Written by Dr. Robert Johnson, Chief Operating Officer, International Operations, Rare Species Fund
I have spent more than a decade helping conduct in situ conservation projects for the Rare Species Fund (RSF) across the world. Collectively, I’ve spent more than a year in the field in both Africa and Asia, delivering equipment and collaborating with grass-roots conservation groups in biological hotspots, to help protect some of the world’s most recognizable endangered species and the environments they inhabit. While I am proud of the work being done by all our conservation partners, I was in awe with the sheer scale, effectiveness and dedication I witnessed during a recent trip to the Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra.
Leuser is a system of forests situated on the northern side of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Approximately 9 million hectares in size, this forest is the only place in the world that is home to tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants. This territory is also shared by sun bears and endangered lesser cat species, as well as numerous monkeys, birds, butterflies and plants that can be found nowhere else in the world. Leuser was designated as a national forest by the Indonesian government. Similar to protected lands in the United States, National Parks are monitored and patrolled by government employed rangers, but National Forests, while “officially” protected, are, on a daily basis, left largely unmonitored by government officials. The same is true for Leuser. The massive expanses of forest are “by law” protected from hunting and timber cutting, but enforcement is typically lacking. As in the U.S., this is primarily a result of too few government rangers to patrol such vast expanses of forests. They must concentrate their efforts in smaller areas, typically the national parks.
In Sumatra, this gap in wildlife protection is being addressed by the Forum Konservasi Leuser (FKL). The organization’s founder, Rudi Putra, has taken on the responsibility of protecting the endangered wildlife of this vast area. Rudi is not just an active participant, he is the driving force behind FKL and its mission. Winner of the Goldman Conservation Award, Rudi Putra is internationally recognized for his conservation efforts in the Leuser Ecosystem.
My first personal contact with Rudi happened on Sumatra. The Rare Species Fund paid for the rebuilding of the Soraya Research Station, an essential outpost in conserving the southern Leuser forests. Having invested substantial funding in this project, RSF decided that I should travel as their representative to inspect the work that we have financed and to get a better idea of how the Rare Species Fund could continue supporting FKL and their mission.
I was met in Medan (Sumatra’s largest city) by Rudi. Traveling to Soraya Station would not be an easy journey. Driving to the Medan Airport, we boarded a Cessna Caravan for a flight to the remote city of Tapak Tuan. I learned that while the aircraft only held 12 passengers, the flight still only took place two times per week, and sometimes, not even then. Upon arrival in Tapak Tuan, we were met by other members of the FKL team. After going through the greetings and salutations customary in the Aceh culture, we climbed into a small SUV and headed south for several hours, along the Indian Ocean, to a small village situated on the southern bank of the Alas River.
As the small village would be the last contact with the outside world for a week, we did a small amount of shopping. I knew things were going to be different when we walked into a small hardware store and Rudi asked me to try on a pair of rubber soccer cleat style shoes. As an average size American male, I have a shoe size of 9.5. By Indonesian standards, my feet are very large. A half size smaller was the largest shoe the small store carried. Luckily, without socks, the shoes were snug, but not uncomfortable. With the purchase of a new pair of shoes under my arm, we headed back to the vehicle and began unloading gear along the riverside. Rudi suggested that I change into the rubber shoes and leave the shoes I’d arrived in with the vehicle. I’d get them back in a week.
Our group of eight walked down the riverside where two small handmade wooden boats awaited us. The current in the river was ripping past as we climbed down the embankment and precariously walked over a small wooden plank and situated the gear and ourselves on the floor of the 20 foot long, 3.5 foot wide vessel. Leaning too far in either direction would undoubtedly result in a wet day for everyone involved, so I balanced myself in the exact center as best I could, and we pushed away from the landing. The boat engine looked like a small pull-start generator sitting on the floor of the boat. Connected to the aft side of the engine was a drive-shaft which ran backwards through a hole in the floor and was mounted with a small two-bladed propeller. While I appreciate the ingenuity of working with materials at hand, the boat, particularly the drive-shaft hole, were far from waterproof. Bailing water from the boat with an empty plastic jug was a regular ritual.
We traveled up the river for almost two hours. The long, slender boat glided smoothly over the swift moving waters of the Alas River. The pilot navigated the quick, tippy vessel from one side of the river to the next, circling around small islands, under low hanging trees, and avoiding the worst of the turbulent currents.
