Indonesia has the third largest tract of tropical rainforest in the world, swathing 17,500 islands in the Malay Archipelago in the most biodiverse habitat in the world (Simantujak et al.,1997). New Guinea is the largest in the archipelago, and the second largest in the world, with an area of 785,753km2. Although only occupying 0.5% of the world surface area, it contains between 5% and 10% of the world’s species. This high biodiversity is enhanced by the topographical and altitudinal diversity of the island. Lorentz National Park in New Guinea is Southeast Asia’s largest national park and is arguably one of the world’s most ecologically valuable national parks since it is the only national park that exhibits a continuous ecological transect from a glacial and nival zone to a tropical marine zone.
Tropical Rainforests contain 50% of all the world’s biotic species, even though they only cover 6% of the world’s surface (Butler, 2019), and New Guinea is a tropical island, covered in tropical rainforest. Annual precipitation varies from 2000mm to 4500mm, and the dominant geographical feature is the central cordillera, or New Guinea Highlands, that stretch 1600km across the island, with many peaks over 4000m in altitude, and Puncak Jaya being 4,884m. The tree line is around 4000m, and the highest peaks exhibit equatorial glaciers which have been retreating since at least 1936 (Kincaid et al., 2004). This high altitudinal range results in an exceptionally high biodiversity – New Guinea is the most floristically diverse island in the world, with 13,634 plant species currently described (Camara et al., 2020). The Island has 284 species of mammal and over 650 species of birds, with an exceptionally high level of endemism – 69% of mammal species are endemic to the island. 75% of the world’s reef building coral species are also found in the coral reefs of New Guinea. A study in 2020 found that 54% of the island’s primary forest cover, and 51% of the island’s total forest cover is found in the Indonesian half of the island (Butler, 2020). Furthermore, the geographical remoteness and lack of infrastructure on the island has led to a critical lack of scientific research and as such between 1998 and 2008, an extraordinary 1,060 new species were discovered and described by researchers (WWF, 2011).
Lorentz National Park is situated in the Papua Province, on the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea. It is South East Asia’s largest national park, with an area of 25,056km2, and stretches 150km from the Arafura Sea to the central Cordillera of mountains, including the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Andes: the Carstensz Pyramid, with a height of 4,884m. Due to the altitude reached in the central cordillera, it is one of only three locations in the world with equatorial glaciers, and although the glaciers in Lorentz are retreating rapidly, the national park is still the best location to observe glacial evolution among the tropical glacial fields. The national park is located on a convergent plate boundary, so the highlands exhibit the highest rates of uplift and glacial erosion in the world, and the lowlands exhibit shoreland accretion. The vast altitudinal and topographical
diversity has resulted in Lorentz National Park being the only protected area in the world that shows a full ecological transect of habitats, from coral reefs, mangrove swamps, tidal forests, lowland rainforest to montane cloud forest, alpine meadows, tundra, and equatorial glacial landscapes. Furthermore, it contains temperate Nothofagus beech forests which are unique to temperate regions in the southern hemisphere. Nothofagus forests result from temperate refugia for Gondwanan plants that survived the increasing global temperatures since the last ice age, due in the case of Lorentz National Park to tectonic uplift.
Due to this large variation in habitats, the national park has an incredibly high level of biodiversity and a high level of endemism. The national park supports 630 bird species (95% of the entire island’s bird species), and 123 mammal species. The bird species include over 500 species of cockatoos, 145 sunbird species, 30 species of kingfishers and 31 dove and pigeon species. The National Park also has 34 vegetation types and 29 land systems. Of the 9 species endemic to the national park and the 2 range restricted species, MacGregor’s Bird of Paradise is an example of a species with an exceptionally low tolerance for habitat destruction, as it inhabits tropical montane cloud forest, and coniferous Dacrycarpus forest (Clench, 1992). Another is the Dingiso, a rare tree kangaroo discovered in 1995 (Flannery, 1995) which is endemic to the Snow Mountains in the national park, and inhabits the tropical montane cloud forests up to 4000m. 6 bird species are endemic to the Snow Mountains, and 26 to the central cordillera. This high endemism to both the habitats within the national park itself and the mountain range which it incorporates illustrates the importance and uniqueness of the habitats present, and the species they support.
