Part one Sumatra
After a career as photographer and cameraman spanning 40 years, mostly in Indonesia, I am returning to places I have visited that now represent the last strongholds for Indonesia’s biodiversity.
I want to witness the changes that have taken place during all these years. My goal is to communicate with the local communities, to motivate them to start – and in many inspiring cases to continue – their struggle, preserve their environment, the natural world on which we all depend.
With the support from National Geographic Explorers Program Asia, I could purchase an electric ZERO motorbike, which carries its own message about the importance eco-sustainability. It also presents challenges due to limited range and the difficulty of recharging batteries in remote locations far off the national electrical grid.
I started in Medan, where I had first set foot on Indonesian soil in 1975. Medan is located in the northern region of the giant island of Sumatra. That area, which includes the province of Aceh, is where the last remaining populations of endangered Asian species such as rhinoceros, elephants, tigers, and orangutans find a precarious refuge.
My first stop was BukitLawang, a former orangutan rehabilitation station at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Orangutan have a special place in my heart because they were my first contact with wildlife in Indonesia. Forty years ago, the forest around Bukit Lawang was still pristine; dense stands of trees lined both sides of the river. Besides the young orangutan being cared for at the rehabilitation station, I could glimpse adult orangutans in the wild by walking only a short distance into the forest.
Now, the place has become a tourist destination. The forest on the station side of the river has disappeared, replaced by hotels, restaurants, and shops. Both the orangutan, and the forest itself, have become mass-tourism commodities.
One disturbing aspect is that the animals living near the station are now used to human presence. Some usually shy animals like the Argus pheasant can be approached from just a few meters. Orangutans wait for food from guides and visitors, as though in a zoo. This behavior is not good. In time, the animals will lose their survival instincts and become more vulnerable to predators and disease.
Aceh and heading South
After visiting the Gunung Leuser National Park from the North Sumatra side, I entered the park from the Aceh side, riding along the Alas Valley and reaching Ketambe, another famous orangutan location.
One purpose of this trip was to reconnect with people I had met and worked with during my long sojourn in Indonesia. In Ketambe I stayed at a guesthouse owned by Johan, the son of a former ranger whom I met decades ago. With Johan to introduce me as a friend of his father, I was able to interact with the residents, and talk freely about conservation. They had many distressing tales to tell of illegal logging along the Ketambe and Alas rivers, which have devastated large swathes of supposedly protected land inside the park.
I continued my trip south, passing the mountainous Toba Lake region, the forests of Batang Toru in South Tapanuli, and the Batang Gadis National Park until I reached Torgamba, a district named after one of the oldest oil-palm plantations in Sumatra.
Torgamba is where I filmed a Sumatran rhino rescue operation in the 1980s. At the time, the district still held large areas of healthy low-land forest, and was also a favorite venue for rhino poachers. But the area had been slated for conversion into plantations. A small percentage of the rhino population was captured. Some were sent to zoos in Europe, the USA, and other regions of Indonesia. Others entered a sanctuary in Lampung, Sumatra, established a short time previously. There, less than ten descendants of the rescued animals remain, and only one, a female named Ratu, is breeding.
Passing through the Torgamba district, I tried to recognize the places I knew, but everything had changed. No forest remained, just oil-palm plantations. New villages and settlements had emerged. I had planned to stop, to attempt to find some people who remembered the rhino project. But I felt it was just useless to speak about biodiversity because everything I cared about was gone. These people were living in a different world, an oil-palm plantation universe.
I entered the province of West Sumatra with its canyons and deep valleys, paddy fields, and a mixture of hill forest and plantations. This landscape had not changed much over the years. The Minang people are famous for cutting down forests in other regions of Sumatra but tend to preserve the forests of their homeland.
The heart of Sumatra
Riding through these forests, I enjoyed the key advantage of my silent electric motorcycle. Alone on the road, the only sound the slight drone of my tires on the pavement, I could hear the loud, repetitive hoots of the siamangs, typical for the forested regions of Sumatra.
But then I suffered from the key disadvantage of my electric bike. I would have loved to reach the Kerinci Seblat National Park, a crucial conservation area, which I had photographed and filmed on numerous occasions over the decades. But I could not be assured of opportunities to recharge along the 240 kilometers from Padang, so I had to abandon may plans. Instead, I continued south. I remembered my first journey through the region, traveling by bus between isolated settlements connected by a narrow, muddy road. On several occasions, all the male passengers had to help push the bus out of the mud in the middle of the night.
