There is a mysterious island archipelago situated off the western coast of Papua New Guinea. Raja Ampat. Home to a small number of indigenous people, rare tree kangaroos and colourful birds of paradise. Here, at the centre of the so-called Coral Triangle, the South Pacific has recently unveiled one of its last undiscovered gems. There is no other place in the vastness of the world’s oceans, so it seems, with more different species than the underwater world of Raja Ampat. Many of them are still completely unknown. The rainforests of the islands were explored by the British naturalist and evolutionary theorist Alfred Russel Wallace as early as 1860. The treasures of the ocean, however, remained concealed from the world of science until the 21st century.
It was not until 2001 that scientists first explored the coral reefs of the archipelago and made sensational discoveries. It was discovered that Raja Ampat was home to species of fish that are unique to the region, i.e. so-called endemic species. One example is the “walking shark” – a small shark that walks along the seabed on its fins. Following its discovery in 2006, this shark brought Raja Ampat (translated as “Four Kings”) into the spotlight of the international media for the first time. The renowned marine biologists of Conservation International described the rich and diverse ecosystem as a scientific sensation. But there are other treasures in the depths of the archipelago. Spanish pharmaceutical researchers have been collecting sponges, corals and sea squirts on the reefs to analyse them for new and highly active substances that can be used in medicinal products. The incredible biodiversity is fuelled by large currents from the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. These currents transport everything, ranging from tiny larvae to giant manta rays.
The seas around Raja Ampat contain 80% of the world’s coral species. In an area the size of two football fields, scientists discovered more different types of coral in 2006 than in the entire Caribbean. Raja Ampat is also home to approximately 1,427 species of fish, six of seven sea turtle species, as well as 27 different marine mammals.
This diversity of species is unique and unparalleled on our blue planet. Unfortunately, this paradise is now in acute danger. Climate change, bleached coral reefs, mass tourism and the increasing pollution of the oceans are threatening the fragile ecosystem. What is happening in Raja Ampat will directly affect all oceans and therefore the entire planet.