- Collaboration between international and local researchers, conservation authorities, NGOs and Indigenous groups was key to the success of an expedition in Indonesia’s Cyclops Mountains that uncovered new sightings of a rare egg-laying mammal and multiple unidentified species.
- “I think the trust between the expedition team and the community was important in the success of the expedition, and a lack of trust may have contributed to former searches being less successful,” said University of Oxford researcher James Kempton who proposed the expedition in 2019.
- The highlight of the expedition was camera-trap images of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, distantly related to the platypus, which scientists hadn’t seen since 1961 and which they’d long feared was extinct.
- The expedition also found the Mayr’s honeyeater, a bird scientists haven’t seen since 2008; an entirely new genus of tree-dwelling shrimp; countless new species of insects; and a previously unknown cave system.
JAKARTA — Researchers have credited a strong spirit of collaboration for the success of an expedition in Indonesia’s Cyclops Mountains that uncovered new sightings of a rare egg-laying mammal and multiple unidentified species.
The highlight of the recently published findings was camera-trap images of Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus attenboroughi), which, like the distantly related but better-known platypus, is one of just a handful of egg-laying mammals in existence. The species hadn’t been sighted by scientists since an initial specimen collected in 1961, and for decades was thought to have gone extinct.
Much of the success of the four-week-long Expedition Cyclops has been attributed to the collaboration between international and local researchers, conservation authorities, NGOs, and the Indigenous groups who have persistently protected the region’s biodiversity against external threats.
“We built a strong relationship with the community of Yongsu Sapari, who own part of the northern Cyclops, over three years,” James Kempton, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who first proposed the expedition in 2019, told Mongabay in an email.
“I think the trust between the expedition team and the community was important in the success of the expedition, and a lack of trust may have contributed to former searches being less successful,” he said.
The headline finding was undoubtedly that of the long-beaked echidna, named after celebrated British nature broadcaster David Attenborough. Echidnas, of which there are four species, all endemic to the island of New Guinea, are tricky to spot because they’re active at night, hide in burrows, and are usually pretty shy. This particular long-beaked echidna has only been seen in the Cyclops Mountains and since its description has been categorized as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
In addition to the producing new records of the echidna, the expedition also found other rare and potentially new-to-science species, including Mayr’s honeyeater (Ptiloprora mayri), a bird scientists haven’t seen since 2008; an entirely new genus of tree-dwelling shrimp; countless new species of insects; and a previously unknown cave system.
The team also collected more than 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of rock samples for geological analysis, which they say should give them further insight into the creation of the Cyclops Mountains.
“It represents one of the earliest explored mountain ranges in Indonesian New Guinea, and lies next to the major urban centers of Papua, and yet Expedition Cyclops still rediscovered Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna there, and discovered many new species of insect, two new species of frog, and a new genus of shrimp that lives on land,” Kempton noted.
Covering some 31,400 hectares (77,600 acres) in northeastern Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost region, the Cyclops Mountains encompass primary and secondary dryland forests and provide water to inhabitants of the surrounding region. The coastal range has been designated as a nature reserve and is dominated by two main peaks, Rara and Dafonsoro.
The nature and biodiversity of the Cyclops Mountains also have cultural significance for the community of Yongsu Sapari that has lived in the region for 18 generations and holds the land as sacred. Community beliefs hold that the mountains are stewarded by a female spirit who can take the form of a tree-kangaroo.
The region’s wildlife has also inspired a unique conflict-resolution mechanism in the community: when there’s a disagreement, the rival parties split up into groups, one setting off to search for an echidna up in the mountains, and the other heading out to sea to find a marlin. Because both creatures are so elusive that it can take years or even a whole generation to spot one, the conflict effectively remains on hold for that time. And once they’ve spotted the animals, that marks the end of the conflict and a return to peaceful relationships in the community.
Malcolm Kobak, a co-founder of the Indonesian NGO Yayasan Pelayanan Papua Nenda (YAPPENDA), said the expedition team first visited the Yongsu Sapari in 2020 and continued to regularly visit the community and the forest to understand their culture, their concerns for the Cyclops, and their desires.
“This has resulted in us collaborating with the community not just for the expedition but for ongoing conservation efforts,” Kobak told Mongabay. “The village are even helping us by propagating tree seedlings for our tree nursery, eventually to be planted in deforested areas on the southern slopes of the cyclops.
“We simply could not have done the expedition without their support and blessing. They were excellent guides who helped determine where to place cameras, build camps, find clean water, etc.,” he added.
The researchers say they hope the expedition’s recent findings will boost existing efforts to protect the Cyclops from encroaching environmental damages, such as poaching and deforestation, and social challenges, like internal migration.
The rapid growth in the Papua region’s urban centers, including the cities of Jayapura, Weana and Abepura, has attracted highlanders from a neighboring mountain range seeking economic opportunities. In 2015, for instance, nearly half the population of Jayapura, the capital of Papua province, were permanent migrants from elsewhere in Papua, according to the Indonesian government’s statistics agency. These outsiders have been blamed for logging the forest and using fire to clear land for agriculture, encroaching on terrain that communities like the Yongsu Sapari consider sacred.
“The Cyclops Mountains symbolize the extraordinary biodiversity of New Guinea, the world’s most biodiverse island, and suggest what is yet to be discovered there, let alone rediscovered,” Kempton said.
“They represent what must be protected in the provinces of Tanah Papua, provinces over which 83% of old growth rainforest is still intact and which we must protect before disasters like those in the Amazon and the Congo,” he added.
Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @bgokkon.
Papuan clan leader laments influx of migrants to sacred Cyclops Mountains
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