Fight for survival

Print edition : February 02, 2018

The Sulawesi crested black macaque (Macaca nigri), a critically endangered species.

The tonkean macaque (Macaca tonkeana).

A black crested macaque sitting on a felled tree trunk.

The female black crested macaque displaying her swollen scrotum.

The tonkean black macaque, baby.

The Sulawesi bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus), or the Sulawesi bear phalanger (baby).

A Sulawesi bear cuscus, or the Sulawesi bear phalanger (adult).

A spectral tarsier (Tarsius spectrum).

The mangrove forests in Tangkoko.

Knobbed hornbill (Rhyticeros cassidix).

A maleo pair digging a pit at a nesting site.

A maleo at its nesting site.

A hut on the seashore for visitors who wish to watch the maleo.

Ochre-bellied boobook (Ninox ochracea), a species of owl endemic to Sulawesi. Its habitat is either dry or moist lowland tropical forest.

A yellow-breasted racket-tailed parrot (Prioniturus flavicans). The bird is rare to spot or photograph.

A chattering lory in attractive red plumage. The bird is trapped to be kept as a pet.

A white cockatoo (Cacatua alba).

A verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus).

A black-headed munia (Lonchura atricapilla).

THE Tangkoko Batuangus Dua Saudara Nature Reserve in north-eastern Sulawesi, the octopus-shaped island in the Indonesian archipelago, is home to two endangered animal and bird species—the Celebes black crested macaque, or the Sulawesi black macaque, ( Macaca nigra) and the maleo ( Macrocephalon maleo), a megapode with unusual reproductive behaviour. The local people have been hunting the macaque for bushmeat and harvesting the maleo’s large-sized protein-rich eggs from its nesting sites in sun-baked sandy areas or volcanic soils.

The black crested macaque, with a jet-black body and ape-like visage, is the most dominant mammal in the Tangkoko reserve, Indonesia’s precious gift of nature. One of the seven macaque species in Sulawesi, its distinct reddish eyebrows, amber eyes and punk-style crest are unusual features for a primate.

The large-footed maleo, unlike other megapodes, or incubator birds, uses a unique incubation strategy to hatch its eggs. It buries its egg in a warm sandpit having a temperature of 330 Celsius and lets the biological process happen naturally.

Formerly called Celebes, Sulawesi is a unique geological area lying between Borneo and Papua New Guinea. It is the world’s 11th largest island, with a string of more than 13,000 islands big and small, many of them connected with islets and coral reefs, spread over 18,060 square kilometres. Sulawesi is inhabited by 360 ethnic groups speaking about 700 languages. It is bounded by the Celebes Sea in the north and the Molucca Sea in the east. The rainforests of Sulawesi are biodiversity hotspots, pristine in some parts but ravaged in others.

Following the macaque

Shefique Basheer Ahammed, the wildlife photographer from Kochi, Kerala, visited the Tangkoko nature reserve in July 2017 to photograph the black crested macaque. The reserve derives its name from the dormant volcanic mountain Tangkoko, the rock formation on its eastern flank, Batu Angus, and Mount Dua Saudara, its tallest peak at 1,351 metres. The nature park’s boundary starts at the coastal and lowland forests and stretches right up to the cloud forests of Dua Saudara.

Shefique stumbled upon a charismatic solitary macaque, locally known as yaki, seated on a felled tree. He found it to be photographer friendly. As he approached it for close-up shots, it tolerated his presence and, although alert, remained unruffled. There were others, too, hanging around in groups, indulging in acrobatics, creating noisy and dramatic scenes. Macaques huddle together or wander alone. “As there are no natural predators, one does not hear alarm calls, especially from macaques, in this rainforest,” Shefique observed.

The Sulawesi macaque is different from its African cousin, the gorilla, which usually peeps through the foliage. “The macaque looks you in your face. Even when they hug one another, accompanied by a typical lip smack, they maintain this positive facial expression,” he said.

Shefique photographed a female macaque with a hyper-swollen rosy red scrotum as she roamed around to attract a mate. Biologists and naturalists have done extensive study on this aspect of macaque behaviour.

