Sunday, April 11, 2010

Saving Papua’s Birds of Paradise

Located at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, far from tourist hot spots like Bali and Lombok, the traveler's spotlight often misses Papua. But one woman is trying to change that, running bird-watching tours in the hopes of promoting the natural beauty around her and convincing local residents that its wildlife needs to be protected.

Before her first bird-watching adventure in Papua’s dense jungles, Valentina Shita Prativi was a city girl active in several nongovernmental organizations in Jakarta devoted to helping women and children. In 2004, on assignment in a remote area of Central Sulawesi, she fell in love with the variety of birds she saw every day. Then she met her future husband, Kris Tinige from Sangihe, North Sulawesi, who owned Papua Bird Club, a bird-watching guide company. Kris introduced Shita to the tropical forests in Papua’s Arfak Mountains.

“I wasn’t used to hiking, but I fell in love with Papua right away,” Shita said. “Papua has everything, from beautiful corals in their deep sea, to the birds in the jungles, to the snow at the top of the mountain.”

In 2004 they were married, and Shita moved to Manokwari, Papua, to live with Kris. Together, they ran the Papua Bird Club with another partner. But their marriage lasted less than two years — Kris died from cancer in 2006. After recovering from her loss, Shita decided to stay to promote eco-tourism through the bird club. She said she believes eco-tourism will do good for Papua, the land she loves so much.

“We bring tourists to a certain area, and we try to ask as many locals as possible to get involved with our activity, which will make them realize that they should take care of their nature,” Shita said.

Birds are a common hunting target for Papuans, she said, and much of her work involves raising awareness among locals that the birds bring tourist money.

“They can’t afford meat, so they shoot birds and eat them,” Shita said. “I introduce them to the tourists and tell them that people come from far away to see the birds, and that means an income for them.”

The most popular exotic birds in Papua are the cendrawasih , or birds of paradise. There are 37 species of the magnificient birds, most with flowing, brightly-colored plumage, spread throughout the mountains and islands of Papua.

The usual starting point for Shita’s tours is Batanta Island, near the coastal city of Sorong, to see the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the red bird-of-paradise. The island of Salawati is where tourists can see the mambruk, a crowned pigeon sporting blue feathers with white tips on the crest of its head. Another usual destination is the Arfak Mountains, where they can see seven species of birds-of-paradise.

“The highlight of the Arfak visit is the Western Parotia, popularly known as the dancing bird,” Shita said.

The male Parotia employs a unique dance to attract females. Tottering back and forth on its spindly legs, it spreads its dark plumage like a dress while fluttering its iridescent neck feathers. Shita said she starts the itinerary before the sun rises to witness the sights and sounds of these rare birds.

Arfak is often a favorite location among bird watchers due to the residents’ careful stewardship of the exotic animals.

“You can see birds even at three meters from the pathways, very easy and good for beginners,” Shita said.


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