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On patrol with a shark ranger in Indonesia's marine treasure trove

Conservation International works with Indonesian children to help them learn how to protect the most diverse underwater region in the world.  NBC News' Richard Engel reports.

RAJA AMPAT, Indonesia – The remote Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat is home to an underwater treasure trove of coral reefs and tremendous biodiversity, miles away from polluted urban centers and human encroachment.

The faraway islands in Western Papua, regarded by many marine experts as having the potential to help restore the world's ailing coral reefs, are vulnerable to the unchecked exploitation of a lucrative treasure that is rapidly disappearing from Indonesia's waters: sharks.

China's growing appetite for the de rigueur shark fin soup has attracted fishermen from elsewhere in Indonesia and Southeast Asia to the waters around Raja Ampat's 1,500 islands.

Alarmed, conservationists and local villagers worked together to create the Misool Eco Resort and Conservation Center in 2005, establishing a 165-square-mile "No-Take Zone" that banned fishing.

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When a neighboring village requested to take part, the area was expanded to 472 square miles, roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles.

The Misool team also recruited a group of rangers to help patrol the waters for illegal fishermen. Earlier this year, NBC News had an opportunity to go on patrol with Abdul Razak Tamher, 31, one of the first rangers.

Q: Before 2005, what were shark and fish stocks like in this area of Raja Ampat?

A: Before 2005, one of the main occupations of the people of my village was fishing. That's what we did every day and one of the big things fished were sharks. By the 2000s there were very few sharks left in the area, but in the 1980s and 90s when I was fishing there were lots of sharks. A lot of people used dynamite and potassium cyanide for fishing.

Q: So did villagers in Misool know they had to change the way things were done?

A: At that time, people here really didn't think much about shark or marine conservation. We didn't know shark fishing was illegal (prior to the formation of the No-Take Zone in 2005, the local governor had actually signed a law against shark fishing) because nobody from the government came out here to tell or educate us that it was illegal and bad for the ecology to fish sharks.

It was really through the efforts of the resort to educate the village about the importance of sharks and protecting the marine environment that we saw the importance of it and began to appreciate the natural beauty ourselves. Now if people from my village hear of a shark fishing boat coming into this area, they get really upset.

NBC News' Richard Engel talks to a Conservation International scientist as he identifies a new species of fish.

Q: Is conservation a completely foreign idea here? Isn't there a long tradition of seasonal fishing and spiritual beliefs around protecting certain animals?

A: We've embraced principles of conservation since the beginning of our culture. They were simple ideas, but they still worked for us. For example, we would harvest clams from the ocean for six months, then depending on the ocean conditions, we would close that area for sometimes up to a year before harvesting again.

Many of the original families in this area are forbidden to eat different sea creatures like sharks or turtles or other kinds of fish. In each case, there is a reason why each family respects and protects a certain animal. It could be that a family member or fisherman generations ago was rescued by that species or guided to land at a time of need. Many still believe that if someone in the family breaks this taboo, they will get sick or something bad will happen.

Q: In 2006, the rangers were formed with just five of you and a few of you were actually former shark fishermen. What made you make such a dramatic change in your life?

 A: I personally wasn't involved in shark fishing, but other original rangers that were here in the beginning and their village elders were shark fishermen. Even though they were shark fishermen and lived off the harvest of the ocean, they realized that they needed to preserve this area and the marine life for future generations to come.

Many of us felt – and still feel today – that if we told our children or grandchildren that there were lots of fish and sharks in the sea around these islands and they went there and saw none they would think that we were liars and we just couldn't allow that to happen.

Q: What was it like in the early days with the rangers?

A: The rangers weren't really effective until 2009 because at that time there was only one speed boat that was always busy getting lumber for the construction of the resort. So we would only go out if we saw an illegal boat go past the resort. From 2006-2009, we went out almost every day. In the months of June and July, the area was choked with shark finning boats from as far away as Java that cast long lines with sometimes 1,000 or 2,000 hooks to catch sharks.

To expel the foreign boats, it wasn't a problem. We would just go up to the boats and tell them leave and they would go. Local fishermen were tougher. Most of the problems had to do with local fishermen not agreeing with the contract we signed with Misool Eco Reserve to create the no-take zones or claiming they were not around when the contract had been reached. They would also say we have it easy since we work as rangers and make a lot of money, so we don't need to fish like they did.

Q: How soon after the reserve formed did you start to see results from the sanctuary?

A: After two or three years, I started to see a lot of sharks in the lagoons and my friends who went diving began to see more fish. There were just some researchers here in Misool who were shocked by the amount of fish who were in the protected areas. The results have just been amazing.

Q: How have the villages in the area adapted to the sanctuary?

A: In the beginning, there were a lot of problems with the villagers not understanding the rangers' mission. The most important thing we did to get people behind us was to use Adat, or traditional Papuan village law. This was done by developing a close relationship with the ancestral village head, as he holds the power of the village and so people will listen to what he says. If we didn't have the village head, then it would have been difficult to enforce the rules of the sanctuary.

Q: What's next for the rangers in the coming years?

A: We all hope the ranger patrol can continue forever and that we have the resources to keep recruiting young people from the villages to the patrol. We now have three ranger stations built and we hope to have three rangers in every station with small, fuel-efficient boats that can be used to spot illegal fishermen and intercept them until support can show up.

The other big problem we'd like to fix is communication. Radio communication in this region of Raja Ampat is difficult because all the radios we have now are line-of-sight and the islands interfere with signal within short distances. The plan is to build a main radio/repeater station that will cover the entire area so that there is clear contact throughout the sanctuary.

To donate to the Misool ranger patrols, click here.

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