The greatest variety of living things in the world inhabits the 17,500 islands and million square miles of ocean in the East Indies.
In "Archipelago," Effendy Sumardja, Indonesia's hard-pressed minister of environment, claims 15 to 25% of all the species in the world. That includes 7,000 kinds of fish -- about 10 times as many as in Hawaii. More than 6,000 plant and animal species are "used on a daily basis."
And in danger of being used up, which is why the Nature Conservancy sponsored this book, written by historian Gavan Daws, who wrote the Nature Conservancy's "Hawaii: The Islands of Life"; and Marty Fujita, a Smithsonian Institution researcher and founder of the Nature Conservancy Indonesia Program.
Many of those species are found nowhere else in the world. And many, like the clouded leopard, are found only in small parts of the thousand-mile-long sweep of islands.
That fact provides a springboard for the authors to place Indonesia in its proper context, both in today's politics and in the history of natural history. Indonesia is bisected by Wallace's Line, the first boundary ever recognized as dividing two "biogeographical provinces."
Most of the islands were connected to a continent at times of lower sea levels, the western part attached to Asia, the eastern part to Australia.
There is deep water between, and many species could not bridge it. On the west, there are monkeys. On the east, tree kangaroos, which lives much as monkeys do.
The man who recognized the concept of biogeographical provinces, Alfred Russel Wallace, had a happy, lucky life. And it is his account of eight years of collecting in the East Indies, 1856-62, that forms the framework of "Archipelago."
Lucky because he lived: There was no more dangerous job for a European in the 19th century than natural history collecting in the tropics. Wallace was sick a lot, but he survived for years in the Amazon and even more years in the East Indies.
Lucky also because he was most interested in animals, particularly birds, butterflies and mammals. Fujita and Daws note that Wallace's "line" is much less apparent if you are counting plants.
If Wallace had not thought up the concept of evolution by natural selection (which he did during a malarial fever, which he said induced his best thinking), then Charles Darwin had already done it. But the concept of biogeographical provinces was his alone, and it has become more and more valuable in natural history research over the years.
A lovable person, though not fond of society, he represents better than any other individual remembered by history the virtues that Victorian men were supposed to embody: He was amiable, scrupulously honest and very, very diligent. Among other things, he wrote 50 books.
To his even greater credit, he also lacked the color prejudice that infected most everybody in those days.
For him, growing up poor, Victoria's age was one of opportunity. Collectors wanted rarities and would pay for them. Wallace took his guns and insect pins to the places that had the rarest of the rare.
In the Indies, he particularly wanted birds of paradise and orangutans. It was tough work. He was often sick, in danger on the sea and sometimes starving. At one point, he ate the pigeons whose skins he prepared to send back to his broker in London.
"Collecting, travel, wide reading, deep thought, solitude -- this was the Wallace formula for a life of original, productive work," write Daws and Fujita.
Today, in an atmosphere of political uncertainty, 206 million Indonesians are pressing hard on their natural heritage. Forests of 300-foot-tall dipterocarp trees are being clearcut, farmers shift from slash-and-burn to permanent cultivation, dynamiters blow up reefs for fish.
Like other Nature Conservancy books, "Archipelago" is a call to action, this time disguised as a coffee table book filled with photographs of butterflies with seven-inch wings, unbelievably decorated birds of paradise and incomparably colorful reefs.