Where the locals know best

by Paing Soe
Publish date
26 November 2013
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Paing Soe is a Master of Environment student at the University of Melbourne.

This is the third post of an MV Blog mini-series celebrating the past, present and future of exploration on planet Earth and commemorating the adventures of Alfred Russel Wallace who died 100 years ago.

Dr. Kevin Rowe and Dr. Karen Rowe give their unreserved credit to the local people—the guides, the village heads and the Indonesian scientists—for the discoveries that they've made together in Sulawesi. But it took a bit of work to get them on side, according to Kevin. "They were not convinced that you can make a living doing what we do. So they were suspicious that we probably had a hidden agenda," he says.

Sulawesi field team A photo opportunity with the local team in Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, May 2012.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

"On these mountains, only the local people really know what's there," says Kevin. The locals in Mamasa, a mountain town on the island of Sulawesi, had a name for almost every species, including animals that have not been described by science. Such knowledge was essential in the scientific discovery of an almost toothless rodent, Paucidentomys vermidax.

Man holding rodent Gherzhon, a local guide from Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, holding the recently described Paucidentomys vermidax he helped collect.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

On the last day of a trip in 2012, local guides caught a rare rat that in local tradition is believed to safeguard homes from fire. While some of the guides wanted to keep the rat for this reason, one guide argued how important it could be to the expedition and made sure it was shared with the scientists. The specimen turned out to be the only record of the species at the site. "That kind of support depends on building trust and relationships with local people," says Kevin.

"It's just impossible really, to go in there without a local partner," agrees Karen. Local scientists understand the cultural context, the bureaucracy, and are much more effective with exploration and conservation when it comes to biodiversity on these islands. Working with Anang Achmadi, Curator of Mammals, and Tri Haryoko, Curator of Birds, at the national museum of Indonesia, Museum Zoologicum Bogoriense, their research programs have led to a strong collaboration between Museum Victoria and MZB.

The more that local scientists can work independently, the better. Kevin and Karen Rowe take this approach despite the fact that their own expeditions are going so well. "The future of biodiversity research in Indonesia lies with local scientists. Our hope is that we can promote their training and success," says Kevin.

Anang Achmadi, curator of mammals Anang Achmadi, Curator of Mammals at Museum Zoologicum Bogorinese in camp on Mount Gandangdeata near Mamasa, West Sulawesi Province, Sulawesi.
Image: Kevin Rowe
Source: Museum Victoria

Check out the other posts in this mini-series: The Age of Exploration continues and Exploration of Sulawesi, Indonesia

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Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.