The macaque is hunted down and sliced for its meat. The law-enforcers were apathetic as they too had developed a taste for the barbecued macaque meat, Shefique said.

The Indonesian government introduced a law to protect the macaque in 1972, but poachers and meat traders violated it with impunity. “I hardly saw any forest guards patrolling the reserve. The local people manage things in the forest as if it was their private property,” said Shefique.

Shrinking habitat

Wanton logging, deforestation and shifting cultivation and widening of forest paths have shrunk the macaque habitat. Local people have encroached upon the forest and planted coconut trees. Shefique saw the scars such activities had left on the habitat. The visually enchanting canopy of the rainforest seemed to be silently suffering man’s onslaughts.

Wildlife tourism was introduced in Sulawesi only a decade ago. Scuba diving was the main attraction earlier.

The Geneva-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says the black crested macaque is critically endangered and attributes its vulnerability to “extensive habitat loss within its range and hunting for bushmeat”. Some 3,000 macaques exist in Tangkoko. Farmers see the macaque as a pest as the troops raid crops. Farmers lay traps for them and even keep them as pets.

The IUCN website says: “Hunting for bushmeat is a major threat, so although the habitat appears to be intact in many places much of it is currently unoccupied. Some animals are also caught for the live animal trade. Extensive illegal ‘small scale’ open area mining for gold, using mercury, within the parks is a regional threat. Shifting cultivation by local communities is an increasing threat. This is probably the most threatened primate species on Sulawesi.”

Various studies have been conducted to monitor the population density of the macaque. Conservation efforts, such as Save the Yaki, were started at the beginning of this century. But these environment protection movements have not been effective, says Shefique.

Antje Engelhardt, the renowned primatologist with Liverpool John Moores University, who has been studying the ecology and behaviour of the macaques in Sulawesi since 2003, told this writer in an email that the macaque’s habitat was shrinking constantly as “the human population in the island is frighteningly increasing due to immigration from other parts of the archipelago. Even the legally protected areas are being encroached”.

She wrote: “Poaching of the macaque is a long-standing tradition in Sulawesi although many persons do not eat the meat. Unfortunately, poaching rate is very high. There is lack of resources, understanding, motivation, corruption, etc.” among officials that encourage the hunters. “What worries me is the fact that there is an increasing number of Chinese tourists coming to Sulawesi being obviously attracted by the so-called extreme food they can get there. Unfortunately, this is supported by the local government.” Considered to be a major authority on Sulawesi macaque ecology, Antje Engelhardt has travelled far and wide in the island, doing meticulous research with working knowledge of the local language.

She said that “the strong El Nino climatic change that affected the Pacific Ocean in 2015 caused drought and a huge fire” in Tangkoko. The fire lasted for weeks and “burnt a major part of the forest undergrowth…. The macaque had to walk through hot ashes to find food and water.” The macaque’s food consists mainly of fruits, but it also forages for buds, leaves, seeds and insects.

David Slater, the renowned wildlife photographer who is familiar with Sulawesi, in an email to this writer, said: “I think trapping the macaque is a big issue now. The authorities are poor in law enforcement. They are more concerned with promoting the destruction of the macaque’s habitat by constructing roads in the protected areas so that logging and other industries could move there. Macaques are now the source of meat ever since Christian Indonesians moved to the region.... It all adds to the perilous [life on a] knife-edge for these monkeys. That is why I travelled there to help publicise the plight of the monkeys through photographs. I love the country for its exotic forest, its animals and especially its kind and generous people.”

With macaque tourism improving in Sulawesi, many youngsters are getting employed as guides. The roads leading to the reserve are no good. Motorcycles are the main mode of transportation. As there are no petrol pumps, people collect fuel in tins and bottles when they set out on their bikes.

