By Jeremy Hance


Land Areas: 174,600 square kilometers, making it the world’s 11th largest island (67, 413 square miles, 17.4 million hectares, or 43 million acres)
Human Population: 16 million (2005)
Country: Indonesia
Biodiversity: 1450 birds, 127 mammals, 5,972 vascular plants (2,225 of which are endemic)
Percent Forest Cover: Around 20%
Deforestation Rate: 2.35 percent annually between 1985-1997)
Causes of Deforestation: Agriculture, logging, and mining


Shaped like a lower-case 'k', the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is the world’s eleventh largest island. A treasure-trove of biodiversity with a startling number of endemic species (species that are found no-where else in the world), Sulawesi—formerly known as Celebes—has only recently become a target of conservationists. While much of the island remains unstudied by researchers much of its forest habitat has already been lost.

The tropical forests—which once covered the whole island—have been broadly deforested by agriculture, logging, and mining. The process accelerated in the late 20th Century when the government began supporting commercial logging and large agriculture projects. Locals also began converting forests into cash crops.

A study in 2007 found that 80 percent of Sulawesi's forest is gone or degraded, including almost the entirety of Sulawesi’s rich lowland rainforest and mangroves. The study further speculated that little deforestation in the future is possible since most of forest land that was useful for cultivation and logging is already gone. With few attractive commercial trees, Sulawesi’s highland forests have fared better, though many have suffered from degradation.


At 174,600 square kilometers, Sulawesi is the world's eleventh largest island just after Ellesmere Island in Canada. It is famously described as a big island with no interior, given that the island consists almost entirely of four interconnecting peninsulas.

Its large and winding coastline measures 6,000 kilometers. The island is surrounded on all sides by other big islands: Borneo to the west, Philippines to the north, the Maluku islands to the east, and Flores and Timor to the south.

Politically, Sulawesi is split into six Indonesian provinces: Mamuju (West Sulawesi), Manado (North Sulawesi), Palu (Central Sulawesi), Makassar (South Sulawesi), Kendari (Southeast Sulawesi), and Gorontalo. With 1.25 million people, Makassar is the largest city on the island; it rests on the southwestern peninsula.

The strange shape of Sulawesi—five connected peninsulas with little to hold them together—was created by a collision of multiple plates originating from Asia, Australia, and the Pacific islands.

The island contains thirteen freshwater lakes including the deepest lake, Matano, in Southeast Asia.


Sulawesi is largely dependent on crops and seafood for its economy: in 2004 agriculture made up 34 percent of Sulawesi's economy. Crops important to Sulawesi's economy include coconuts, nutmeg, soy, coffee, and rice. The island is one of the world's largest producers of cacao. It also produces a lot of cloves for kretek cigarettes.

Fishing, and increasingly aquaculture, has become important to Sulawesi's economy. Fish ponds and shrimp aquaculture has replaced much of the island's mangroves.

Other economic industries include commercial timber such as teak and rattan and tourism, which is seen as increasingly important by the government.

In 2004, 16.7 percent of Sulawesi's population were considered to be living in poverty. Most of the poor live in rural areas.


Sulawesi has a remarkable diversity of terrestrial flora and fauna and rich coastal marine life. Since the unique island sits on Wallace's Line it harbors species of both Asian and Australasian ancestors, though the majority are Australasian in origin.

On land, the percentage of endemic species is particularly noteworthy. Of 127 known mammals, 72 are endemic, making for one of the highest rates of endemic mammals in the world (62 percent). When bats are excluded—since they have better potential for migration—the percentage leaps to an astounding 98 percent. In addition, 34 percent of Sulawesi’s nearly 1500 birds are endemic.

Other fauna are unfortunately little studied. Twenty-five species of amphibian are known, forty lizards, and at least 52 terrestrial snakes. In addition, there are 38 species of large swallow-tailed butterfly, which so entranced Alfred Russell Wallace on his visit to the island. Researchers have also found 67 endemic species of fish in Sulawesi's dwindling mangrove forests.

