,” Boundy-Mill said. “We are finding some very good candidates.” But the scientists worry about protecting the watershed area, as well as the plants and animals of Sulawesi, which, as Trochet put it, “are to a tremendous degree found nowhere else.” “This area has been logged. It is definitely not pristine rain forest,” Hitch said. Logging officially stopped in the early 1990s and the area became protected forest, but illegal logging still occurs. “We have to ask the local people not to go to the forest and do logging again,” Elizabeth said. Rosichon added that establishing profitable industries in cocoa and coconut plantations could help the region turn away from illegal logging. “For the people there, it’s easy to just go to the forest and take something from there. We would like to develop an effective biodiversity conservation strategy,” Rosichon said. Mining interests in the area are also raising concerns. “Local mining is already open,” Elizabeth said. “Not in the area we visited, but after that on the way to Lasusua. It belongs to Antam [mining company].” A rise in mining activity could threaten Sulawesi’s biosphere. “We worry about that [mining],” Rosichon said, adding that the government recently released new regulations to stop the mining in 2015. “The mining is getting crazy … They are trying to get more and more raw material before they have to stop.” Despite threats to the region, Rosichon remains optimistic, and the team hopes to approach the government in Jakarta with a proposal to create a larger protective area. “Hopefully the research from this project will contribute significantly to the broad range of issues, not only for the knowledge of biodiversity in the area, but for conservation and sustainable use of the resources in Sulawesi, and also for the whole country,” Rosichon said. Grant funding for the project from the US National Institutes of Health will end in 2013. The scientists are hoping to expand the scope of their research past 2013 with additional grant funding. “Why should Mekongga be special? The prospect of other areas having similar riches is extremely high,” Trochet said.
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