Shefique had first-hand experience of the rainy season in the rainforest: torrential rain, ghastly landslides, shrieking winds, roaring waves lashing the beaches and muddy roads hampering vehicular movement. He missed his return flight to India as he was caught unawares by the unpredictable weather. He took the next one leaving Manado airport completely drenched and in mud-stained clothes. The Tangkoko reserve is about two hours’ drive from Manado.

Other primates

The island also has endemic species such as the spectral tarsier ( Tarsius spectrum), the Sulawesi bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus) and the Sulawesi dwarf cuscus (Strigocuscus celebensis).

Shefique saw the Tonkean macaque ( Macaca tonkeana) in the Palu forest area after a tedious trek through the rainforest. A troop of the Tonkean macaque comes out of its forest habitat at 6 a.m. every day, roams around for a while and then goes back into the forest. Shefique said tourists waited in the area to watch the macaque on its morning walk. Although the Tonkean macaque seemed to notice the eager onlookers, unlike the black crested macaque, it did not approach them.

The maleo nest

Macaques and marsupials are just one side of Sulawesi’s wildlife story. Colourful birds, endemic to the island, are also a centre of attraction. There are 250 species of birds in the Tangkoko reserve, prominent among them being the colourful knobbed, or wrinkled, hornbill ( Rhyticeros cassidix), the maleo and the yellow-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea). The knobbed hornbill can be one of the most unforgettable sights in the Sulawesi landscape.

“Its orange-yellow bill with a high casque, pouch and facial skin are captivating. It could be photographed from a distance and did not fly away quickly,” said Shefique. There is an abundance of parrots, hornbills and other exotic birds in the Sulawesi forests. These include the racket-tail parrot ( Prioniturus flavicans), the Moluccan Scops-owl (Otus magicus), Blyth’s hornbill (Rhyticeros plicatus) and the white cockatoo (Cacatua alba).

The maleo, a chicken-sized bird with black plumage, peach-pink underparts and yellow facial skin, comes out of the forest to its nesting ground in the open area in the coastal region to lay its eggs. The megapode does not incubate its eggs. The warm volcanic soil in which it buries its eggs in the communal nesting site acts as an incubator. When the chick hatches, fully evolved with feathers, it flies or runs into the nearby forest. The maleo, in pairs, digs a pit by scrapping out the top sandy soil. The bird constantly tests the temperature of the soil with its beak and when the pit reaches the right depth and the soil temperature touches 330 Celsius, the female lays the egg. It then covers the pit with twigs and leaves and sand, making a mound. The birds know which part of the coastal area is blessed with volcanic soil or has geothermal energy. If it is black soil, it retains more heat and the eggs are hatched easily. One of the chief volcanic belts of the globe runs through Indonesia.

There are 22 species of megapodes distributed across Indonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The Moluccan scrubfowl (Eulipoa wallacei), found on the Moluccan islands of Indonesia, has similar nesting habits.

David Attenborough, the renowned naturalist and film-maker, had an occasion to observe closely the ground-dwelling malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) in Australia. The malleefowl adopts an ingenious method to incubate its eggs.

In his Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth, Attenborough says the female lays the eggs and abandons the pit. But the male bird stays on, and with his sensitive tongue detects any change in the temperature in the pit. If the temperature dips, he piles up more sun-baked sand on the pit to keep it warm. The malleefowl chicks, like the maleo’s, emerge fully feathered, scraping their way up to the top, and soon fly off into the nearby forest area. Attenborough says even a dying volcano can act as an incubator. The megapodes are also called volcano birds.

One of the earliest references to the maleo was made in the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the English naturalist, explorer and evolutionary thinker. His monumental work, The Annotated Malay Archipelago, has a romantic description of the birds. Wallace had been to most of the islands in the archipelago and wrote about the landscape, flora and fauna and the lifestyle of the people.

He wrote in the chapter on “Celebes”: “The appearance of the bird when walking on the beaches is very handsome. The glossy black and rosy white of the plumage, the helmeted head and elevated tail, like that of the common fowl, give a striking character, which their stately and somewhat sedate walk renders still more remarkable.”