Some standouts include:

  • Two wild cattle species, the Lowland anoa and the Mountain anoa. Both are listed as Endangered by the IUCN, little is known about these animals but they are heavily hunted for food and their horns.
  • The babirusa, also known as 'pig-deer, comprises three species of pig. Each male babirusa sports a set of four tusks, two of which stick through their snout. All three species are threatened with extinction.
  • The mysterious and little-studied Sulawesi palm civet which is classified as Vulnerable. This predator lives and hunts in a wide-variety of habitats.
  • The Crested black macaque is called the most threatened primate on Sulawesi. It is killed for bushmeat and caught for the pet trade. In addition, deforestation and mining have taken a large toll on its habitat. They used to occur in groups of over 100, but no longer. The species is considered Critically Endangered.
  • The maleo is an Endangered chicken-sized bird. They nest in traditional sites, over a third of which have been abandoned recently due to human impact. They lay one massive egg in meter-deep pits, which humans sometimes poach for food.
Newly discovered species include the Togian White-eye, a small olive black and white passerine, which is likely endangered; the Togian hawk-owl in 2004; a rediscovered species of pygmy tarsier in 2000; and fifteen new species of beetles in 2005.

The island's biodiversity is ripe for more discovery and study.


According to Middleton et al 2019, Sulawesi has 5,972 described species of vascular plants, of which 2,225 are endemic.


Sulawesi is surrounded by rich seas with large habitats of seagrass and coral reefs. These habitats are home to leatherback, hawksbill, and green sea turtles, as well as dugongs and six of the world's seven giant clam species. Whales that use the waters as a by-way include sperm whales, pygmy sperm whales, and killer whales.

One of the marine biodiversity standouts is the Sulawesi coelacanth. This is the second species of the prehistoric survivor and is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List because it is threatened as bycatch. The coelacanth is not a target for fishermen.


Sulawesi has a startling diversity of forest types: fourteen different forest ecosystems have been identified. The wide diversity of forests is part of the reason for the islands high rate of endemism and biodiversity.

Mangrove forests: found in estuaries and along Sulawesi's large coastline. At one time mangroves covered much of the coastlines, but most of these have been lost.

Montane forests: rising above 1,000 meters these forests are some of the most intact forests in Sulawesi. Lower montane forests are primarily made up of oak and chestnut species, while upper montane forests support a variety of conifers.

Monsoon forests: this unique forest type is little-studied. It receives the lowest amount of rain in all Indonesia and is able to survive long droughts. However, much of this forest type has been lost to grazing land.

Ultrabasic forests: a unique forest type that grows on nutrient-poor ultrabasic soil with little plant diversity, but high endemism since unique plants—like pitcher plants—have evolved to fill this niche. Ultrabasic forests are made up of short twisted trees. Few fauna live here.

Limestone forests: shallow soil and steep slopes make these forests low both in abundance and diversity. They are home to some endemic species like snails.

Peat swamp forest: though Sulawesi only has small areas of peat swamp forests they contain high biodiversity, especially of birds.

Freshwater swamp forests: like peat swamp forests, freshwater forests only cover a small area of Sulawesi. They are made up of palms, pandanus, and pitcher plants.


Approximately 80 percent of Sulawesi's forests are either gone or degraded to some degree. Over 50 percent are considered in poor condition, while 30 percent—mostly in the highlands (above 1500 meters)—are classified as in good condition.

Over 95 percent of Sulawesi's mangrove forests and lowland forests are disturbed. In less than a decade—between the mid 1980s and 1993—Sulawesi mangroves have been decreased by over 60 percent in part due to aquaculture for seafood such as shrimp.

Wetlands have suffered even worse: 99 percent of the island's wetlands are either gone or damaged.

Current rates of forest loss are lower than much of Indonesia, but this is primarily because much of the island's lowland forest was already gone by as early as 1985.

Forest loss is due primarily to logging and conversion. Beginning in the 1970s the government began supporting large-scale logging and vast agricultural projects. Since then migrants from urban areas to the countryside have converted large tracks of forest into cash crops such as coffee and cacao.

Million hectares200120102020Loss 2002-19% loss of 2001 cover
Primary forest area 9.8 9.5 9.0 0.8 8.2%
Tree cover area 15.6 15.5 14.3 1.3 8.3%



Large-scale loss of forest is not as big of a threat in Sulawesi as other islands in Indonesia, simply because there is relatively little forest left. However, deforestation of remaining forest would be catastrophic for the island's unique biodiversity, much of which are already threatened.

Since montane forests contain very few commercial species, they are relatively safe from loggers, but hunting, fires, and erosion due to cleared areas remain major threats.

