New Discoveries in Indonesia’s Foja Mountains

In late 2008, a team of scientists from CI and partner institutions set out on a Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) survey to discover new species and shed light on some of the mystery enveloping the Foja Mountains of Indonesia’s Papua province. This month, the official scientific results are in; not only did the team observe an abundance of wildlife, but they discovered several species new to science. The team’s journey is documented in the June edition of “National Geographic” magazine, on newsstands this month. Here, CI research scientist (and RAP participant) Bruce Beehler reflects on the most memorable moments of the expedition.

I will never forget my three visits to the Foja Mountains for many reasons, but mainly for their aura of isolation and the various adventures we had in actually getting into the Fojas.

At the beginning of the 2008 trip, I led a village team up the Kali Ibem River in search of a walking route into the highland interior. This was physically very difficult, and also dangerous because of the flash floods that rumbled down the stream bed when heavy rains fell in the headwaters. We mainly walked in the stony river bed, sometimes in water above waist level. Some places we had to cross from one bank to the other (because of cliffs) and this involved swimming with our pack bags held over our heads.

The first three days were mainly drudgery. But once we got high up the river’s course we found were entering a world apart. Wildlife was abundant and tame. First, we encountered a giant ostrich-like northern cassowary [Casuarius unappendiculatus] standing on a sun-lit sandy beach and staring at us as if we didn’t belong; this great flightless bird watched us for five minutes before slowly lumbering back into the forest.

Another day we came upon a pair of grizzled tree-kangaroos [Dendrolagus inustus] munching leaves in the forest canopy at the river’s edge. They were unperturbed by our presence – rare for a tree-kangaroo! Also, we had dozens of close encounters with the large forest wallabies that infest the foothills. These tended to race into the water upon our approach, though it would have made more sense for them to retreat into the forest.

Finally, on a number of occasions, we came upon meter-long monitor lizards – smaller relatives of the Komodo dragon [Varanus komodoensis] – sunning on the rocky walls of the Kali Ibem gorge. As we got close to them, they would plop into the water and swim away. Vulturine parrots [Pyrilia vulturina] and sulphur-crested cockatoos [Cacatua galerita] and Blyth’s hornbills [Rhyticeros plicatus] regularly flew overhead, vocalizing loudly.

I had never seen such concentrations of wildlife on New Guinea before. I suppose this is what wild lands are like when they are entirely unvisited and undisturbed.

To be able to return to this marvelous and pristine corner of the Pacific is a dream come true for field naturalists. After our 2005 visit, we knew there were more new species lurking in those mountain forests. Now that we can show how many unique forms live only there, it is easier for us to make the case that the world needs to take note and make absolutely certain that these superb forests are conserved for the well-being of the local forest peoples as well as the world at large.

Learn more about the Foja RAP, read dispatches from the field and see pictures of the newly discovered species on our Foja RAP page.

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