The Bali starling
For many, Bali represents paradise, a slice of heaven on earth. Visitors are overwhelmed by the beauty of the black volcanic sand beaches, the enchanting Hindu culture, and the intricately sculpted rice terraces. Few visitors to Bali are aware that just beyond the hustle and bustle of the main tourist attractions there is a natural paradise of astounding beauty protected by the Bali Barat National Park and Marine Reserve (Bali Barat).
The national park is a sanctuary for Bali’s diverse native flora and fauna, designated to protect Bali’s unique biodiversity from the impacts of development. Bali Barat was first established as a game reserve in 1947, extended in 1978 and given national park status in 1982. This signalled the Indonesian government’s decision to protect this part of the island for nature preservation, with watershed conservation for irrigation and nurseries for commercial fisheries as added benefits. Twenty-five years on, Bali Barat is recognised for its social and economic value, with the park’s future plans directed toward environmental education, research and tourism.
Protecting natural diversity
Situated in Bali’s northwest corner and spanning the districts of Buleleng and Negara, Bali Barat covers 19,558 hectares which represents around 10 per cent of Bali’s total land area. A majority of the national park is zoned for wilderness and allows for only limited visitor use. All visitors must pay an entry fee and be accompanied by an official guide. Much of the park remains off limits. Eight wild rivers flow through the park; like arteries they support a profusion of plant and animal species. Many are endemic to Bali, especially the endangered Bali starling (Lecuopsar rotschildi).
Five distinct yet interconnected vegetation habitats flourish along Bali Barat’s north and west coasts, including tropical savanna, lush rainforest, seasonal forest and coastal forest, fringed by mangroves. One of the park’s major regional conservation achievements is the protection of over 3000 hectares of mangrove forest, particularly important in Indonesia, where mangroves are often cleared to make way for agriculture, fish and prawn farms, and urban development. Bali Barat’s marine reserve protects some of the world’s most colourful coral reefs and tropical fish, making it a global attraction for snorkellers and divers. Protected coastal wildlife also includes migratory sea and shore birds and their roosting and nesting grounds.
National park status has buffered Bali Barat from human impact to some extent. But park managers still struggle against budgetary constraints and pressures to commercialise access to the park . Hunting and firewood collection continue within the park even though both are illegal.
When the park was first established, local communities were very hostile. They felt they were being denied access to resource-rich land and fish-stocked reefs and illegal fishing and hunting continue despite the park’s protected status. The use of explosives and cyanides to catch fish has long been a problem within the marine reserve. Ironically, people come to fish in the reserve because other regional fish stocks and coral reefs have been depleted or destroyed due to the very same fishing practices.
Even in the absence of these illegal activities, the marine reserve is under great pressure. Managers realise that climate change will dramatically increase the severity and frequency of coral bleaching over the coming years, possibly surpassing the devastation of the 1997-1998 coral bleaching event associated with El Niño, which affected 75 to 100 per cent of corals at Bali Barat.
Conservation of the Bali starling is another major focus at Bali Barat. The white bird with its graceful long crest, bare blue skin framing the eyes, and an enchanting call is endangered. In 2001 it was estimated that only 13 wild individuals remained in the national park. The Bali starling is a status symbol pet for many wealthy Indonesians and poaching has been big business in the past. Since the 1980s, park managers have worked tirelessly with international conservation groups to save the species from extinction. Captive breeding programs exist in Indonesia and abroad. However, when the birds are released into the wild, many are killed by falcons or stolen by poachers.
The increasing popularity of ecotourism risks pitting park managers against local communities. Tourism provides employment to locals whose traditional fishing and forest-based livelihoods were curtailed when the park was established. Tourism also boosts regional revenues. But poor tourism planning within the park and in its surrounds has led to local resource degradation, water pollution, sprawl, competition for space between hotel developers and fishing families, and the demise of distinctive local culture.
Ecotourism is often idealised as benefiting tourists, local people, and the natural attractions that are its objects. Visitors have the opportunity to experience the raw beauty of the park’s wildlife while staying in ‘eco friendly’ accommodation with a touch of local culture. Tourism operators are required to contribute financially to the conservation of the national park. Yet park managers are very much aware that over-use by seasonal influxes of tourists can lead to the demise of the park’s overall conservation values.
The tourism industry also affects communities in areas around the park. Many local residents have abandoned traditional rural occupations – whether compelled to do so by park rules, or attracted by higher incomes in new hospitality and construction occupations that cater to the tourism industry. Coastal villagers have sold land to developers for tourist accommodation. Land along Bali’s northwest coast that is available for local residents’ use is now extremely limited and prohibitively expensive. Local communities must also compete with tourist development for limited fresh water. These communities have become increasingly dependent on tourism for their livelihoods – and at the same time more vulnerable to sudden down-turns in tourism.
Managing visitors and the demands they place on the park and its staff are problematic at Bali Barat. Infrastructure catering to visitors must be maintained, and new demands anticipated. Some 65 rangers working at Bali Barat could be adequate. Ironically, in part due to limited revenue because of tight controls on tourist visits, rangers are poorly equipped and finding resources for holistic park management is difficult.
No simple solution
Bali Barat managers recognise that there are no simple solutions to the environmental dilemmas and the impacts of tourism upon the park and its local community. Their experience demonstrates that innovative community-based management is essential to overcome obstacles to long term conservation. It is crucial to offset the potential loss of local income from the park’s conservation status and to foster a sense of pride and ownership of the park within neighbouring communities. But limited funds restrict what park staff alone can achieve.
Partnerships with international conservation groups and local communities help. In 2003, Bali Barat managers joined with WWF to establish the Friends of the Reef Project. The project encouraged local people to become involved in coral monitoring and boat patrols for illegal fishing activity within the marine reserve. Through this project, community involvement has fostered a sense of ownership, pride and personal protection over the national park. It has also seen reduced illegal fishing within the marine reserve.
The success of conservation efforts requires local communities to seek livelihoods that do not rely on harvesting or degrading natural resources within the park. Providing sustainable employment alternatives to fishing, hunting and logging is critical. Seaweed cultivation is one tool used at Bali Barat to involve the community in conservation work that presents direct economic benefits. It is about community empowerment and providing local people with alternative employment opportunities that support Bali Barat’s conservation objective.
It is timely to recognise and celebrate the conservation work and dedication of park managers, international conservation groups, and local communities in Bali Barat National Park’s silver jubilee year. After 25 years, Bali Barat remains largely rugged and wild, with its myriad of lush tropical landscapes and crystal clear seascape, its rare bird species and vibrant coral fish. Bali Barat truly is a paradise, and has become not only a nature sanctuary, but a source of economic and social benefits for the western end of Bali. ii
Louise O’Flynn (email@example.com) is an environmental planner who works for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. She is a regular visitor to the island of Bali.