Now, most of the forests have disappeared and been replaced by plantations, primarily oil palm and rubber. I passed through many villages and towns each day. Around Lahat and Pagar Alam, the road was full of holes and congested with long convoys of big trucks loaded with coal. I would often swerve suddenly to miss large pieces of coal that had fallen from the trucks. It was not a pleasant experience.
Object of Curiosity
At least I was free of range anxiety. I covered 200 kilometers a day, and could charge the battery during nights at hotels or friends’ houses (installed wattage permitting) or at petrol stations during the day. In Sumatra, almost all petrol stations have a coffee shop or a small restaurant where I could have a meal and spend a few hours relaxing while the battery was charging. Very often the manager or staff would come, curious about a bike that did not need petrol. I soon became used to being an object of curiosity and was happy to talk about the bike and the purpose of my journey.
On several occasions, I pulled out my portable video projector and showed photographs or films about wildlife. People were always interested, but I realized how little they understood about the wildlife of their own country. They knew about the climate change and pollution because their region was wrapped in haze every dry season from burning forests and peat lands. But they were not aware of the other impacts of deforestation.
Way Kambas Elephant Sanctuary
After three days I arrived at the Way Kambas National Park, famous for an elephant training camp and the Sumatran Rhino sanctuary. The extensive forest is still the home of many endangered animals like elephants, Sumatran rhinos, tapir, and tigers.
As I traveled the fourteen-kilometer access road through the forest to the remote camp at Way Kanan, I had hoped to encounter some of the elusive wild residents of the park. My electric motorcycle was silent as always, but the incessant traffic of motorbikes, tourist buses, and patrol cars forestalled any attempt at wildlife spotting. I was saddened that the inhabitants of such an important wildlife sanctuary would be constantly disturbed by insensitive humans.
At the Way Kambas elephant training camp, I saw some of the animals that I filmed and photographed in the early days. The elephant management program started when the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) advised the Indonesian Forestry Ministry that problematic animals, those in conflict with local residents, should be captured and trained. Mahouts and trained elephants where brought in from Thailand to teach Indonesians how to capture and tame elephants.
Since then, hundreds of elephants have been captured and are now displayed in zoos and recreation parks. Sadly, many have died because of negligence. Others, the “lucky” ones, are used to carry tourists in the forest. I do not think this is what WWF had in mind when they started the project. Nevertheless, at least these elephants remain alive, unlike their wild brethren, who are routinely shot, snared, or poisoned. Fortunately, some wild populations remain in Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser and I hope they will continue to be protected.
During my visit to Way Kambas, I encountered Bapak Widodo Ramono, the head of the Indonesian Rhino Foundation (YABI). Together with his team and guests, they were working on a tree-replanting project in the park buffer zone. We had several discussions about my project and message, and shared views about conservation with villagers and park personnel.
That marked the end of my Sumatra adventure and I headed for the ferry at Bakahuni and crossed over to Java. During my weeks on the road, I learned that it would be much more difficult than I had assumed to spread my message of conservation and sustainability. In several communities, I was invited to talk about conservation, but my audiences of students and villagers were small, though appreciative.
Because of time and logistical limitations, I was never able to initiate events myself. In general, people had their own occupations and could not necessarily be available on short notice.
I will now continue my mission across Indonesia, with the help of the Iris Foundation starting in Java just after Ramadan and continuing on to Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, the Moluccas and Papua. If all goes well, I will return home through Flores and Lombok.
This time I would like to coordinate more closely with organizations active in biodiversity hot spots so they can help me to organize meetings with the local communities I visit. I also hope to be able to work more closely with the press so that my message about preservation of Indonesian biodiversity can be heard by a larger number of people. Of course, the support from government agencies is most welcome at any time.
I appeal to all my friends and supporters to help me facilitate dialog with local communities along my proposed routes. I want to motivate people to preserve their own natural heritage. We can talk about problems, but also propose solutions based on already successful projects and initiatives across the country and around the world.
The future of biodiversity in Indonesia is in the hands of the Indonesians themselves. I hope they can be inspired to believe that their local actions can be effective for a better quality of life and harmony with nature for the future generations.