ENVIRONMENTALISTS FEAR MONKEYS WILL DESTROY NEW GUINEA ISLAND FOREST

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By Timothy Mapes Staff Reporter The Wall Street Journal

JAYAPURA, Indonesia (September 12, 2001 – The Wall Street Journal/Kabar-Irian)---Yopi Muskita has spent the past seven years studying monkeys and their ways. Now he is ready to go to war.

"If we don't kill them now, they can become very dangerous to our native species," says Mr. Yopi, a 42-year-old researcher for the World Wide Fund for Nature, as he walks along the edge of a tangled rainforest in search of a particularly aggressive monkey troop.

New Guinea, the largest tropical island on Earth, is one of the least-explored and least-understood wilderness regions in the world. Divided between the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya and the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, it is home to an astonishingly diverse collection of flora and fauna: kangaroos that live in trees, mammals that lay eggs, the world's tallest trees, its largest butterflies, its longest lizards - the list goes on and on. But the monkeys, daring and ravenous, are new arrivals. Environmentalists worry that local wildlife that evolved for millions of years without having to worry about them could be quickly wiped out by a monkey onslaught.

New Guinea's latest arrivals are commonly known as crab-eating macaques, or Macaca fascicularis in Latin. But in fact they will eat most anything they can get their hands on. Ferocious competitors, they spend up to 90% of their waking hours foraging for fruit, insects, grasses and marine life -- thus stealing food from a host of New Guinea's native species. The crab-eaters also find the eggs of New Guinea's rare birds and reptiles especially tasty. Some biologists fear they pose a major threat to the endangered Birds of Paradise -- small- to mid-size forest birds whose brilliantly colored plumes and tail feathers have dazzled European fashion designers for centuries.

"These critters are the bubonic plague of invasive primates," says David Quammen, who has written a book showing how the same monkeys helped wipe out the flightless Dodo bird from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius after being introduced by Dutch sailors in the 17th century. Mr. Quammen argues that the crab-eaters are one of a number of so-called weedy animals -- including rats, cockroaches, pigeons and, of course, humans -- that are highly mobile and can thrive in a wide range of environments. As they spread, overwhelming local species that aren't able to keep pace, the Earth will be transformed into "the Planet of Weeds," he predicts.

No one really knows how the monkeys got here. Some say Allied troops brought them in when they drove out the Japanese at the end of World War II, using them to taste local fruits and plants before they were served to the men. A more plausible scenario is they were ferried here as pets by the thousands of Indonesians who moved to this region after Jakarta seized it from the Dutch in the early 1960s, and they then escaped to build their own communities in the jungles.

It also isn't clear exactly how many of the monkeys, distinguished by the pads on their bottoms that make it easier to sit in trees for long periods, are roaming the forests of New Guinea, a landmass nearly the size of Malaysia and Thailand combined. The WWF says at least six troops of between 20 and 30 each have been identified on the fringes of the forests near human settlements on the Indonesian side of the border. Scientists haven't ventured further into the jungle to see if the monkeys are spreading out of view, however.

Mr. Yopi, a native of Indonesia's famed Spice Islands, spent years living in the forests of Sulawesi gathering monkey blood for studies on how the primates transmit diseases -- including the Herpes-B virus, which is non-lethal to monkeys but frequently fatal to humans. The stocky, curly haired researcher soon developed relationships with his studies, who recognized him so long as he didn't alter his appearance from day to day. He has little enthusiasm for plans to shoot the macaques or hunt them down with dogs, but fears there is no alternative.

Some local residents have developed a soft spot for the primates and hope their lives can be spared. That is the government's wish too. Mackbon, the local government's point man on the topic, suggests it could raise badly needed cash by trapping the monkeys and selling them to medical laboratories; crab-eaters are among the most widely used monkeys in research experiments. "I've heard that the price of these monkeys is quite good, especially in overseas markets," he says.

Ethical qualms aside, most environmentalists believe it would be nearly impossible to completely eliminate the highly intelligent and agile monkeys using traps alone.

"With trapping, if you miss a few, they escape deeper into the forest, and you've got an even more intractable problem than before," says John Burke Burnett, executive director of the Indo Pacific Conservation Alliance, who calls the monkeys an "ecosystem cancer" that will just reappear elsewhere unless it is eliminated now.

Agustinus Yumame, a lean, 32-year-old bean farmer, knows just how difficult trapping these monkeys will be. Every day, armed with a 60-centimeter (about 24 inch) machete, he patrols his bean fields, which sit on the edge of a dense monkey forest of tall trees and creepers. Raids of 20 or more monkeys are becoming more and more common, and increasingly sophisticated, he says. "Sometimes when they attack they leave a guard up in the tree. He keeps watch and then calls out when a human comes along and they all run away," he says.

The monkeys know when his cassava plants are ready to harvest, he says, and come to dig out the roots. "We can't go anywhere; we need to constantly guard our plants," he grumbles, standing bare-foot in his fields as he warily eyes about a dozen brown-haired, long-tailed monkeys swinging through the trees, some 50 meters (165 feet) from his beanstalks. "The government should come and kill them all as soon as possible."

To be sure, scientists don't yet have much evidence that the monkeys have harmed native wildlife. While several studies have illustrated a drop in numbers of Birds of Paradise and other species, no serious examination has been done on the role the monkeys have played in the decline.

Yet there is ample evidence from around the world that monkeys and other so-called invasive species can be just as dangerous as better-known threats to New Guinea's environment, such as logging and mining or the population growth.

While damage from mining, for example, can be cleaned up over time, invasive species tend to stay forever and can alter the ecological balance in irreversible ways. That is what happened in Guam, where the arrival of the brown tree snake after World War II led to the extinction of nearly all of the Pacific island's native birds in just a few years. Hawai‘i offers another classic example: The state now accounts for about one-quarter of all of the endangered species in the U.S., as pigs, goats, coconut palms and strawberry guava plants introduced by humans push aside the unique plant and animal life that developed there over thousands of years.

In fact, monkeys aren't New Guinea's only invaders. The Climbing Perch, a fresh-water fish, can survive several days out of water using a special chamber above the gills to breath air, and can wriggle long distances along the ground using its fins and gills. When larger local fish try to eat it, the resourceful perch extends sharp spines, often killing its would-be predator.

But for New Guinea's monkeys, time may be running out. The WWF plans to hold a meeting of government officials, scientists and environmental groups here next month to devise a joint strategy for eliminating them from the forests, one way or another.

"One feels sorry for the monkeys -- it wasn't their fault. But they're just in the wrong place," says Mr. Burnett. "It's either the monkeys or the New Guinea fauna. Macaca fascicularis is doing just fine in many other places, but New Guinea species? They've got no place else to go."

Rin Hindryati contributed to this article.

Write to Timothy Mapes at timothy.mapes@wsj.com1 

KABAR-IRIAN ("Irian News") Websites: http://www.irja.org/index2.shtml and http://www.kabar-irian.com 

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