Urban Ecology in Jakarta

by | 8th December 2010

It never fails to cheer me up to see an unusual species in an unusual place.

Among all the doom and gloom in conservation it is nice to see a species beat the trend. For a while I have been fascinated by the Tree Sparrow (see my blog on the Church Bird of Borneo), a species in decline in its native Eurasia, but abundant here in Indonesia where it was introduced. I observe them regularly from behind my desk that looks out over our garden. What makes this species such a success here while in its native lands it is struggling?

Since moving into our present house in a small estate in southern Jakarta I have made another few surprise discoveries. At night, the Large-tailed Nightjar often calls its rich deep “tchoink” from a tall tree near our house. Until I moved to Jakarta I had not seen this species, despite birding its forest edge habitat in SE Asia for nearly two decades.

Asian small-clawed otter in London Zoo. Photo by the Tardigrade

Even more surprising was a small family of Asian small-clawed otters that climbed out one of the area’s deep rain gutters during an evening walk. I have only ever seen this species near small streams in dense rainforest on Borneo, so I could initially not quite believe my eyes. But sure enough, several subsequent sightings and a good look at some scats confirmed that there is at least one otter family that survives in Jakarta’s urban jungle.

According to the IUCN Red List, the typical habitats of this Vulnerable species in West Java are wetland systems with pools and stagnant water, including shallow stretches, with depth less than 1 m. This sounds more like freshwater swamps, mangroves and tidal pools than urban gutters and sewer systems.

Small-clawed otters feed on invertebrates like crabs and other hard shelled prey. Judging their scats that is exactly what they find in Jakarta too.

With all the pollution, lack of dispersal opportunities (unless the cities floods again), and threat of poisoning or shooting, I am not sure about the survival chances of this otter family. According to some of the older residents here, the otters have been around for over 10 years, so who knows.

The point for me is to take notice. Conservation tends to focus on the species in decline, the ones struggling to make it. But we could also learn a lot from those that survive and adapt. With forest habitats being lost and fragmented, we need to understand how species survive in human-dominated landscapes, and what conservation measures we can develop now to ensure that as many species as possible benefit.

Such solutions are not ideal but they are certainly pragmatic. Next time I meet the otters, I will ask them what they think of this area they live in.

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