Queen Alexandra’s giant birdwing butterflies, chartreuse and black, up to 12 inches (31 cm) across, were discovered when a hunter spotted one in the forest canopy, mistook it for a bird, and shot it.

The Indonesian Archipelago stretches 3,200 watery miles (5,800 KM) over three time zones in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and includes 17,999 torpical islands. On them live 206 million people in 300 ethnic groups speaking 583 languages and dialects. Here as well are some of the world’s rarest and most interesting and beautiful birds, animals, and plants.

Many of these exist nowhere else. Of Indonesia’s 500 mammal species, 210 are endemic. Of more than 1,580 kinds of birds—almost 16 percent of the world’s known avifauna—over one-fourth, 430, are endemic. Many survive only on one or two small islands.

Indonesia covers one percent of the earth’s surface but contains 16 percent of its reptiles and amphibians, 12 percent of its mammals, 10 percent of its flowering plant species and, with 8,500 kinds of fish, 25 percent of its piscine species. Landforms range from mangrove swamps with brilliant offshore coral reefs to glaciers and active volcanoes. It has been called the most diverse floral and faunal repository in the world.

Lizards inhabit every corner—tiny geckos on adhesive toe-tips darting after insects on tree-trunk undersides (and house ceilings) and fearsome Komodo dragons up to 13 feet (4+ m) long weighing 165 pounds (75 kg). Toxic saliva of these formidable reptiles causes blood poisoning and death in a buffalo or deer usually within days while the dragon watches and waits for its victim to expire.

Reptiles and amphibians “fly” on side flaps extended so they can glide great distances using tails as steering rudders—bright flaps useful also in attracting mates.

Indonesia extends across the deep oceanic trench marking the “Wallace Line”—historic geographic separation between Oriental and Australasian faunal regions named after early explorer-naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. (It was in Indonesia that Wallace developed evolutionary theories similar to and contemporary with Darwin’s.) Rain forests on one side harbor Asian mainland species such as leaf monkeys and ponderous-beaked hornbills, and on the other Australasian marsupials such as Australian wallabies, spiny anteaters, tree kangaroos, and mouse-like “flying opossums.”

Tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia are home to the highest diversity of terrestrial predators in the world, and Indonesia has many of them—Sumatran tigers, common and clouded leopards, wild dogs, ancient hairless wild pigs, and little slow loris, along with irascible, largely vegetarian sun bears. Here also are the world’s largest arboreal mammals, shaggy red orangutans which share 94.6 percent of humans’ DNA.

Indonesia is home to 15 of the world’s 22 species of maleo birds or megapods (“giant-foots”) which incubate eggs by burying them in soil warmed by composting action and volcanic steam (their big feet are useful in digging nest holes) from which young emerge fully self-sufficient and able to fly. There are elegantly plumed birds of paradise, turkey-sized pigeons, rare citron-crested cockatoos, fierce hawk-eagles, exquisite fairy-wrens, and a rainbow of colorful sunbirds.

Efforts to save some of the best-known species from disastrous habitat loss have been well publicized. Among the endangered are orangutans, proboscis monkeys, Javan badaks or rhinos, Sumatran tigers, and Asian elephants.

Nocturnal flying fox bats may fly 20 miles (32 km) in search of food—fruits of almost any kind,

Nocturnal flying fox bats may fly 20 miles (32 km) in search of food—fruits of almost any kind,

Less well-known but equally rare and unique are prehensile-tailed bear-cats or binturongs, Sulawesi’s fierce-looking four-tusked babirusa (wild hogs), miniature Anoa buffaloes, Temmink’s golden cats, Ajak wild dogs, and massive banteng, nearly one-ton (800-kg) wild cattle.

Dazzling lepidoptera include Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterflies, world’s largest at 12 inches (31 cm) across, discovered when a hunter spotted one in the forest canopy, mistook it for a bird and shot it; and Atlas moths, almost as large.

Surrounding seas hold some of the world’s rarest and most beautiful shells, including the exquisite glory-of-the-sea, in some of the most beautiful and extensive coral reefs in the world. Great sea turtles nest on beaches. Crabs climb palm trees to clip coconuts which they drop on the ground to open at their leisure. Fish climb trees after insects. Seaweed fronds trail up to 250 feet (75 m).

More than 40,000 flowering plant species include the world’s largest blossom, the yard-wide (1-m) rafflesia.

Indonesia’s environmental record has been troubled. Logging and widespread forest fires caused by timber and agriculture interests—especially clearing for palm oil—have damaged essential habitat. So have mineral exploration and needs of this world’s fifth-largest population, still growing at two percent annually. In recent years government has shown more interest in protecting its unique wildlife by creating national parks and encouraging local projects supportive of conservation efforts. But political unrest has compounded problems, leaving the future uncertain.

Significant areas have been set aside, at least on paper, notably on eight major islands. They cover more than 54,000 square miles (140,000 km2) and include 31 national parks, 62 natural ecotourism parks, 13 game parks, 170 nature reserves, and seven marine parks.