Dispatch from Atauro: On Arid Island, Life Hinges on Forest

© Conservation International/photo by David Emmett

One of the unusual features of the island of Atauro is the lack of fresh water. There are no lakes, ponds, rivers or large streams. The water supply is literally a trickle during the dry season, usually coming directly out of the limestone rock beneath the forest. It’s a permanent trickle though, which is enough for people to be able to live here.

This direct connection between nature and human survival is the basis of the local conservation ethic; people understand that protecting nature is non-negotiable. This is such a contrast with big cities, where we have lost that direct connection and most people take their water supply for granted, without knowing where it even comes from.

Over the past few days, we have visited more than half of the freshwater sources on Atauro. They are literally taps in the forest, attached to holding tanks filled by water flowing from the forested hills. Villagers walk for an hour or more to reach these sites, where they bathe and wash their clothes. They then collect water for drinking and carry it all the way back to their villages.

That isn’t the only hardship. Because the water here flows through limestone, it has a high pH value, meaning that it’s quite alkaline. As Trudiann Dale, the country director for CI’s Timor-Leste program, explained to me, this high mineral content can cause medical problems like kidney stones. It’s a hard life out here.

In terms of biodiversity, our first few days of surveys in the hills have turned up a variety of mammals and lizards, all of which are either undescribed species or species that have only been found once or twice before.

It seems that the evergreen forests on the hills contain unique plant and animal species, which are protected because they are within the watershed for the communities. All of the forested areas have signposts, written in three dialects, explaining that people must not cut down the forests — and the forests are in great condition. People clearly get it.

The coastal areas seem to have more common (yet still fascinating) species. In fact, these may be more under threat than the hill species, as most development on the island is taking place on the coasts.

We set some pitfall traps — basically buckets sunk into the ground that catch anything that falls into them. This method has never been used on the island. We saw a skink that is definitely new to science, but it was too fast to catch. I really hope we find one in a pitfall!

Still no amphibians. It’s very odd to be in lovely tropical forest at night and not see or hear any frogs. But it’s actually understandable — they likely cannot cope with the long dry season and the lack of permanent standing surface water. But I shouldn’t speak too soon — we still may find some!

After an intense morning of hiking in the hills looking for wildlife today, we decided to go for a swim in the ocean. Initial marine surveys around Timor-Leste have found it to have some of the highest coral diversity in the world. Still, we had no expectations about what we would see.

We were in for a big surprise: It was incredible! Vast areas of many different types of coral, a huge diversity of reef fish and absolutely crystal-clear water. Another interesting effect of the island’s limited fresh water: There was no sediment from runoff from the land, so the reefs were pristine.

If the island maintains a protected forested watershed and a pristine reef system, it will really add value to the economy of the country through tourism. Later this year, we plan to conduct a more detailed marine Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) around the island’s reefs to identify key areas for biodiversity such as coral, manta rays and sharks. CI is also working with the government to define the fringing reefs as a shark sanctuary.

Over the next few days we will continue to map out the forest and freshwater sources on the island, and to focus survey efforts on caves and bats. I’m also keen to try to capture and study the species of civet — a small cat-like mammal — that lives on the island, as we do not know which species it is. And of course, we are still hoping to find the elusive spitting cobra! More soon.

David Emmett is the senior vice president of CI’s Asia-Pacific field division. Read the next post from this expedition.

Cover image: The CI team explores the forested hills of Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. Besides sheltering unique wildlife, these trees help maintain the island’s limited drinking water supply. (© Conservation International/photo by David Emmett)