The first thing that struck me about the riverine environment was the constant amount of human development along the river’s edge. As we moved further away from the village and deeper into the Leuser Forest, the mountains grew steeper and the vegetation thicker. Still, mile after mile, the river banks were lined with small farms. Where there had once been prime wildlife habitat, there were now row after row, hill after hill, of palm oil trees.
Many miles up the river and deep into the forest, we came to a section of the river with a small tributary running into the main channel. The river was turbulent, and the water rolled tumultuously at the confluence of these two quick moving bodies of water. The boat was steered into the small creek which appeared almost swallowed by the jungle. We ducked under fallen trees as the boat chugged deeper into the forest. About two hundred yards in, the boat wedged itself against a tree on the left bank, the unofficial landing site of Soraya Station. The forwardmost passenger jumped out and tied the boat to a root. We delicately balanced ourselves as we walked the length of the boat, as to not tip over, and jumped onto the bank. Stepping off and plopping squishily onto the muddy bank, the purpose of the rubber shoes was immediately evident. Any normal pair of “street” shoes would never look the same after one day in this forest.
The large duffel bags of conservation gear I brought for the rangers, as well as supplies for the station, were offloaded onto the low lying swampy bank. They were carried along a foot path, up the side of a precariously steep and slippery mountain path towards the top of the jungle covered plateau. We stopped along the way several times for a break. About half way up the climb, a series of ropes were strung from tree to tree to aid in climbing and help prevent slipping on the wet, muddy rocks. It occurred to me that if such a precaution was erected for these hardcore Sumatran rangers to use, it must REALLY be necessary.
Reaching the top of the climb and making our way through the primeval forest, we crossed a quick moving mountain stream (again, the necessity of the rubber shoes was clear), to find the Soraya Research Station standing in a small clearing on the opposite bank. My first impression upon seeing the building, after marveling at such a structure in this remote location, was to wonder how much work it must have been just to transport the construction materials to this point.
The Soraya Research Station could be considered fairly comfortable even by western standards. Along with a large central room, there are three private bedrooms, a very spacious kitchen, two bathrooms (with western and eastern toilets), a covered back porch and a covered and elevated front porch. Each restroom has a single water spigot to fill a large bucket. Like most Indonesian lavatories, the toilets are flushed by ladling water from the bucket into the bowl. Even this might be considered “basic” by most readers, the fact that a building such as this, in such a remote location, has any form of running water is remarkable. I have been told by a number of rangers and international researchers during my time in Sumatra that the Soraya Research Station is larger, cleaner and provides more comforts than perhaps any other research station on the island, a point that I feel the Rare Species Fund should be proud of.
The station itself is perched on the top of the plateau, surrounded by jungle. About fifty yards in front of the building is the stream we had to cross to reach the station. Immediately downstream, the water flows over a spectacular 100’ tall waterfall, and then eventually to the boat landing site and on to the main channel of the river. Several hundred yards behind the station is another stream and another spectacular 100’ waterfall. The sounds of cicadas, forest creatures and two waterfalls in very close proximity made for a very soothing and calming environment. Drifting off to sleep was never a problem while staying at Soraya.
Upon arrival at the building, I met additional FKL rangers and researchers. I also learned a bit more about the station’s tumultuous history. Apparently, the original Soraya Research Station, which was located exactly where the new station is built, was an outpost for rangers and researchers alike. In 1976, a civil war broke out in the Aceh region of Sumatra. A group of locals believed that their cultural and religious interests were not being represented or acknowledged by the Indonesian government. Due to a large number of ideological and theological differences, the group wanted to succeed from Indonesia and become their own country. This was not looked at favorably by Indonesian government officials in the country’s capitol of Jakarta, on the neighboring island Java. A small scale civil war broke out, which would plague the Aceh region for nearly 3 decades.
During the fighting, in 2001, the Soraya station was burned to the ground. The only remaining bits of the structure were the concrete supports. It is still not clear which side was responsible for destroying the building, but it is clear that the rangers and researchers no longer had an outpost in the region. A treaty between the two warring sides was reached in 2005. Nevertheless, fifteen years passed without a regular presence of wildlife rangers or researchers in southern Leuser, because they had no permanent camp to work from. Lack of official presence in the forest led to a massive increase of poaching, illegal logging and the encroachment of palm oil farms into the forest.
