Flora and Fauna in West Papua

West Papua is home to an amazingly diverse flora and fauna. The immense variety is determined by the sheer variety of ecosystems present: from shallow coral reefs, through coastal swamps, altitudinally differing rainforest and heigths rising to alpine glaciers.

The alpine high country is permanently covered with ice and snow and the tallest peak, Puncak Jaya, stands at 5,030 metres. Nothing grows at all until you descend to 3,500 metres where the fog forests predominate. These consist of gnarled, crippled trees covered with moss and epiphytes, making for a most eerie setting. Heather often covers the ground giving an almost European; alpine "carpeted" impression.

In the areas between 2,000 and 3,000 metres, mixed forests predominate and these swarm with climbers, ferns and orchids. This is the region of primal forest, or original growth, totally untouched by man.

In the low mountain region, between 1,000 and 2,000 metres the rainforests are at their thickest and most lush. Similar ferns and orchids grow abundantly in these forests in rich harmony with the many species of tropical hardwood trees. In the lower rainforest alone, there are 1,300 different species of trees with 80 known species of Epiphytes living symbiotically with them and to date, at least 2,770 species of orchid have been positively identified.

Savannah Forest, dominated by Australasian Acacias and Eucalypts, is found only in the south-eastern corner of West Papua (Wasur National Park), Similar Savannah occurs in the Port Moresby area of Papua New Guinea.

Moving lower brings us to freshwater swamps where swamp grass, sago palms and pandanus proliferate. Starch extracted from the Sago Palms forms the staple diet of many Papuans. Towards the coast the freshwater swamps slowly become saline and this is where mangrove and nipa palm forests dominate.

Naturally, given the rich diversity of the flora, West Papua is host to an equally diverse fauna. The pioneering Victorian naturalist, Sir Alfred Russell Wallace collected no less than 125,660 specimens in West Papua!

Birds vary from the huge, primitive, flightless Cassowary through to the most intricate and spectacular Birds-of-Paradise with an awful lot else in between. More than 600 species of birds have been identified in West Papua, many of them endemic.

Most of the interesting mammals are marsupials with Wallabies and Tree Kangaroos being the largest. The cus-cus is a beautiful, woolly tree-dwelling marsupial which is sadly prized by collectors. It has been heavily hunted and is now an endangered species. Echidnas or Spiny Ant-eaters are also found in West Papua with one species being endemic.

The coastal swamps are home to two species of saltwater crocodiles and both are very large indeed! Estuarine Crocodiles found in the Asmat region are known to grow to seven metres in length. Hunting wild crocodiles is now illegal and many crocodile farms have cropped up. Many species of snakes and lizards inhabit West Papua and include the docile, three metre Emerald Tree Monitor and perhaps the world's most beautiful snake -
the Green Tree Python.

The shallow water coral reefs off the north coast of West Papua are thought to house some 3,000 species of fish making for spectacular snorkelling and diving.

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