How to save a life – protecting Sumatra’s endangered species
Head to Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park to explore the rainforest, spot wild orangutans and meet the locals
fighting to protect this threatened region
Imagine if your adventure of a lifetime could help to protect one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, home to critically endangered orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos. That’s the idea behind a tour run by Raw Wildlife Encounters in Gunung Leuser National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Amy Robbins, Auckland Zoo’s team leader of primates, has been leading trips in the threatened region for five years.
Last year Amy launched The Sumatran Ranger Project (formerly The Rangers of Tangkahan) to help protect the area. This community conservation initiative (which is part of an Indonesian NGO) was co-founded in its initial stages with primate management consultant Cassandra Rowe. The project was established to provide an income for community rangers who live and work in the buffer zone bordering the national park. “The rangers were part of a group of community rangers that patrolled the forest but didn’t get paid for it,” Amy says. “I saw a need to utilise their skills.”
The rangers monitor poaching activity, remove snares from the forest, respond to conflict between wildlife and people (such as when elephants wander into community gardens, searching for food) and collect data on wildlife sightings, tracks and orangutan nests. (Did you know that apes make a new bed for themselves every night?)
The rangers also educate forest-edge communities on the importance of protecting the wilderness area and try to encourage people to move from unsustainable, illegal employment such as logging and poaching to more sustainable activities such as eco-tourism.
Tangkahan, a former illegal logging settlement where the original rangers are from, is a model village for this transition. The locals worked in logging and poaching until they made a decision in 2001 to develop an eco-tourism programme and begin patrolling the forest. Raw, an award-winning eco-travel company founded by Australian Jess McKelson, has been helping to develop Tangkahan’s programmes and employing local guides for years.
Jess, a former zookeeper, is based in Indonesia and is the field coordinator for The Sumatran Ranger Project. Rangers’ salaries are funded through Raw trips in the area, as well as donations and grants from organisations such as the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund.
“I’m really passionate about Raw because I see the differences they’ve made. You don’t see that a lot with travel companies,” says Amy. “Raw does its work for the benefit of these communities, with the ultimate objective of keeping the environment safe.”Most Raw trips in Gunung Leuser last between three and 10 days, and take groups of up to 10 people on foot through the jungle, exploring caves and tubing down rivers. Guests are almost guaranteed to spot orangutans and other primates such as macaques, gibbons and monkeys. “I love seeing people’s faces when they see a wild orangutan for the first time,” Amy says. “It is just amazing. People cry.
The interaction with guides and villagers is another highlight. Most groups will visit three or four communities and guests often end up enjoying music or playing volleyball with locals. “Quite often I find that people go on a Raw adventure for the wildlife, but what really hooks and connects them is the people,” Amy says. “The people and wildlife are why I do this.”
The area Amy works in is part of the Leuser ecosystem which spans North Sumatra and Aceh, the two northernmost provinces in Sumatra. It’s the biggest wilderness area in Southeast Asia and one of the most ecologically important ecosystems in the world, due to its biodiversity and effect on the world’s climate.
It’s the only place in the world where Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos and elephants coexist in the wild. Millions of people live in and around the region and are often in conflict with wildlife and the environment.
Deforestation and poaching are the greatest threats to the area. Indonesia has the world’s highest rate of deforestation, which is drastically reducing wildlife habitats and exposing animals to poachers. Millions of acres of rainforest are burned annually to expand the logging and palm oil industries.“It’s really important people are aware of just how threatened the area is,” says Amy. “If the Leuser ecosystem goes, Sumatran orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants will be gone, and they’re already hanging on precariously.”
All four species are classified as critically endangered. There are approximately 14,600 orangutans, fewer than 1000 elephants, around 400 tigers and under 100 rhinos left in Sumatra. Almost all the remaining Sumatran orangutans live in the Leuser, most outside the protected areas of the national park.
Unfortunately, animals are being trapped in snares and illegally sold as pets or body parts on the black market. Snares are also set to catch food and deter animals from encroaching on villagers’ land and crops. “A herd of elephants can destroy an entire year’s income in a night,” Amy says. For this reason she is training a specialist conflict unit, which can be called when animals come into contact with people.
The Sumatran Ranger Project has already proved its worth. In just four patrols over less than a year, rangers removed 250 snares from the forest. A separate snare removal programme is now under way. The community of Batu Rongring has recently committed to eco-tourism and seen an 87 percent decrease in the number of snares in the area between patrols. “The communities can see that the economic benefits are far greater than if they were tracking animals,” Amy says. Eventually she wants to develop patrol teams in all of the areas which surround the national park
The Auckland Zoo, where Amy has worked for 17 years, is supportive of her work. “It’s really important that someone is maintaining a presence in Sumatra,” she explains. “Particularly with the ’rangs, they’re such a big ambassadorial species for Auckland Zoo.”
Amy’s husband also works in the zoo’s primate team. At some point the pair hope to relocate temporarily to Sumatra with their family to further develop the programme. Currently Amy visits the island three to five times a year. It’s an extension of her day job, she says. “For a lot of zookeepers, field work is our ultimate goal. We’re in this zoo game to spread awareness and protect wildlife and their environment.”
How can I help?
- Book a Raw Wildlife Encounter in the Gunung Leuser National Park at rawwildlife.com.au. A significant portion of the cost goes towards The Sumatran Ranger Project.
- Donate to The Sumatran Ranger Project at gofundme.com/sumatranrangers and gofundme.com/snareremoval. Read more at therangersoftangkahan.com.
- Purchase only palm oil-free products or those made from sustainably grown palm oil. Palm oil is in around half of all packaged supermarket products, including toiletries and snack foods.
- Join the campaign for mandatory labelling of palm oil and download Auckland Zoo’s guide to labelling at aucklandzoo.co.nz/palmoil. There are over 200 different names used in New Zealand to identify palm oil, including vegetable oil, sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, palm kernel oil and anything containing the words ‘palmitate’ or ‘palmate’.
- Order My Food Bag, which uses only palm oil-free products or those made from sustainable palm oil. Go to myfoodbag.co.nz.
- Share the #lovetheleuser message to help spread awareness about the threatened Leuser ecosystem. Read more at lovetheleuser.org.