Last month three Australian Museum (AM) Scientists, Paul Flemons, Dr Andrew Mitchell and Dr Frank Köhler embarked on a research expedition to Malaita, Solomon Islands. They travelled to the remote mountainous Kwaio community, accessible only by foot, to learn more about the biodiversity of the area’s beetles, moths and snails. They soon discovered that the expansion of Kwaio community conservation areas was equally as significant as the scientific aspects of the journey.
For the past four years, the AM and the Kwaio community have collaborated on numerous community and conservation projects, including mammal and bird surveys, the development of a cultural centre, and the establishment of several biologically important conservation areas.
For this expedition the focus was on developing a faunal baseline for the region’s beetles, snails and moths, as well as to refine and expand the established Kwaio conservation areas. Paul Flemons, Expedition Lead and Coordinator, aimed to collect the world’s most specious group, beetles. Dr Andrew Mitchell (Lepiodoptrist) and Dr Frank Köhler (Malacologist) were collecting moths and gastropods respectively, and hoped to enhance the scant Malaita research collections housed in the AM.
The 15 km ascent to Kwainaa’isi, the first stop for the scientists, is terribly steep and through dense wilderness. At times the route wanders alongside crystal clear cyan-coloured streams, eventually leading to a secluded community ensconced in the clouds. Here, dwellings appear as though floating amidst a sea of rolling hills. Luscious green wilderness is punctuated by huts, which sit atop patches of deep auburn-coloured earth.
Despite the arduous terrain, the scientist’s journey up the mountain was relatively smooth. In fact, half way up, the team were surprised by a community gathering where they were offered large, juicy prawns collected from the river. The community hosting this feast was soon to become a part of the conservation alliance, and following the feast there were several welcome speeches.
Once they reached Kwainaa’isi the scientists went to work surveying. The assistance of the local Kwaio community was paramount. During the day Frank was busy collecting land snails and Paul was searching for beetles in the thick forests. The AM scientists held a short tutorial in how and what to collect. The Kwaio, led by their conservation rangers, would disappear into the forest returning with a myriad of specimens that the scientists simply would not have been able to collect on their own. Citizen science in action in this very remote paradise! Overall approximately 40 species of gastropod were found, with 3 of these potentially new to science.
Each night Andrew would set up his UV light and sheet in order to catch months. As they fluttered to land they were promptly plucked off, euthanized and then pinned out the next morning. ‘Over 400 individual moths were collected, accounting for around 200 species’, Andrew explained. Over half of the individuals collected he recognized as being similar to those in known Australian moth collections. But with only 100 species of moths having ever been recorded from the region he anticipates being busy describing several novel species. Although Andrew did not collect the much anticipated Phyllodes imperialis, a member of the Kwaio community brought him a huge 20 cm long butterfly, called the Queen Victoria Birdwing.
In the coming months Frank will be busy conducting detailed anatomic examinations on the gastropods that have been collected, and he hopes the application of genetic molecular techniques will prove a powerful mode of identification. He also aims to produce materials for the Kwaio community to help them identify snails and conduct independent biodiversity surveys.
It was important for the group to travel to several sites for visibility, in order to showcase the importance of conservation in the area. After several days in Kwainaa’isi the team trudged along windy and narrow tracks to Kafurumu and Aifasu. The path could be dangerously slippery and at times they had to machete through dense forest. Often they grabbed branches to keep upright and were vigilant to ensure they stepped over perilous chasms and steered clear of dangerous precipices.
Along the way, Tommy Esau of the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre was networking with local community members, illustrating the importance of conservation in the area. As a result of the trip a further eight communities were keen to become involved in the establishment of conservation areas.
Each member of the expedition team remarked to the experience of being involved in Kwaio led conservation, being overwhelmed with the generous hospitality and kindness of the Kwaio community. Paul Flemons explains ‘the Kwaio were incredibly mindful of ensuring we were comfortable, even delivering coffee with breakfast every morning!’. Frank mused ‘I am in awe of their way of life, closely knit communities that share everything.’
After several weeks of walking on steep, muddy and slippery terrain there were understandably a few injuries. Frank sustained a cut to the ankle requiring antibiotics and unfortunately for Andrew, with a mere three days to go on the trip, he developed tropical foot rot from the constant wet socks and shoes. Needless to say, it was an tough 30 km hike back to the airstrip in Malaita. Despite these minor injuries, Paul was impressed by the team’s tenacity, hardiness and ability to avoid major incident under conditions that though everyday for the Kwaio, were difficult and arduous for the AM scientists.
Despite the considerable challenges of working in this remote part of the world, the expedition proved immensely valuable in terms of scientific discovery and community collaboration in conservation. Paul was appreciative of the transformative experience of working with the Kwaio community, who were heavily involved with the survey work. Frank ‘wishes the community success in their efforts to maintain their traditional way of life and in managing the preservation of their natural environment.’ The Australian Museum looks forward to being involved in future expeditions, and in providing ongoing support to the Kwaio community in establishing and maintaining conservation reserves in the years ahead.
(Communications Administrator – Solomon Islands Conservation Alliance)