Wild Eagle


In the late 1970s, Indonesia was creaking with the strain of over-population in some areas, while other areas were completely undeveloped and supported very low human population levels.  The region around the Dumoga river system in northern Sulawesi was such an undeveloped area.  The Indonesian Government identified the area as ideal for a human relocation project.  But there was negligible infrastructure - water, roads, power, sewage handling.

A deal was negotiated through the World Bank in conjunction with concerned governments (including the UK) to enable international funding of the necessary human infrastructure.  However, the Dumoga river system was an important habitat for many reasons, principally because much of it was primary forest, but also because it was home to at least three endangered species, the Mountain Anoa (a pygmy buffalo race), the Babirusa (or ‘pig deer’ a large forest hog with incredibly developed lower canine teeth, and was sadly also very good eating for the human inhabitants of the primary jungle) and, most important, the Giant Palm Civet, which was considered to be extinct in the 1930s until Oxford biologist John McKinnon saw one in torchlight near the Ambang volcano in the mid 1970s.

The deal was based on the 1000 metre elevation contour.  In return for funding the infrastructure for the valley floors to enable human relocation from the densely populated islands, the land above the 3000 foot contour was to be designated as a wildlife sanctuary area and managed as such.  The deal was done.  The question was then determining what endangered species existed within the designated sanctuary area and what was their status.  The area was remote, operating in primary jungle on the Equator was challenging and the fieldwork required good fieldwork and biological leadership, but not extensive biological education of the team members.

The project was perfect for an Army team.  The project gained official Ministry of Defence and other government department sponsorship and took place between January and March 1979.  The expedition confirmed the presence in the designated sanctuary of both the Giant Palm Civet and the Babirusa, but there were only unconfirmed sightings of the Mountain Anoa.  Given the exceptionally difficult, broken terrain, many months would have been required to better statistical data.

The expedition had attracted some minor ancillary projects.  One of these was collecting fleas from rodents (ideally rats) for Aberdeen University.  Sulawesi is arguably a location of great genetic significance for rats, since there are many (30-ish) seperate species on the island.  What was more curious was that all the rats trapped in the expedition’s live-capture traps were almost ridiculously clean and healthy with minimal infestation.  Luckily there were sufficient fleas trapped to make this aspect of the work a success.

© Dewar Donnithorne-Tait 2015