Pollution and habitat destruction from mining poses a threat to biodiversity and ecosystem health. Mining is even reported to occur within the boundaries of protected areas.

Bushmeat hunting and poaching is a large issue for a number of endangered species, including anoa, babirusa, black crested macaques, and the maleo since its eggs are poached.

South Sulawesi, as opposed to north and central, is serviced by few parks and protected areas, leaving species and forests there particularly vulnerable.


Sulawesi has six national parks and nineteen nature reserves.

Central Sulawesi contains the most well-known park on the island, Lore Lindu National Park spanning 229,000 hectares. It is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

On the northern peninsula, Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park protects 300,000 square hectares, while Rawa Aopa Watmohai National Park protects 105,194 hectares in southeast Sulawesi.

Most of the parks, however, suffer frequent encroachment for illegal logging, mining, and even conversion into crops. Thousands of illegal gold miners have been found plying their trade in Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park.

Sulawesi also has three national marine parks: Bunaken, Wakatobi, and Take Bonerate.

Bunaken National Park includes islands, mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs. Taka Bonerate National Park protects the Taka Bonerate atoll (and surrounding coral reefs), the world's third largest atoll and the largest in Southeast Asia. Last but not least, Wakatobi National Park is made up of island chains and 25 coral reefs.


Forest and coconut plantation in North Sulawesi


Crested black macaque

Crested black macaque

Flying dragon


Indonesian rainforest in Sulawesi

Indonesian rainforest in Sulawesi

Indonesian rainforest in Sulawesi

Indonesian rainforest in Sulawesi

Green Vine Snake

Male and Female Knobbed Hornbill

Strangler fig

Mother tarsier and baby


More images at the Sulawesi slideshow



  • Charles H. Cannon, Marcy Summers, John R. Harting, and Paul J.A. Kessler (2007). "Developing Conservation Priorities Based on Forest Type, Condition, and Threats in a Poorly Known Ecoregion: Sulawesi, Indonesia". Biotropica online 25 May to June 25, 2007.
  • Daws, Gavan and Marty Fujita. Archipelago: the Islands of Indonesia. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1999.
  • Erdmann, M. 2008. Latimeria menadoensis. In: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2.
  • Indonesian Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, 2003.
  • Indonesia National Socioeconomic Survey (SUSENAS), 2004.
  • Report on Biodiversity and Tropical Forests in Indonesia, USAID/Indonesia, 2004. Prepared by : (1) Steve Rhee, M.E.Sc. (2) Darrell Kitchener, Ph.D. (3) Tim Brown, Ph.D. (4) Reed Merrill, M.Sc. (5) Russ Dilts, Ph.D. (6) Stacey Tighe, Ph.D.
  • Ruud de Lang, Gernot Vogel. The Snakes of Sulawesi. Herpetologia Bonnensis II. Proceedings of the 13th Congress of the Societas Europaea Herpetologica. pp. 35-38. (2006)
  • Semiadi, G., Mannullang, B., Burton, J., Schreiber, A., Mustari, A.H. & the IUCN SSC Asian Wild Cattle Specialist Group 2008. Bubalus depressicornis. In: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2.
  • Supriatna, J. & Andayani, N. 2008. Macaca nigra. In: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.2.

    Sulawesi conservation news

    Activists slam ‘independent’ probe by Indonesian palm oil giant into violations (11 Dec 2023 14:04:24 +0000)
    - A report commissioned by Indonesian palm oil giant Astra Agro Lestari into alleged violations allegedly by its subsidiaries on the island of Sulawesi failed to investigate key issues such as community rights, NGOs say.
    - The investigation was triggered by multiple media and NGO reports on the long-running conflict between three AAL subsidiaries and local communities in Central Sulawesi province who allege the companies grabbed their land.
    - The investigation failed to verify whether AAL’s subsidiaries had obtained the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of local and Indigenous communities before operating in the area, according to Walhi and Friends of the Earth US.
    - Instead, the verification focused on proving whether the communities in the area had legal permits to their land that overlaps with AAL’s concessions, resulting in biased and inaccurate findings, the NGOs say.