In 2016, the Rare Species Fund began its collaboration with FKL in helping to reestablish the Soraya Research Station. Since that time, funding has allowed the station to be built bigger and better than it originally had been. The regular presence of rangers on patrol has since reduced the amount of poaching by 90%. Snare after snare has been removed and destroyed by the team. Rudi explained that FKL currently has 23 teams of “Wildlife Protection” rangers. Each team consists of 5 people, 4 rangers from FKL, and one from the Indonesian Forest Ministry. The government ranger reports back to the ministry about the activities and successes of FKL and, since FKL members are private individuals, the Forest Ministry ranger must be present for the arrest of any poacher.
Meeting and interacting with the rangers during my week in Leuser gave me a greater appreciation of the dedication these individuals have for saving wildlife. Even more, an appreciation that at least some local individuals are taking the protection of their own native wildlife and ecosystem so seriously. I expressed my sincere appreciation of their efforts, not only on behalf of the Rare Species Fund, but on behalf of the world at large. The individual animals they are protecting are some of the last of their species. While most of us sit at home, wishing there was some way we could directly save wild tigers and rhinos, these rangers are out there every single day doing the job for us. Finding grass-roots projects in which locals are so keen to make an environmental difference is what we are looking for. These are the reasons that prompt the RSF to extend a helping hand and provide the finances and resources to help these people complete their very important goals.
After the destruction of the original Soraya Station, the number of international researchers studying the area declined drastically. The rebuilding of the station offered promise of new research to be conducted in Soraya. The research will contribute to our understanding of wildlife and the environment, hopefully leading us to better methods of protecting them. During my visit, I met Professor Justin Agostino from Southern Illinois University. Justin is a primatologist and, while I was there, became the first foreign researcher to obtain a permit to study in the new Soraya Research Station. Spending several days with Justin, I was happy to hear his remarks about the new station. The access to the forest and the amenities provided by the new station surpassed his experience of other research stations in Sumatra. Justin expressed his admiration for the effort the Rare Species Fund had taken to rebuild the station, giving researchers like him a place to study apes in their natural environment. Justin’s research on wild siamang populations will likely give us a better understanding of how human activities affect wild ape behavior.
After a tour of the new station and introductions had been made, I was invited to join Rudi and the rangers for a walk through the forest. One of the first activities the rangers had undertaken was the reestablishment of a trail system to access the forest around the station. Currently there are more than 10 km of trails. The creation of a trail system means easier access to various parts of the forest. Without them, every ranger or researcher entering the forest would need to blaze their own trail. It has minimized the need for unnecessarily cutting vegetation and minimizing the human impact on the environment.
The several-hour walk gave me an opportunity to experience firsthand the type of environment that is home to so many amazing animals under such immediate threat. Hearing the sounds of an unspoiled jungle, watching hornbills fly along the forest canopy of a distant mountain and finding constant evidence of the presence of orangutans really gave me insight into how really special the Leuser ecosystem is. The team showed me different plants and fruits and explained how they are important to different animal species in the forest. We found feathers of exotic birds and numerous orangutan nests as we explored both the highlands and swamps. Because of the constant presence of rangers in the area, since the rebuilding of the station, I am happy to say that we found no signs of illegal human activity, something that was unfortunately not the case when we later conducted a more extended patrol upriver.
As magical as it is to be in a forest such as Leuser, not all of the creatures are a delight to encounter. I discovered that leeches in Indonesia live in the forests. Most of us envision water as the place to avoid leeches. On Sumatra, the leeches are ground dwelling. They look like inchworms and crawl along the ground and low hanging branches with a form of locomotion called “looping”. The leeches have five pairs of eyes, a sucker on both ends of their bodies and three jaws with which to attach themselves to their host. Perhaps most disconcerting is that they sense their environment by waving their heads around and actively pursue you. While most attached leeches I found were around my ankles, I also found one under my shirt and one on the back of my neck. The first hike in the forest alone yielded 17 leeches attached to me. While most of us might find this a bit “creepy”, it is an inconvenience that you must face in order to visit such an environment.
At a particularly scenic overlook, we paused for a break. We watched birds flying in the distance and listened to the absolute symphony of forests sounds which makes up the constant auditory background of any visit to an Indonesian Jungle. Rudi reflected on the state of the forest. “Hornbills,” a large billed, heavy bodied bird of Africa and Asia, “are disappearing,” he told me. Apparently, a recent trend in using the beaks of these birds for Chinese folk medicine has escalated the rate at which they are being poached.
