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Operation Wallacea

Published: Sep 29, 2007

MARK ERDMANN explains the history of an exciting venture in reef conservation using volunteer divers.

Operation Wallacea is a three-year pilot project designed to test the principle of using paying volunteer naturalists to conduct rapid ecological assessments in areas of high conservation value in the Wallacea region of eastern Indonesia.

Operation Wallacea started in June 1995 with start-up funds from the HongkongBank Care-for-Nature Programme. It is under joint Indonesian sponsorship of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), the Wallacea Development Institute (WDI) and the Directorate General of Forestry and Conservation (PHPA).

The non-profit endeavour comprises terrestrial and marine components. Initial projects centred on the island of Buton and the Tukang Besi Archipelago respectively.


The terrestrial component of Operation Wallacea has focused mainly on surveying birds. In the marine component, volunteer divers survey the vast reef system which Jacques Cousteau once described as one of the most beautiful he had ever experienced.

The marine component is divided into three phases. Phase I involved volunteers rapidly assessing the reef for coral community cover, abundances of important reef food fish, overall reef condition as well as traditional use patterns. They did this for all reefs in the Tukang Besi Archipelago.

The results of these surveys were used first of all to identify specific reefs worthy of more detailed investigation by volunteers helped by taxonomic and fisheries specialists (Phase II), and finally to aid in promulgating a holistic management plan for the proposed 200,000 hectare Tukang Besi Marine National Park (Phase III).

The Tukang Besi Archipelago (see map) is set in a remote island group off southeast Sulawesi. It is well-known for displaying all the major reef formations - atolls, barrier, fringing and patch reefs - within a relatively small area. All four major islands in the archipelago - Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomea, and Binongko - are inhabited, with a total population of around 100,000 people spread among 30 or more villages.

Two major ethnic groups inhabit the islands. The Butonese fish and farm at a subsistence level. The exclusively sea-faring Bajau fish and collect turtles, trepang, and other marine invertebrates. They also mine coral and coral sand to build and repair their villages.

From a research and management perspective, the area is not well-known. Other than Jacques Cousteau, only a few scientists had visited the area before 1995. Among them were the Indonesian- Dutch Snellius II expedition in 1984, a Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) survey in 1989, and several university diving club trips from Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB) during the early 1990s.

All these expeditions reported good to spectacular coral reef conditions, but none spent more than 4-5 days surveying the area. These tantalising but incomplete reports made Indonesian conservation specialists want to gazette the area as a marine protected area. But they lacked the time and funding to complete the necessary baseline surveys.

Paying volunteers

Enter Operation Wallacea. The principle behind the project is simple. Use paying dive volunteers to help survey and map a remote reef system in preparation for designating and zoning the area as a marine park.

Groups of 8-20 volunteers from around the globe undergo an intensive one week training period. They learn rapid reef assessment techniques, including visual scuba-diving surveys of reef fish and benthic invertebrate communities.

They then go on 1-3 week survey expeditions to quantify reef conditions throughout the archipelago. The results benefit all involved. Volunteers are treated to exploration-style diving while greatly increasing their knowledge of reef fish and invertebrates under the careful tutelage of professional marine biologists. They come away knowing that the time, money and effort they invested will be invaluable for the future of Tukang Besi marine protected area.

Equally important for the future of the reefs, local communities also benefit. They are now acutely aware of the value of their reef resources. They have experienced the tangible benefits of diving ecotourism. They work as cooks, boatmen, and other staff. They have uncovered a new (insatiable!) market for food-fish and produce, and a market for the sale of local handicrafts such as hand-woven sarongs and baskets. Local officials now also have much more awareness of the rich marine natural resources of the area.

Operations Wallacea's first survey period between June 1995 and January 1996 resulted in about 214 man-weeks of volunteer help. This increased to over 500 man-weeks during the second and third periods.


Survey results showed that reef conditions in the Tukang Besi rivalled or exceeded those of most other Indonesian reefs, particularly those which are now marine reserves. Coral and invertebrate life on the many scattered atolls and patch reefs was fantastic.

Larger marine life was also fairly common. Sea turtles, manta rays and dugong were abundant by Indonesian standards. Volunteers frequently spotted cetaceans in the area, including a number of sperm and pilot whales, orcas, and several dolphin species.

Unfortunately, they also found evidence of reef degradation. Localised eutrophication due to human sewage may be occurring in the bays of some villages, though marine pollution seems negligible overall. Reef sharks were virtually absent, apparently due to overfishing for shark fin. Volunteers observed both cyanide and blast fishing. The establishment of a marine park in the area will clearly require extensive education of local villagers, as well as attentive management combined with enforcement capabilities.

The results of Operation Wallacea's pilot project look promising for the development of a Tukang Besi Marine Park. They firmly establish the use of dive volunteer surveys as a cost- effective tool for Indonesian marine conservation development.

Mark Erdmann is an American who helped start the marine component of Operation Wallacea in 1995. He is now doing marine research in North Sulawesi.

Inside Indonesia 54: Apr-Jun 1998

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