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RAJA AMPAT, Irian Jaya (May 8 - 14, 2001 - Tempo Magazine/Joyo Indonesian News/TAPOL)---The waters of the Raja Ampat Island group are the world’s richest in terms of biodiversity. But the threat of destruction looms.

The treasure is located deep beneath the blue sea. Up until now, this fortune had been concealed from prying eyes by the waves that crest atop the waters off the Irian Jaya region known as the ‘Bird’s Head.’ Doctor Gerry Allen, a marine biologist from Australia, recently discovered this fortune worth ‘King Neptune’s ransom.’

"Unbelievable! Unbelievable!" he bubbled repeatedly after diving the sea waters around the archipelago of Raja Ampat, Sorong.

This was the very first time in his 25-year career that he counted as many as 283 species of coral fish in a single dive lasting 80 minutes.

With this find, Allen, the author of "Marine Fishes of Tropical Australia and Southern Asia" -- a work that has come to be regarded as a ‘dictionary’ for tropical fish --actually surpassed his own record. In February last year he recorded 204 different species during a dive at Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea.

Two weeks ago Dr. Allen announced his discovery in Jakarta. Together with John Veron, Doug Fenner and Fred Wells, these marine specialists conducted a survey beneath the island group’s waters lasting 14 days and ending mid-April. This environmental concern group, known as Conservation International (CI), was accompanied by a team from the University of Cendrawasih, Jayapura.

Called the "Marine Rapid Assessment Program" (M-RAP), the exploratory study was undertaken from 45 dive points. From these spots, they found 950 species of coral fish, 450 species of coral and 600 species of mollusk. Of the total, the researchers came across four new fish species and seven coral species hitherto unknown. The four belong to the genus Eviota (the goby family), genus Apogon (cardinal fish family, two species) and the genus Hemiscyllium or bamboo sharks.

The researchers expressed conviction that the Bird’s Head waters still contain hundreds of other marine species just waiting to be discovered: if a longer time and more dive points were involved. Given local habitat conditions, the area may shift the Palau archipelago’s position as a zone with the world’s richest biodiversity. Situated 600 nautical miles east of the Philippines, Palau is home to 700 species of coral and around 1,400 fish species.

Palau has long topped the ranks of the seven marine wonders on this planet, that is, until now. But according to coral expert John Vernon, Raja Ampat has a higher density. "Never before in the world had researchers found 400 coral species in one dive as they did in Raja Ampat," claimed Vernon, who is also the author of "Corals of the World."

Raja Ampat was chosen because it’s a convergence point of sea currents from the Philippines, Maluku and Australia. The unique location enables larvae, fish and coral from the areas of relatively affluent habitats to gather and survive in Raja Ampat.

In addition, Raja Ampat comprises hundreds of islands large and small. Consequently, there are rich spots between them with calm currents that serve as a convenient environment for the reproduction of hundreds of fish, coral and mollusk species. "Prior to this, marine experts could only speculate. Now CI has proved it," said Suer Ruryadi, program manager of CI-Papua.

But as TEMPO has observed with sadness, the Raja Ampat waters are vulnerable to environmental damage. Local fishermen use cyanide and explosives in their operations. And fishing boats from Thailand and the Philippines are frequently found poaching there.

Worse still, forest exploitation by six concessionaire companies is under way. This activity endangers the existence of coral due to sedimentation, which can smother and destroy the fish and coral habitat. In fact, the zone of West Waigeo and the Raja Ampat archipelago were declared nature reserves back in 1993.

To ensure its future, CI will propose that Raja Ampat be given international heritage status. "We’re recommending Raja Ampat as a conservation zone of the category of multipurpose protected area," added Suer Ruryadi. It means that the area can be utilized in a limited way by applying the principles of conservation and avoiding exploitation. The destruction of this island group would be a great and tragic loss to the international community.

Palau, which safeguards its sea and has made the zone a tourist destination, may be a model for Raja Ampat. In this way, local people can enjoy the economic benefits while preserving the marine habitat.

Agung Rulianto and Kristian Ansaka (Sorong)

Paul Barber TAPOL, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign 25 Plovers Way, Alton Hampshire GU34 2JJ Tel/Fax: 01420 80153 Email:  Internet: 

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