Ever since the British naturalist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, in 1860, published his classic treatise “The Malay Archipelago”, Indonesia’s flora and fauna have been known as to be among the richest on earth.
The archipelago’s high rainfall, its uniformly hot and humid tropical climate, and its unique geographical character make it exceptionally suited to the proliferation of all kinds of life forms, many of which are unknown elsewhere in the world.
Most of Indonesia’s 13.667 islands are overgrown with lush vegetation, which provides shelter for a world that teems with life. So rich, in fact, is the country’s flora and fauna that many scientists regard the Indonesian wilds to be a veritable living archive and laboratory.
Peculiar is the differences that exist between the plant and animal worlds of the western and eastern parts of the archipelago -a phenomenon which presumably has its origin in the geographical conditions prevailing in prehistoric times-.
Generally speaking, the plant and animal species that are found in the western parts of Indonesia are representative of the mainland Asian flora and fauna, while those that are typical of the eastern regions mostly belong to the Australian, or Australasian, sphere. The central parts of the Indonesian archipelago constitute a transition zone bridging the two worlds. The differences, however, affect the fauna much more than they do the flora.
As most of the monsoon rains fall on the western parts of the archipelago, it is there that the densest vegetation occurs. In contrast to condition of western Indonesian islands such as Sumatra, Java, and Kalimantan, on most of the islands of eastern Indonesia such as Sulawesi, the islands of West and East Nusa Tenggara and Papua, where rain on scarce and dry seasons are longer, tropical rain-forests are rare and the land its mostly covered by bushes and open savanna-type grasslands.
The fertile Indonesian soil supports not less than 15.000 (some say 35.000) flowering plant species, 250 species of bamboo, 150 species of palm and 1.500 species of fern. Some of those species, such as the Gigantic Rafflesia and the Black Orchid, are not rarely found anywhere else in the world.
Since the earliest centuries of the Christian era, Indonesia’s wealth in commercial woods and species has lured merchants from as far as China, Arabia, and Europe, to seek their way to this archipelago to conduct trade.
Among the Indonesian forest products most eagerly sought by those foreign traders in those early days of trading were sandalwood, the fragrant wood which is used in the making of incense and Oriental perfumes.
Among the popular tropical hardwoods that are felled for export at present are ebony, “meranti”, ironwood and teak. Another major forest product which is much in demand is rattan. Indonesia’s rain-forests store even today an immeasurable wealth of genetic material such as can be found in no other country in the world with the exception of Brazil.
Even the swamps abound with useful vegetation, of which the best known are mangroves and various palms. Indonesia’s coastal areas abound with palm trees of great variety, including “sago”, whose core yields the substance that goes into the preparation of “sago” meal, which is the staple food for people in many parts of the archipelago.
The Indonesian fauna is exceedingly rich in variety, which has its cause in the country’s favorable climatic conditions. As noted before, a remarkable contrast exists between the types of land animals that live in the western and eastern parts of the archipelago.
The old notion of a sharply drawn demarcation line separating the two worlds as promulgated by the Wallace school of scientists, however, in no longer valid. Nowadays. the world of the Indonesian fauna is customarily perceived as being divided into three distinct zoo-geographical zones. The more one moves towards the east, the poorer the Asian mainland species are represented and the more common the Australian species become.