It was a hunter who introduced the maleo to Wallace. Later, his friend, Goldmann, on a hunting expedition, took him to a remote, uninhabited beach “where the ‘Maleos’ were abundant”. “In the months of August and September, when there is little or no rain, they come down in pairs from the interior… scratch holes three or four feet deep just above high-water mark, where the female deposits a single large egg, which she covers over with about a foot of sand, and then returns to the forest. At the end of ten or twelve days, she comes again to the same spot to lay another egg…”

Dr Marc Argeloo, who has served in the teaching faculty of the University of Amsterdam, chaired the first international Maleo Conference in Manado in March 2010. He has closely observed the maleo and studied its ecology and behaviour since 1990. In an email to this writer, he said: “Maleos are bizarre birds in my eyes. Because the chicks do not know who their parents are. This is the most unusual thing.”

Not many people are likely to have watched the maleo chicks hatch. It happens at midnight. The chicks take at least 48 hours to scrape their way up to the surface. They do not get suffocated, buried under warm sand. He says it is a magnificent sight to watch them accomplish the task of coming out and flying into the nearby forest. He has witnessed the hatching a few times. The maleo chicks make a run for the forest as monitor lizards and snakes prey on them.

Shefique first saw the maleo in Luwuk, a big island studded with coconut trees. Luwuk is about five hours’ drive from the Tangkoko reserve. The sands on the seashore are sun-baked. “It was early morning when I set out with my guide. I crawled on the sandy shore with the camera. The birds sensed my presence but were not alarmed. They were totally immersed in scratching the sand to dig a pit,” said Shefique. He spent half an hour watching the birds from a distance and then approached them slowly. His guide told him that there were 142 pits in the area. Shefique used hides to photograph the bird at close quarters although the guide told him the bird was not shy of people who came to watch it. Shefique also found the maleo in the Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park in north-eastern Sulawesi. The Bogani park was renamed after Nani Wartabone, a local resistance leader who fought the Japanese forces in the Second World War in Gorontolo.

In The Enchanted Canopy, the widely travelled naturalist and television producer Andrew Mitchell, who has specialised in canopy studies of the rainforests of Indonesia, Panama and Borneo, says Sulawesi has unusual wildlife. It has remained isolated for thousands of years from most of the surrounding islands so it has evolved a wildlife treasure trove of its own. Except bats, more than 90 per cent of the mammals found on the island are endemic.

“I am amazed to discover a place of such undisturbed natural beauty, idyllic sight for any camp for scientific wildlife study,” he writes. The dwarf buffalo, a grotesque hairless pig with curved tusks over its nose, and the extraordinary civet are found nowhere else in the world.

Wallace’s notes on Sulawesi throw light on its past. He says the natural history of Sulawesi points to its origin in remote antiquity. It is one of the oldest parts of the archipelago. It has unusual features. It is rich in peculiar forms of wildlife that are of singular beauty and in some cases absolutely unique. He notes that the tribal people of Aru island look like Grecian statues.

Maleo conservation

The first effort at maleo conservation began in the 1980s. It gained momentum in the 2000s when it was found that the birds were abandoning nesting grounds in northern Sulawesi. The open nesting sites made the bird vulnerable to poaching. The IUCN Red List changed its status from the vulnerable list in 2000 to the endangered list in 2002.

One of the maleo conservation programmes in Sulawesi is the United States-based Alliance for Tompotika Conservation, started in 2006. Marcy Summers, director of the project, said in an email: “Now there have occurred many changes in the attitude of the local people. Villagers have been inspired by the message to protect the birds and they flock to the nesting grounds to guard it. A lot of young men and women have joined the movement. The maleo has become an important symbol and flagship of conservation.”

The Indonesian government acknowledged the importance of habitat protection by introducing the Essential Ecosystems Act, 2014, a landmark Act that inspired nature protection movements around the globe, she said.

The peculiar habit or instinct of the macaque and the maleo has made them adapt to the changing forest landscape. But their survival instincts will be put to the test as the degradation of their habitat continues at a furious pace.

G. Shaheed is chief of legal and environment news bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

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