3. HISTORY & THREATS
A Dutch explorer, Henrikus Lorentz passed through the area that is now the national park, in his expedition of 1909-1910, when the part of the island was under Dutch colonial rule. In 1919, the Dutch colonial government designated a 3000km2 part of the area as the Lorentz Nature Monument, and this area now forms the core of the National Park. But it was around 80 years later when the area was officially established as a National Park in 1997, with extensions into the coastal and marine habitats. UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site in 1999, due to several factors, primarily its unusual geography and extremely high biodiversity. The National Park meets 3 of 4 Natural Criteria for World Heritage status – Criterion VIII (displaying the geological and biological history of the earth), Criterion IX (displaying ongoing ecological and biological processes) and Criterion X (containing the most valuable habitats and species to science and conservation) (UNESCO, 2005). In 2006, the Indonesia Minister of Forestry created the Lorentz National Park Bureau, with a staff peak of 45, however, this is critically small to manage such an area as the national park, approximately the size of Rwanda (UNESCO, 2008). The National Park has no park 3rangers and instead relies on the tribal groups to protect the national park from external threats.
Although Lorentz National Park has high integrity, there nevertheless remain threats to the national park. Increased funding has been provided to local governments to incentivise rapid development, particularly road construction due to the island’s current lack of infrastructure. Hence the alpine and subalpine areas in the central cordillera, the most unique ecosystems in the national park, are particularly vulnerable and are facing an immediate threat. Furthermore, mining activity is a significant threat, as there are vast copper and gold deposits in the northeast of the national park, which borders the Grasberg Mine. Hence 1500km2 of the national park was excluded from the World Heritage Site due to the mining claims within the boundaries (UNESCO, 2008). Moreover, the rare equatorial glaciers located around the Carstensz Pyramid are expected to disappear within the next 10-15 years due to climate change, indicating severe habitat modification due to climate change. Also, the Illegal Wildlife Trade within the park is becoming a serious issue due to the unique and beautiful species which are found within the park. For example, the Boelen’s Python is one of the rarest and most beautiful pythons and is taken from the wild at unknown levels in the national park (IUCN, 2017). Although protected by CITES II, it is unable to be bred in captivity so there is a high demand for wild animals. This both destroys the wild populations of this keystone species and may pose a zoonotic disease risk. Invasive species are also threatening the ecosystems within the national park – in particular, the rare Nothofagus forests are threatened by Phytophthoradieback – local park authorities are working with international scientists to further research this and mitigate the effects. Water Hyacinth is also causing de-oxygenation of the alluvial systems and causing depletion of fish populations. Most of the threats within the park are at a small scale and are currently manageable, due to the vast size of the national park and its inaccessibility. However, the threats can be expected to accelerate.
In conclusion, it is clear that Lorentz National Park is one of the most ecologically diverse protected areas in the world and is arguably the most unique. It has a wide range of species constrained to the national park and the vast island of New Guinea. However, whilst its integrity is superb, it is facing serious and widespread threats which are already decimating wildlife. But perhaps the most concerning aspect about this national park is the critical lack of scientific literature. Apart from basic yearly reviews of the national park, four UNESCO missions to the site since its creation, and USD $30,000 in funding raised by UNESCO over the last 21 years (UNESCO, 2019), the only scientific literature available is two research papers, only one of which is open access, that describes 3 new species of Lepidoptera discovered. Research into the National Park is critically lacking and should be an international conservation priority due to the increasing altitudinal shifting experienced by habitats, and the threats to the myriad species which depend on them.
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