    Salty wells and lost land: Climate and erosion take their toll in Sulawesi (21 Nov 2023 17:43:01 +0000)
    - Coastal erosion on the west coast of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island is so advanced that seawater has penetrated the groundwater supply that tens of thousands use for drinking water.
    - The communities have yet to be served by utility water provision, so families are resorting to costly supplies of water from private distributors.
    - Research shows that rising seas and more frequent and powerful storms will accelerate coastal abrasion, raising burdens shouldered by the world’s coastal communities.

    Indonesian islanders draw line in sand as Dubai-style reclamation nears (05 Oct 2023 01:11:29 +0000)
    - Residents of the island of Lae-Lae off the Makassar seafront in eastern Indonesia are stepping up their opposition to a major reclamation project conceived in 2009.
    - The community has staged seven demonstrations this year to press their opposition to the ongoing development, which they warn will decimate their near-shore fisheries.
    - The provincial government has previously said the island’s population will not be required to move, and that Lae-Lae will derive economic benefits from the development.

    Kellogg’s latest to freeze Indonesian supplier over palm oil violations (14 Sep 2023 14:59:03 +0000)
    - U.S. cereal giant Kellogg’s has become the latest major consumer goods brand to suspend business ties with Indonesian palm oil giant Astra Agro Lestari (AAL).
    - It joins the likes of Hershey’s, PepsiCo and Nestlé, which all stopped buying palm oil from AAL following a 2022 report alleging land grabbing, environmental degradation, and the criminal persecution of environmental and human rights defenders.
    - AAL has denied the allegations and launched an independent investigation, but has not yet taken steps to remedy the harm allegedly done.
    - Activists say the investigation unfairly puts the onus on local communities to prove their allegations against AAL, and have called on other consumer goods companies and investors to stand up to AAL.

    Activists slam coal pollution from Indonesia’s production of ‘clean’ batteries (23 Aug 2023 11:32:58 +0000)
    - Indonesia’s electric vehicle ambitions have seen it ramp up refining of nickel, a key component in EV batteries, at industrial estates springing up across the country.
    - However, these smelters are powered by purpose-built coal-fired plants, which environmental activists say are causing illness, killing crops and polluting fish farms.
    - Among the coal plants that activists say are polluting local villages are those that power the nickel smelters owned by Chinese companies PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI), PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry (VDNI) and PT Obsidian Stainless Steel (OSS).
    - While Indonesia has stated its commitment to transitioning away from coal in powering its grid, these industry-exclusive “captive” plants aren’t subject to any kind of phaseout, and are in fact encouraged by regulation.

    Captive to coal: Indonesia to burn even more fossil fuel for green tech (10 Aug 2023 16:42:49 +0000)
    - Indonesia is building several new coal-fired power plants for industrial users, despite its stated commitment to start phasing out coal and transition to clean energy, according to a new report.
    - These so-called captive coal plants will have a combined capacity of 13 gigawatts, accounting for more than two-thirds of the 18.8 GW of new coal power in the pipeline.
    - Most of the plants will feed the nickel, cobalt and aluminum smelters that the government is promoting in an effort to turn Indonesia into a manufacturing hub for electric vehicles (EVs) and batteries.
    - Critics say the building spree goes against both these green technology aspirations and Indonesia’s own climate commitments, but regulatory and funding loopholes mean the government can freely build more new captive coal plants.

    Sulawesi sea nomads who inspired Avatar movie chart new course saving forests (31 Jul 2023 16:29:34 +0000)
    - Umar Pasandre, a member of the seafaring Bajo people, has spent more than two decades protecting mangroves in Indonesia’s Gorontalo province.
    - The Bajo people were first recorded by 16th-century explorers and inspired James Cameron’s sequel to “Avatar.”
    - Umar leads local mangrove-replanting initiatives and has confronted those seeking to convert the forests for aquaculture production.

    Indonesia’s No. 2 palm oil firm faces global backlash over community conflict (10 Jul 2023 10:50:23 +0000)
    - A growing list of global household brands, from PepsiCo to L’Oréal to Hershey’s, have suspended their purchases from Astra Agro Lestari (AAL), Indonesia’s second- largest palm oil producer.
    - The move comes in the wake of reports of land grabbing, environmental degradation and criminal persecution of human rights defenders by AAL and its subsidiaries operating in Central Sulawesi province.
    - AAL has launched an independent investigation into the matter, but NGOs say the process is unnecessary as the evidence of violations is plain.
    - They say the company should instead focus on returning the land it claims to the farmers and communities who were there first.

