Biodiversity Survey Supports New No-take Zones in Timor-Leste

Today, the government of Timor-Leste announced the establishment of seven no-take zones in the country’s coastal waters. This development follows the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) survey carried out by CI and partner scientists last year, which confirmed the community-identified zones as being biologically significant. Coral scientist and guest blogger Dr. Lyndon DeVantier shares his experience.

wrasse documented at Timor-Leste's Atauro Island

This beautiful wrasse (Cirrhilabrus tonozukai) was previously known from Palau and Indonesian localities, including Raja Ampat, eastern Sulawesi, and Halmahera. A single male individual was photographed at Timor-Leste’s Atauro Island, which represents a significant southerly extension of the geographic range.(© Gerald Allen)

In August of last year, I joined Mark Erdmann, Gerry Allen, Emre Turak and local scientists in Timor-Leste to participate in a CI RAP marine survey. At the request of the government, we set out to record the marine biodiversity of corals and fishes and assess the overall health of the reefs to help identify areas of importance for conservation and marine tourism.

To their great credit, the Timor-Leste government has already established a large national park on the eastern tip of the country, covering both land and sea. The park was established in 2007 — after the country had spent only five years as an independent nation — and named in honour of Nino Konis Santana, a Timorese freedom fighter in the 1990s.

We surveyed 22 reef locations both inside and outside of the national park and on Atauro Island off the northeastern coast. Having done similar work in many other parts of the tropical Pacific and Indian oceans over the past 20 years, we had a good basis for comparing Timor-Leste’s reefs with other places.

Timor-Leste marine RAP team

Left to right, international taxonomists Lyndon Devantier, Gerald Allen and Emre Turak were part of the RAP team surveying Timor-Leste’s waters. (© CI/photo by Mark Erdmann)

I was glad to discover that the reefs, particularly those inside the national park, were in moderate to good condition, with three times more living than dead coral covering the reefs overall.

The dead coral was caused mainly by population outbreaks of the coral-feeding crown-of-thorns starfish, a species that has wreaked havoc on other Pacific reefs. There was also some legacy damage from blast fishing, but most reefs — especially within the park — appeared to be in an active state of recovery.

Along with neighbouring countries, Timor-Leste forms part of the renowned Coral Triangle, Earth’s most diverse tropical marine realm. Hence we expected to find highly diverse coral reefs. We were not disappointed.

This small nation, with only a limited area of coral reef habitat, hosts a number of reef-building coral species comparable to Australia’s enormous Great Barrier Reef — some 400 species in all. Three of these coral species we documented may be new to science.

The fish fauna was also highly diverse; Gerry and Mark recorded some 740 species (including six possibly new species!) With inclusion of additional records from previous researchers, the Timor-Leste fish species tally has been raised to 800 species; for the greater Timor region, the tally is likely to be well over 1,200 species. Local levels of species richness on individual reefs were also high, although targeted fish species — including sharks — were rarely seen, an indication of intense fishing pressure.

Importantly, there was no evidence of recent or past coral bleaching caused by high sea temperatures. This likely reflects the presence of relatively cool waters, which were 25–28 degrees Celsius at the time of our survey — three to four degrees cooler than many nearby locations in the Coral Triangle.

Why are Timor-Leste’s waters cooler? It’s mostly because the major ocean current system known as the Indonesian Throughflow (ITF) passes to the north and south, transporting massive quantities of water from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean each day. Before passing Timor-Leste, waters of the ITF are cooled by mixing in the Banda Sea. If this cooling effect remains consistent into the future, as appears likely, then Timor-Leste’s unique oceanographic setting may provide a cool water buffer and refuge against the increasing sea temperatures predicted from climate change over coming decades.

Timor-Leste has already shown great initiative in declaring Nino Konis Santana National Park, which, with effective management, can play a very important role in conservation, and contribute to the replenishment of populations of fishes and other harvested species.

And with the high-quality reefs and miles of sandy beach, Timor-Leste has excellent potential for marine and coastal tourism. However, it will be important to set clear regulations from the outset to ensure that tourism development is environmentally sustainable and provides clear benefits to local communities.

It is promising to see that the government is going a step further to protect these resources: officially recognising seven community-established no-take zones within the national park. The first in the country, these zones will help preserve this wealth of marine life for the food and economic well-being of the country’s people.

Dr. Lyndon DeVantier is a coral ecologist with more than 30 years of experience in international coral survey work. The survey was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of a collaborative project between the Coral Triangle Support Partnership and the Timor-Leste national government. Learn more about CI’s work in the country.


  1. Judith Bird says

    What an outstanding project! Your excellent presentation of a little-known treasure in the Coral Triangle was very gratifying to a coral-fish-mollusc lover of the Indonesian region. Timor Leste has great potential in other fields such as petroleum and mineral resources, but it could also gain recognition for preserving its marine habitat and welcoming foreign scientists and could well profit from ecotourism also. The Atauro National Park deserves financial assistance to make this happen and one hope CI will encourage further exploration in Timor Leste’s unique cool waters, as well as supporting conservation efforts in this proud new country.

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