A Papuan Adventure – In the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace with Fondation Iris

Emilia d’Avack, part of our project development team and marine expert, had the immense chance to participate last month in the ‘Science and Images’ expedition to Western Papua organised by the Fondation Iris. The Fondation Iris, spearheaded by Françoise Brenckman and Jean-Marie Hullot, has for primary aim to ‘safeguard the fragile beauty of the world’. This expedition was the second instalment of a seagoing mission bringing together naturalists, photographers, and artists around the topic of biodiversity.


Visits of the small villages scattered across the archipelagoes are always a highlight for the team of the expedition. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/Fondation Iris

Monday, December 19th 2016 – After months of preparation and growing anticipation, today marks finally the first day of our month-long expedition to Western Papua. Organised by the Fondation Iris, the ‘Science and Images’ expedition brings together a team of artists and scientists with the objective to shed light on the extraordinary biodiversity of the region and identify the dangers that might threaten it. Our team is spearheaded by the two co-presidents of the Fondation Iris Jean-Marie, computer genius turned conservationist and his wife Françoise, avid botanist and fellow conservationist. The rest of the team is comprised of a drone pilot, two professional photographers, an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist, a travel artist and painter, a high school student and me, marine biologist and project developer at PUR Projet.


The team of the Fondation Iris and the huge amount of equipment needed during the expedition. Form left to right: Staffan, Jean-Marie, Christophe G., Christophe T., Magnus, Emilia and Stephanie (missing: Francoise and Jonathan). Photo: Fondation Iris

After numerous domestic flights we finally arrive in the harbour town of Sorong, the starting point of our journey. For the next 30 days we will live and work aboard the Cahaya Mandiri, a traditional wooden schooner, on a journey that will take us across the Bird’s Head Peninsula, from Raja Ampat to the Kaimana Regency and Triton Bay. Our journey will follow in the footsteps of the British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace who spent eight years, from 1854 to 1862, in what was then known as the Malay Archipelago. Wallace travelled among the islands gathering biological specimens for his collections but most importantly it was during this time that he formulated his theory on evolution through natural selection independently from Darwin. It is not a surprise that his ideas of evolution originated here, as only a few places on Earth can rival this archipelago’s incredible diversity of plant and animal life. For instance, the Bird’s Head seascape is home to over 1,600 different species of reef fish as well as 75% of the world’s known coral species. The high number of endemic species (over 70 species of fishes, corals and crustaceans are found only here and nowhere else in the world!) has earned the region the nickname of ‘species factory’. Besides being an epicentre of biodiversity, the nutrient-rich waters also provide essential livelihoods for the local population who rely on fishing as their main resource.


Preserving the incredible biodiversity found in the area is essential for the local populations that depend on them. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/Fondation Iris

Low population density combined with relative isolation have supported the preservation of this incredible environment to date. However scientists have already observed a decline in fish communities and marine habitats due to unsustainable fishing practices and overexploitation. To secure the sustainable management of the marine resources within the Bird’s Head Seascape, a conservation initiative was launched in 2004 resulting in a network of twelve Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) covering a total of 3.6 millions hectares.

This extensive network of MPAs offers sanctuary for a wide range of marine species however poor development practices, the extraction of nickel and other minerals as well as a rapid population growth are continuing to threaten the health and survival of these fragile ecosystems and the local communities who depend on them. The global effects of climate change, causing increases in sea surface temperature and changes in oceanographic conditions, are only adding additional pressure. Wallace, a visionary environmentalist long before the dawn of the conservation movement, was already well aware of the fragility of this incredible place warning of the danger of extinction:

[…] “future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.” (From Wallace’s 1863 article on the physical geography of the Malay Archipelago. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 33: 217-234).

Our mission during this expedition is thus to drive the effective conservation and protection for present and future generations by raising awareness about the importance of this natural one-of-a-kind heritage.

By Emilia d’Avack


The bright colours of the bluespotted ribbontail stingray are a warning sign to its predator that the spines at the base of its long tail are extremely poisonous. The ray breathes through spiracles located above each eye. Photo: Magnus Lundgren/Fondation Iris


A close-up showing delicate coral polyps. Photo: Magnus Lundgren/Fondation Iris


Horn-eyed ghost crabs are easily recognised by the long stylets on top of their eyes. These stylets are longer in mature males and are probably used as part of mating rituals and displays for warding off rival males. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/Fondation Iris


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