    Indonesia to expand ‘smart fisheries’ program aimed at empowering communities (22 Jun 2023 13:38:55 +0000)
    - Indonesia will expand its smart fisheries village program, aiming to empower fishing communities to boost their productivity, achieve sustainability standards, and improve their overall economic welfare.
    - Twenty-two fishing communities are enrolled in the initial batch of the program, which will focus primarily on fisheries, but also look to improve community welfare through tourism, public health interventions, financial literacy, and other initiatives.
    - The participating communities are involved in catching or farming a wide range of seafood and other products, from octopus and tilapia to shrimp and organic salt.
    - The fisheries sector employs about 12 million Indonesians, with most of the fleet today, about 650,000 vessels, operated by small-scale and traditional fishers.

    Red floods near giant Indonesia nickel mine blight farms and fishing grounds (14 Jun 2023 05:29:55 +0000)
    - Farming communities in the shadow of Sulawesi’s giant Pomalaa nickel mining area say their fields have been flooded with red water, possibly laterite waste from the mining operations.
    - Local farmers blame flooding from the mine for longer harvest cycles and reduced productivity.
    - Indonesia’s biggest environmental NGO says the government should review mining permits to safeguard rice fields.

    In Indonesia, companies defy government’s decision to revoke their permits (12 Jun 2023 10:57:33 +0000)
    - Logging, plantation and mining companies have continued to operate and have been mired in conflicts with communities since their permits were targeted for revocation by the Indonesian government, a new report says.
    - In Indonesia’s easternmost region of Papua alone, four palm oil companies cleared 943.3 hectares (2,331 acres) of forests in the first four months of 2023 — an area three times the size of New York’s Central Park.
    - Civil groups have been calling on the government to redistribute the revoked concessions to local and Indigenous communities, but they say their calls haven’t been heard.

    Community conservation benefits Sulawesi flying foxes, but more is needed, experts say (11 Apr 2023 02:38:18 +0000)
    - Flying foxes play a vital role in maintaining forest health. As pollinators and seed dispersers they are also invaluable to the economic and social well-being of communities.
    - In Indonesia’s Sulawesi, conservation groups are working to protect flying foxes, which face threats including hunting for food and habitat loss.
    - Community-led approaches are showing success, but conservationists say greater protection and an expansion of projects is needed to protect more bat roosts.

    Study: Women, youths can be more effective at driving sustainable farming changes (07 Apr 2023 07:51:15 +0000)
    - A study in a farming community on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island shows that women and younger farmers can be more influential than older men in persuading peers to adopt new technologies and practices.
    - The findings could have significant implications for conservation organizations trying to implement sustainable agriculture programs within communities.
    - The study looked at two groups — one made up of older men perceived as “opinion leaders,” and the other of mostly women and younger men — and how effective they were at convincing fellow farmers to try out a new pair of cacao pruning scissors.
    - Experts say the findings don’t mean older men no longer carry any weight when it comes to influencing community members, and that they should still be consulted and engaged with when introducing development initiatives.

    FOIA lawsuit suggests Indonesian nickel miners lack environmental licenses (24 Jan 2023 12:10:45 +0000)
    - A freedom-of-information ruling in Indonesia has indicated that two nickel miners suspected of polluting a river on the island of Sulawesi may not have all the required permits.
    - The ruling, in a case filed by environmental journalists, ordered authorities in East Luwu district to publish the licensing documents for the two companies, but the authorities said some of the papers were still being processed.
    - A lawyer for the environmental journalists points out that the companies should have already secured the licenses prior to operating, and that this revelation strongly points to them not having the licenses.
    - The Indonesian government is pushing a massive expansion of the nickel mining and processing industries to feed the demand for electric vehicle batteries, but nickel mining in the country has long been associated with pollution and community conflicts.

    From bombs to seasonal closure, Indonesian fishers move toward sustainability (21 Dec 2022 08:10:54 +0000)
    - Kahu-Kahu village on Sulawesi’s Selayar Island is implementing its first season- and location-based fishery closure.
    - The three-month closure of a 6-hectare (15-acre) stretch of coastal water is intended to replenish local octopus populations by reducing fishing pressure.
    - Local fishers will install and plant artificial reefs in the area during the closure.