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Eight weeks in Indonesia

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS @$:A crown of thorns feeds on coral. The white areas have been cleaned and are dead.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS @$:A crown of thorns feeds on coral. The white areas have been cleaned and are dead.
Published September 23. 2011 05:01PM

Colin Cope of Towamensing Township returned from eight weeks in Indonesia doing wildlife research just in time to return to Penn State Aug. 21. He studies wildlife and fishery science and hopes to find a job as a wildlife biologist.

Operation Wallacea offered a presentation about opportunities to do terrestrial and/or marine research in Indonesia.

The program is based in the United Kingdom and, as a result, Cope made a lot of friends from Ireland, Scotland and England whom he is keeping in touch with.

Expeditions were available for from two to eight weeks in any of 10 countries. He chose Indonesia because it offered both land and sea research. Cope chose to spend two weeks on land and six weeks on marine studies where he became interested in a crown of thorns a fascinating animal that he wants to use as his master's thesis.

He said the Coral Triangle off the coast of Indonesia has the most diverse coral and marine wildlife in the world.

His first two weeks were spent on Buton Island in the Sulawesi region followed by six weeks on Hoga Island in Wakatobi National Park.

There were 50 student researchers in the terrestrial program and from 100 to 200 on Hoga. The population kept changing as some people moved on and others came in.

The first week was spent in forest jungle training studying the ecology and environment of the area. By the second week, Cope began work on a tarsier project.

The tarsier is a nocturnal primate that fits in the palm of a person's hand. It is fast and agile and lives in trees. Work began at 4:30 a.m.

Tarsiers are hard to see but Cope was thrilled to get a photo of one that was out later in the morning when it should have been sleeping. The picture quality is not the best but he is happy to have it since it is the only shot he has of the project's main interest.

Guides take the students to an area where a four-sided quadrate is laid out. From there they listen for the tarsiers and triangulate on the sound to try and locate a nesting tree.

"It sometimes works, sometimes not," said Cope. If they do, a habitat survey is done. Habitat and food preference patterns were recorded.

Students were taken deep into the jungle where they were taught survival skills how to find food and water, and to build a shelter. Green coconuts were opened and the meat was eaten. There was one vine that had so much water an open cut could be held up to the mouth and the water could be drunk.

His Boy Scout training helped him. He said the people who had not spent time in the outdoors such as the scout camping could be recognized.

The operation was based in Labundo-Bundo. In the village people get paid to house the students with four in a hut. Some houses are built on stilts. It depends on the topography where they are built.

"The Indonesians were so friendly, he said. Some spoke spotty English, some articulate and some none at all," Cope said.

He learned some Indonesian phrases used for politeness' sake such as thank you and good morning.

There are a lot of stray cats and dogs. People don't like to have them around because they carry disease but they do keep the rodent population down. None are used as pets.

Cope said it poured "tons of rain" which left nothing dry. He had a picture of the jungle that was too light but the same shot after a rain started was dark.

His third week in Indonesia was spent on dive training before beginning marine research. Everyone had to be dive certified. They saw the coral and took an ecology course that familiarized them with what they would be studying.

It was off Hoga Island that he learned about the crown of thorns, a starfish with calcified spines. They live only in that region and feed on coral. The population has a boom and bust cycle. During the bust the coral has the opportunity to regrow.

Not only are the boom cycles for crown of thorns becoming more frequent but people are having more influence on the coral. There are few predators to control the crown of thorns population. People have damaged the population of the few fish that fed on them.

Cope said there are many poisonous animals in the Coral Triangle. The sea krait is a venomous snake but is docile if left alone. They are more aggressive if found on land.

He spent two weeks living on a ship, the Bintang Sedang, during which time they toured most of the park area and did reef surveys.

While on board ship they saw dolphins every day. It makes you appreciate wildlife more, he said.

Indonesians are becoming more cooperative as they begin to realize the importance of the ecosystem. There is still some blast fishing and cyanide used. It is believed the reefs will be destroyed in 50 years unless the destructive practices stop. People try to educate the locals about the dangers of overfishing. Locals are seeing for themselves that the number of fish are diminishing and the concept of sustainability has to be used.

Cope said he hopes to go back next summer to get information on the crown of thorns for his masters thesis.

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