Rudi told me of his memories as a child, going to the river where the water was clean, and he could easily catch and bring back large fish for his family. Since the conversion of so much forest land to palm oil agriculture, the fragile layers of top soil have been eroding into the river. This has destabilized the banks of many rivers, diverted the natural flow of water and has resulted in never-before-seen catastrophic flooding, which has claimed the lives of many people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. The fish too have disappeared. Instead of plentiful large fish in the river, the fish are small and scarce. The amount of plastic trash in the river was shocking to me. As the current sweeps by, refuse collects in the riverside plants. It was not uncommon to find a tree branch drooping in the water with literally hundreds of pieces of trash stuck to it. Rudi explained that the city of Blangkejeren was far upstream. Residents dumping their waste into the river is common practice and no one stops to consider where the debris ends up or what long term effects it may have. To have the last wild home of Sumatran tigers and rhinos so disregarded by local people was very disheartening. Knowing that Rudi and the FKL team are actively working to protect the area greatly takes away from the sting of disappointment in humanity. As the sky dimmed, we walked back through the forest in relative silence.
Back at camp and “de-leech-ified”, we started to settle in for the night. A small outbuilding used for drying clothes also housed a small electric generator. The machine was switched on for two hours in the evening. This provides light and electricity for the station and allows inhabitants to recharge gear needed for the next day’s work. Under the glow of electric lights, the team assembled inside building to examine the two large military duffel bags of gear I had brought for them.
At this point, I think it’s worthy of noting the complexities involved with transporting a couple hundred pounds of excess luggage across the world. First, the equipment delivered to Soraya traveled on five different flights, from Myrtle Beach to New York, to Johannesburg, to Dubai, to Jakarta, to Sumatra. Having so many large and unusual bags (one containing a chainsaw), the additional security screening is time consuming and often requires visual inspection and repacking. In Dubai, I was detained because I was carrying quite a few sets of binoculars. Upon scanning, security agents saw the large cylindrical tubes with lenses and thought that I might be transporting rifle scopes, which is prohibited in many countries. They eventually let me go.
Excess luggage means extra money. This is largely dependent on the airline you are flying and how generous the airline agent is feeling at the time. I paid anywhere from $50 – $250 for each excess bag per flight. Just maneuvering such a large accompaniment of baggage through busy airports is a challenge. Elevators, stairs and even standing in line poses a challenge.
Arriving in Jakarta, my port of entry for Indonesia, I had to clear customs. Typically, a person is required to pay an import tax on goods brought into the country in excess of $250. Having thousands of dollars of goods with me, the potential import duty would be substantial. Luckily, Rudi requested that the Forest Ministry write a letter on my behalf, explaining how the goods were to be used and how they would be directly benefiting the wildlife of the country. After reviewing my documents and x-raying my bags, I was granted official entrance into the country of Indonesia.
My flight from Jakarta to Medan, Sumatra proved to be more of the same, trying to negotiate excess luggage fees without needing to pay for an extra seat (which I sometimes have to do). Arriving in Medan, I met with Rudi at the airport, at which point, the bags were put on an overnight truck which would meet us in Tapak Tuan, on the other side of the island, the following day. From there, the gear followed me on the same half day SUV and boat rides to Soraya Station. While the cost and hassle involved to transport equipment may seem excessive, the reality of sending the bags ahead with DHL or the like tends to be even more expensive and problematic. The likelihood that the gear would arrive to the destination on time (not be delayed in transit or be held up in customs for months), and not have been rifled through, is unfortunately very low. The process is questionable and expensive at best. Purchasing the equipment in country is also very complicated. Even if we provided money directly to the rangers, their immediate access to quality goods pales in comparison to what we can order overnight from Amazon.com a single click of a smart phone. Carrying the equipment across the world, while tedious, still seems the best way to go.
(. . . . And now back to unpacking the gear at Soraya Station. . . .)
