Urban Ecology in Jakarta

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.

Author: Erik Meijaard

Erik Meijaard is one of Mongabay’s bloggers who joined in September 2010. Erik is a passionate conservation scientist with a critical eye for the both sense and nonsense in conservation management and science. Based on nearly 20 years of in-country experience in Indonesia he has written extensively in both the scientific literature and in popular media on what he thinks is right and wrong about the way we go about conservation. This included a popular blog which he wrote for The Nature Conservancy. His experience in developing countries has shaped his thinking about the need to reconcile conservation with the development aspirations that many developing countries have. Ignoring those aspirations is not only arrogant or even verging on the neo-colonial, but it will ultimately work against us in achieving conservation objectives. From his home office in Jakarta, Erik runs the forest branch of PNC International, a small independent conservation consultancy. Erik has an academic background in tropical ecology and a PhD in biological anthropology. He has worked for several international NGOs and research organizations, including WWF-Netherlands and the Center for International Forestry Research. From 2004 to 2009, he worked for the Nature Conservancy Indonesia's forest program as its senior scientist and program manager. At the same time he was also closely involved with developing and implementing a USAID-funded orangutan conservation programs, first as chief of party, later as Kalimantan coordinator and conservation strategy planner. Erik has a wealth of experience working with the private sector, including timber and mining concessions, as well as plantations. His editorial experience with two newsletters, frequent publications in public and scientific fora, and media experience indicate Erik's strength as an effective communicator on forest conservation and management issues. Erik’s family accuse him of being obsessed with his laptop – they are right. Ultimately Erik will get out of this though, cut himself off from the internet, lean back in his rocking chair, and sip cold beer, preferably while looking over a nice sea or landscape. But that point hasn’t come yet, so keep an eye out for his blogs, which vary from the plain rambling to the highly insightful, but always aim to be constructive in the conservation debate – and hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces. After all, unless we can enjoy this world we live in, why bother conserving it? [Editor's note: Erik was interviewed at Indonesian people-not international donors or orangutan conservationists-will determine the ultimate fate of Indonesia's forests in 2010]

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