Story from Arfak, West Papua

Over the past three months, I embarked on a series of journey to Sumatra, Madura, and West Papua accompanied by brilliant individuals from Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) and CitiAsia Inc, in collaboration with Kominfo RI. And here I was at Arfak Mountain in Desa Kwau, Warmare District, West Papua, home to at least 39 species of bird-of-paradise (also known as cendrawasih). The view from above the village was absolutely stunning, giving me an instant sense of calm. The locals there are friendly and welcoming too.

During my visit, I had the chance to meet Zeth Wonggor, a renowned local guide from the Hattam tribe. He lost his father when he was just a child, and he used to be a hunter back then. Without money, he had to abandon school and venture into the forest. He built a cottage deep in the woods and for years relied on hunting birds to sustain himself.

Zeth Wonggor, a member of the Hattam tribe residing in Kwau Village, has extensive experience as a tour guide for foreigners who come to observe burung cendrawasih (bird-of-paradise)

Zeth said that people in the villages across the mountain often hunt various animals (including cendrawasih) in the forest to survive, not for selling purposes. 

How does it taste? I asked.

“All these birds don't taste good. They have no meat,” he laughed.

An Unexpected Encounter

His story as a hunter transforming into a bird protector began with a significant moment in his life. In 1990, he encountered a white man who was attempting to reach the Arfak Mountains. Zeth was taken aback when this white man knew his name and expressed a desire to accompany him through the forest to witness the bird of paradise. 

Zeth's surprise grew even more when the foreigner forbade him from hunting the birds for food. The visitor simply wanted to capture photos of the birds-of-paradise and observe their mesmerizing dances from the hidden spots Zeth had created for hunting.

Zeth said that people in the villages across the mountain often hunt the birds for their meals

Upon returning home, the Papuan man felt frustrated as they had no birds for their meals. However, to his astonishment, the white man handed him money. 

"He paid me when we got back home because I had worked," Zeth said. "I asked him, 'What kind of work? You told me not to cut down trees, so we didn't work today. We were just walking around.' Then he said, 'No, you carried the equipment and walked well in the forest.'"

“I kept the money, anyway, but I didn't really understand its value,” Zeth admitted. 

“Walking to Manokwari, the closest city, was too far. Then what’s the point of having those money? We sustained ourselves by eating from our garden. It would be better if he came here bringing foods,” he explained.

The white man did come back with more people and plenty of food a couple of months later. After that encounter, not only did Zeth get familiar with instant noodles, corned beef, and cheese, but also got familiar with the idea of being a tour guide. Without needing to carry arrows or a gun to harm the forest inhabitants, he found a way to make a living.

Preserving the birds for a living

Later, I discovered that the white man was David Gibbs, an ornithologist (expert in birds) from England. He walked about 62 kilometers on foot from Manokwari to Kampung Mokwam, where people advised him to seek out Zeth Wonggor in the woods.

It was also Gibbs who shared his encounters in the wilderness of Mount Arfak with David Attenborough, the renowned BBC writer and broadcaster. Attenborough himself ended up coming to Papua with Gibbs, to document the bird-of-paradise for his documentary film  Attenborough’s Paradise Birds (2015).

"From that experience, I learned that money can buy delicious food, unlike (the taste of) the birds," Zeth explained. 

"If there are birds, we can have a good meal. But if the birds are hunted to extinction, there won't be anyone coming anymore."

Arfak Mountain in Desa Kwau, Warmare District, West Papua, home for Papuan endemic birds, Cendrawasih

Among many species of birds-of-paradise, there are four species that can only be found in Arfak, namely the Arfak parotia (Parotia sefilata), Vogelkop superb bird-of-paradise (Lophorina niedda), long-tailed paradigalla (Paradigalla carunculata), and Arfak astrapia (Astrapia nigra). Zeth's long-time experience living in the middle of the forest has enabled him to distinguish various sounds of those birds, their play areas, mating season, and even the signs expressed by those birds. 

In recognition of his dedicated efforts in forest conservation and trailblazing ecotourism in the Arfak Mountains, Zeth Wonggor was bestowed with the esteemed Kalpataru 2020 award by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. He was acknowledged in the "Environmental Pioneer" category, alongside Sadikin, a resident of Bengkalis District, Riau.


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