Monday 27 december 2021
Marcy Summers is an American biologist and conservationist. For her job at a large international conservation organization, she traveled to Sulawesi to learn about the island, its wildlife and its people. During one of her last investigations she stumbled upon a maleo breeding ground, since then she has dedicated her life to protecting this exceptional endemic bird species.
Photo: Marcy Summers
The evolutionarily unique maleo is found only on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and used to be very common there. In the 1860s, British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace described the beaches of Sulawesi as “black” with hundreds of maleo. But, today, habitat destruction and human poaching of their eggs have led to a sharp decline in the maleo population. In fact, the maleo has declined by more than 90% and has even disappeared completely from many parts of Sulawesi.
Remarkable breeding habits
Unlike most birds, the maleo relies on solar or geothermal heated sites to incubate their eggs. They use communal nesting grounds, normally located on the beach, where breeding pairs gather and dig a meter-deep pit in which they lay their giant eggs. Afterwards, the maleo pairs leave the nest, never to return again. Although the maleo is about the size of a domestic chicken, their eggs are five times larger. After two to three months of incubating in the sand, the chicks hatch. In about 24 to 48 hours they dig themselves out of the nest and fly away, being fully independent.
During a presentation to local community leaders, Marcy shared that hosting an active maleo nesting ground was something special. This was news to them; locals took the maleos for granted and took turns every day to dig up the freshly laid eggs, which were sold as a luxury item, something like caviar. Although the nearly-extinct maleo had been a protected species for decades, there was no enforcement or supervision around the nest sites. Therefore, people were completely unaware that they were acting illegally by digging up virtually every egg.
Marcy made the locals realize that if they continued to poach every egg, the bird would soon become extinct since it did not occur anywhere else in the world. Driven by this new knowledge, the villagers decided that they would not let the iconic maleo, which plays an important role in the culture and traditions of Sulawesi, become extinct. In doing so, they asked Marcy for help.
Egg poaching stopped
Marcy’s help went from a consultation here and there to co-founding AlTo in 2006. AlTo is the Alliance for the Tompotika Conservation, a local NGO consisting of a small group of Indonesian and international conservationists, local environmentalists, villagers and government officials who would work to conserve species on Sulawesi. She resigned from the NGO where she worked and although working with the locals was actually supposed to be a 6 month experiment it grew into something permanent that no one wanted to walk away from. It became so successful that egg poaching stopped completely. The locals got jobs as guards, earning even more than they did from poaching the eggs. Almost immediately the maleo population began to recover.
Rapid maleo population growth
With support from the IUCN NL land acquisition fund, AlTo purchased several parcels of rainforest in 2010, with a total of about 7 hectares. Those parcels together form a buffer zone against illegal logging and other harmful economic activities. Additionally in 2014, AlTo closed a long-term lease for 40 hectares of nesting area near the village of Taima. In 2019-20, 13.7 hectares of nesting area was purchased in Panganian. This area is also home to sea turtles and is connected to a forest with rare animals such as dwarf buffalo, ghost bats and hornbills.
Regular counts showed that the combination of habitat protection and local education paid off. The population of maleos has grown rapidly between 2006 and today. In 2006, a maximum of only 26 were counted at one of the breeding sites. Fifteen years later, there were 118, more than quadruple the earlier number, and more maleos than are seen anywhere else in the world.