Just after dark, the FKL team had assembled inside Soraya Station, the generator quietly humming outside. Unzipping the bags, we dug through and pulled out a large amount of carefully chosen and packed gear. Among the list of equipment were Columbia raincoats and pants, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, wrist watches, binoculars, compasses, a GPS unit, lighted hats, pocket knives, canteens, cameras, military backpacks, camera traps, memory cards, batteries, a DJI drone and, yes, even a chainsaw. Most of the equipment would allow the rangers to conduct their work much more comfortably and effectively. Items like the rain gear and hats would keep them dry in an environment that rainstorms for frequent and persistent. Canteens allow rangers to carry extra water. Wristwatches (which many rangers don’t have) allow team members to coordinate movements through the forest. Cameras allow them to document events in the forest. Compasses and GPS aid in navigation. The drone (which I taught 5 team members to fly) would be used to monitor the forest from above to detect deforestation and take photos and video which can be compared over time. The camera traps (our delivery doubled the total number of camera traps the organization has) can be placed in key locations in the forest to monitor both wildlife and illegal activities. The chainsaw, an item Rudi requested, would be used in the downing of palm oil trees in areas that would be converted back to jungle habitat. All in all, the delivery of equipment was well received, and the rangers were very grateful for the support. Not only will this equipment provide many years of use to these dedicated individuals, the fact that an organization like the Rare Species Fund knows of their efforts, and would be willing to go to such lengths to provide them with necessary equipment, is an absolute boost in morale amongst the rangers.
After a long first day in Soraya, a group of us sat on the front porch, drinking Sumatran coffee and eating local fruits. Talking and discussing the part that Soraya Research Station is playing in the conservation of endangered wildlife, I started comprehending what a world class group of people I was surrounded by.
I have already mentioned Justin Agostino and his research efforts.
I learned that Ibrahim, one of the older men amongst the ranks at Soraya, has spent 31 years working in the forest. A botanist by training, Ibrahim is known as “the Professor” and guides many international researchers through the forest to study the flora and fauna. Ibrahim was guiding Dr. Carel van Schaik, a renowned Dutch anthropologist, during his historic first discovery of orangutans using tools. Ibrahim’s knowledge of the forest is unparalleled. His understanding of the trees and vines and flowers of the area is a virtual compendium. The man is a walking library of knowledge. He is currently teaching his son, and others, this information so it does not get lost to the passage of time.
One of the head patrol rangers, sitting at the table with me, is a man nicknamed “Turbo”, because of the speed at which he can travel through the forest. Turbo was a general in the Aceh liberation army and fought to separate Aceh from the rest of Indonesia. He spent seven years hiding and fighting a guerilla war in the jungle. The skills he has developed to track and survive in the jungle has made Turbo the perfect candidate for anti-poaching patrols and looking for signs of human encroachment. Turbo admits he is happy that the insurrection is over, and a treaty has been signed. Not being able to return to civilization for seven years, while fighting a war, was not his idea of fun. Nonetheless, much of his time today is spent in the forests, protecting the animals and environment which he feels hid and protected him for so many years as a rebel.
We also must not forget Mr. Rudi Putra, the driving force behind FKL. Rudi is a man of few words and his visage appears more austere and introspective than most of the team. Perhaps this is because of his responsibility to the staff he employs in the name of wildlife conservation. Funding for the project is never a sure thing. Perhaps it is because the severity of the looming potential environmental disaster for Leuser is falling squarely on his shoulders.
Rudi does not laugh as much as most other FKL members, but his laughs are genuine and heartfelt. His goal to succeed in protecting his local environment is relentless. Rudi has taken a small community project and has nurtured and grown FKL to include approximately 200 employees. Perhaps the reason Rudi takes the mission so seriously is that he believes that Leuser “is the last hope for Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans.” Having visited much of northern Sumatra, I’m inclined to agree with him. Experiencing firsthand the scope and effectiveness of the work FKL is doing, I must say that I both respect and admire Rudi Putra and his team. Their dedication to saving the vanishing species of Sumatra is monumental and something that the Rare Species Fund is proud to be actively helping make happen.
Before I know it, it is time to retire for the night. As the generator is switched off and the lights dim, I climb under my mosquito net and mull over the experiences of the day. It is not long before my thoughts become infused with the sounds of waterfalls and cicadas and I drift off to sleep, mentally and physically recharging for another day in Leuser.
— Robert Johnson is a Ph.D. animal behaviorist, conducting research in improving zoo husbandry techniques based on species-specific behavior. Serving as adjunct professor at Coastal Carolina University, Robert teaches upper level biology courses about apex predators, including tigers, bears, and sharks. Robert has also been a long-time team member of the Rare Species Fund. Joining the organization in 1994, Robert has led the international operations as COO for the group for the past decade.