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The Trials of Producing a Field Guide

The first ever illustrated field guide to the fish fauna of an Indonesian forest ecosystem has been published, but making it proved to be no easy task.

Bukit Tigapuluh Map small (Graphic: himmelbraun.de)
Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), with its partner Konservasi Ekosistem Hutan Sumatera (KEHUS), has published the first ever illustrated field guide to the freshwater fish fauna of of the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem, Central Sumatra.

Bukit Tigapuluh National Park is a 143,223 hectare area of tropical forest in Central Sumatra, Indonesia. Home to a great diversity of life on land, the life in the park's freshwater rivers is no exception. The fish fauna in particular has remained poorly documented for a long time. Only now do we have comprehensive imagery of the 78 native Sumatran fish species that exist in the region.

Often unappreciated is the sheer amount of effort taken to produce such a piece of work. The field guide was produced from two surveys carried out during 2015-2016, by Tedjo Sukmono of Jambi university and a team of FZS rangers. Mira Margaretha,  Communication Manager & Education Specialist for the Sumatra project, and heavily involved in the production of the field guide, gave us an insight into the experiences of the field team.

The FZS Sumatra team battle to free a jeep from the mud. © Daniel Rosengren
The first great challenge in sampling a remote area is getting there. With the rainforest smothered under a blanket of humidity, the rainy season turns the dirt roads into adhesive traps. Mud becomes glue, clogging the wheels of FZS transport. A huge amount of time and energy is expended in freeing an entrapped vehicle, only for it to be bogged down again minutes later. A flooded river crossing by bamboo raft was another obstacle for the team to pass. "The journey time varies between 2.5 hours to more than a day depending on the road and river conditions".

From basecamp, the isolated field research stations must be reached on foot. To deal with the gruelling trek, the team minimised their weight, taking only essentials. They slept under a makeshift tarp rather than individual tents, and the fish captured for sampling provided a hard-earned meal after a day of scientific study.

Finally settled at the research sites, the real difficulties could begin. The surveys themselves involved two weeks of around the clock work in harsh conditions. With a river environment highly variable in size, current speed and obstacles, fish samples had to be obtained using eight techniques ranging from traditional trap fishing to usage of a spear gun.
The team's main objective was to obtain photographs and identify key fish traits for documentation in the field guide. Once a sample is obtained a timer starts ticking.  Within as little as a minute after death of a captured specimen, FZS workers would witness the total loss of the vibrant and distinctive fish colour, leaving behind a dull silver. Unfortunately, with this limitation, the pictures supplied to Mira were often of poor quality.
Identification of captured fish was based on 23 characteristics such as fish length, mass and number of rays (bones) in the fins. In the dark of the night, the team would sit counting fin rays with tweezers, on fish as small as 4cm, illuminated only by the torches strapped to their heads.

Two leeches feast on the leg of an unfortunate FZS expedition member. © Daniel Rosengren
The Sumatran wildlife made the job no easier. While trekking at night, it was common for team members to find 15-20 leeches hanging from their legs. There was an ever-present risk of disturbing venomous snakes in the water or undergrowth. Close calls caused the team to flee on multiple occasions. Even during mealtimes there was little relief, smoke from the cooking enraged a nearby bee colony, resulting in plenty of stings and soggy clothing after the rangers attempted to take shelter in the river.

That such a comprehensive and novel piece of work should be produced despite the scale of the challenges is testament to the passion and talent of the FZS team in Sumatra.

Implications for conservation - was it worth it?

Ikan Air Tawar di Ekosistem Bukit Tigapuluh7.jpg

Peter Pratje, FZS Programme Manager of the Bukit Tigapuluh Landscape Conservation Programme, told us how the book will be used to aid future conservation efforts.


“It will be a field guide for students from Jambi University and it will be a piece to support my plan to establish a summer school curriculum for wildlife biology in cooperation with the University of Jambi”.


As present there are no specific conservation measures for the river ecosystems of Bukit Tigapuluh. However, if the rules of the Ecosystem Restoration Concession (ERC) are abided, no illegal logging or human encroachments will occur in the region.

Peter has hopes that the ERC team may begin a monitoring programme to detect ecosystem changes within the area. Several fish species described in the field guide are bio-indicator species, who’s presence or absence gives us information about pollutant levels. Water quality monitoring will involve more fish surveys to track the abundance of key bio-indicator species. The conclusions made from this work may well shape future ERC policy, which will be implemented by the upcoming generation of conservators.


Learn more about the book on our FZS Sumatra webpage.

This book is written in Bahasa Indonesia and a free download is availablehere.


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