I recently spent nearly three weeks in Indonesia, mostly looking for tropical insects. In New Zealand we're proud of our beautiful forests and amazing birds, but even a short time in Java drove home to me just how impoverished our flora and fauna are in comparison to the tropics.

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country. Two hundred and sixty million people live there, 141 million in Java alone, an island smaller than the South Island. Even in a densely populated and developed landscape, there were still national parks and botanic gardens housing enormous biodiversity.

We stayed in the Botanic Gardens of the town of Cibodas in the mountains south of Jakarta. The Gardens had guest houses for tourists and they left the outside lights on all night, for security reasons. Every morning all we needed to do was to stroll around the building to see extraordinary numbers of colourful moths and beetles that had been attracted to the lights overnight.

Each day we photographed about 15 species we hadn't seen before; each morning would bring a new harvest, showing almost no overlap with the diversity of the night before.

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After a week of spotting a dozen new species every day without even trying, we realised we were barely scratching the surface of the biological richness of the tropics.

New Zealand has a well-supported conservation movement, and DOC does its best to preserve our forests and endangered wildlife. We learn the names of our native birds, and every bookshop has shelves of coffee table books about kiwi and kākāpō as well as field guides to birds, insects and trees.

In Indonesia conservation operates on a shoestring. The national parks are full of litter. Poaching of endangered bird species is rampant. The bookshops have no field guides, just racks of publications about agriculture and fish farming. Huge swaths of untouched rain forest are being cut down for palm oil plantations – the same forests our shining cuckoos migrate to each winter.

Most visitors to Indonesia holiday in Bali, but a better choice might be supporting ecotourism in Sumatra or Sulawesi where your money goes directly to preserving rain forest. New Zealand has thousands of threatened insect species that most people neither know nor care about, but our species are in safer hands than Indonesia's. It sounds like heresy, but donating money to conservation projects in the tropics may do far more good for the world's biodiversity than spending it here.

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.