As our small Helios aircraft flew south from Irian Jaya's capital city of Jayapura, I looked out the basketball-sized window at the changing landscape below. Within just a few minutes of takeoff, all evidence of humanity ended – trees and a wildly winding river were all I could see. The central mountains, which divide the province from east to west, rose abruptly from the sea of trees and were also clothed in green.
After fifty-five minutes of flying, small tin-roofed structures dotted the riverbank, eventually growing into several rows of houses wedged between the wide, brown river and the foothills. A grassy strip about the length of two football fields separated two rows of buildings – our landing strip in the village of Dabra.
|Gerald Allen rides in a dugout canoe from Dabra to our first camp. © Debbie Gowensmith|
The plane hit the ground with a bone-rattling clatter, then quickly rumbled to a stop. Dozens of local residents surrounded the plane, some to help carry our equipment and some to satisfy their curiosity.
Gerald Allen went to work almost immediately. He unpacked his field guide to the freshwater fishes of New Guinea and queried the residents about which fishes they see in the area's streams and rivers. After about an hour of conversation, with locals discussing and arguing over the book's pictures, Jerry had a good idea of what he can expect to find here. He also recorded the local names for the fish and learned about a local market, to be held tomorrow, where fish from the Mamberamo will be sold. There, Jerry will be able to see large fish species that he doesn't have the equipment or logistical support to sample.
When our entire group and mounds of equipment had arrived, we piled into dugout canoes for a fifteen-minute ride up the Mamberamo to the smaller Furu River. Then we hiked for an hour up the Furu to camp. Along the way, we saw evidence that this forest is used by local residents – hunters with guns, for example, and felled trees stripped of bark. We arrived at a flat area with open space between the trees that was bisected by a stream and besieged by flies and bees: Dabra Camp 1.
A flurry of activity ensued – leaves were scattered on the muddy forest floor, then we put up our tents over the leaves. Tarps were requested, a pit toilet was planned, a work area and a meal area were identified.
|Stream near camp. © Debbie Gowensmith|
As soon as personal comforts were taken care of, the different taxonomic teams prepared for survey work to begin tomorrow. The fish, aquatic insect, and herpetology teams walked upstream and downstream to locate habitats that will likely support different species. The mammal team found a good area in which to place live traps. Both the bird team and the mammal team will use mist nets, so they agreed upon a location that will likely receive traffic from both birds and bats. The plant team hiked into the surrounding forest to look for good plant habitat in which to place Whitakker plots, and the butterfly team got out their nets and began swooshing at butterflies that fluttered around camp.
Through all this hubbub of activity, it struck me how familiar a field biologist involved in rapid surveys must be with the forest – not just with a particular taxonomic group. There isn't a lot of time to search for suitable habitats. We have only four days at this site, and survey work must begin tomorrow. Even with such a full day of travel and camp set-up, these biologists were able to identify survey areas before dark.
Almost everyone is now sitting around our "dinner table" – several saplings held together by vine – and is swapping fieldwork stories. The herp team, not wasting a single night, is already out searching for frogs. Fifteen hours has taken us from the city of Jayapura to the forest of Mamberamo. Tomorrow, the rapid assessment begins.
– Reported by Debbie Gowensmith
<< About the Expedition | Day 2 Dispatch >>