Sumatra 2016: Human / wildlife conflict research trip

20th August 2016
The first part of the trip was based at the Ketambe Forest research centre, located in Aceh province. The forest here is part of the network of forests that makes up the Gunung Leuser national park. The Ketambe research centre was built by Dr. Herman D. Rikjsen, a Dutch researcher, in 1971 and was the first Orangutan research station in the world (HAkA 2016).
Since its inception the station has provided the ideal location for many scientific studies carried out by numerous well known Orangutan field researchers, in collaboration with various institutions and universities, such as LEAP and Bournemouth university. Due to the long term nature of the station it has been possible to undertake studies that are vital to understanding adaptive strategies, life history variables and social behaviour of animal populations. The work carried out here has provided both the public and the scientific community with a wealth of knowledge in these important areas (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme 2016).

The group spent a total of 4 days at Ketambe, one half of the group staying within the research station for two days and the other half staying across the nearby river at a guesthouse, before swapping over. Ketambe was our first introduction to the rainforest and much of our time was spent on extended treks through the forest where we were lucky enough to experience a multitude of flora and fauna including many old growth trees, insects, birds and primates, as well as stunning forest landscape features such as rivers and waterfalls.



Both groups were lucky enough to see the wild Orangutans here at Ketambe, a mother and a young infant. The Orangutans here at Ketambe, although habituated to humans, display much more natural behaviours when compared to other sites, therefore we all felt extremely privileged to have found them under the expert guidance of station manager Arwin.

Here at Ketambe we also learned field skills such as the fundamentals of the audio array method (spatial explicit capture-recapture) for assessing primate population density. This involved a 4am start and trekking into the forest, where we set up 3 different listening stations from which to record the morning calls of Orangutans, Siamangs, Gibbons and Thomas leaf monkeys, taking note of the time, species, bearing and approximate distance, so that we could triangulate primate group positions later back at camp. We also learned some other techniques for monitoring bio diversity such as butterfly trapping and handling under the instruction of Mres student and LEAP team member Emma Hankinson. Whilst staying at the guest house on the other side of the river, my group were able to complete the first questionnaire. This gave us a good trial run for later when we would deploy the questionnaires in earnest. We were able to obtain some valuable feedback and adjust some of our questions accordingly.



After a pit stop back at Medan our next destination was at Serbajadi Aceh Timur to meet with Tezar Pahlevie and the elephant handlers of the Aceh CRU (Conservation Response Unit). Here we learned how this dedicated team use low tech methods such as fireworks or planting citrus crops to try to dissuade elephants away from people and crop plantations. We also learned how as a last resort the CRU uses trained elephants (taken from the wild as ‘problem’ elephants that would have most likely come to harm from farmers trying to protect their crops) to fight and effectively scare off wild herds. We were also privileged enough to be able to engage with the elephants by helping to wash and feed these magnificent creatures, becoming acutely aware of how truly powerful they are.



The next day we were invited to Leuser Conservation Forum offices, where Rudi Putra and Tezar Pahlevie gave us a presentation about the excellent work being carried out in Aceh and beyond. The presentation stressed the importance of and many reasons for protecting the rain forest, as well as highlighting specific strategies and projects carried out here. We learned about the many success stories as well as bringing to light the numerous problems and issues that hinder the teams progress here. The biggest recurring theme being a severe shortage of and often misappropriation of funds from the government. In a developing nation that is struggling to house, water, provide healthcare and educate its citizens, habitat and wildlife conservation are somewhat understandably not top of the government’s priority list. It became clear that the issues faced here and throughout Indonesia are both daunting and multifaceted and are not going to be resolved easily.

In the afternoon we travelled to a nearby palm plantation, built on land that was previously forested and part of the Sumatran Elephants range, to witness the destruction a herd of elephants can cause with our own eyes.

Here we were able to talk to the plantation manager who explained that there were currently a herd of around 40 elephants in the plantation, the elephants pull down the palm trees to get to the fresh green leaves which they regard as a tasty and easily accessible food source. He estimated that this particular herd were destroying around 10 trees a day, a sizeable chunk of the plantations profits that not only he, but 137 workers along with their families rely upon. As well as this destruction of crops the elephants had also caused extensive damage to buildings within the plantation, due to them being in the path of historical migratory paths. The manager explained how the elephants in this area no longer respond to fireworks, as they have learned that nothing comes from it and are therefore not scared off. He stressed that he does not want any elephants to get hurt, but that he would very much like someone to come up with a viable solution to this desperate problem.

Although it was initially very easy for us, with all the modern comforts and luxuries of the western world, to cry ‘‘this plantation is built on the elephant’s home and that it is humans that need to work around the natural inhabitants, not the other way around’’, this visit enabled us to see how this kind of thinking is just not always practicable in the real world and rather requires much lateral thinking and action to mitigate human / wildlife conflict effectively.

Our next destination was Bukit Lawang. On route we had the opportunity to visit the house of Wanda, one of our guides for this portion of the trip and gain a small insight into normal Indonesian life, as well as hear Wanda’s perspective on the problems that face modern Indonesia. We said our farewells before leaving to reach our accommodation for the evening at the Eco Lodge.



In partnership with the SOCP (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme) the eco lodge’s aim is to promote sustainable and eco-friendly tourism and therefore an ideal base for the next few days’ activities. Here at Bukit Lawang we would have our second venture into the rainforest. Accompanied by several experienced guides we made a start on what would be a 2-day trek, spending the night camped within the forest. It soon became apparent that the primates here were much more accustomed to humans then at Ketambe, with curious or hungry macaques often coming within feet of our group. It didn’t take long before we found our first orangutans, who also seemed unperturbed by our presence. Emma explained to us that, until recently there had been a feeding platform, where the guides would feed the orangutans in a controlled manner so that tourists would be able to get their photos, without there being pressure to see them later on the trail.

The feeding platform has now been removed, which has led to an increase in guides feeding orangutans on the forest trails in an effort to keep tourists happy thus making as much money as possible. This in turn has led to an increase in occurrences of violent behaviour from some orangutan individuals who have come to expect food on demand. It wasn’t long before we came upon one such an individual, in fact the worst offender, Mina, a fully grown female with an infant. Mina was a rescued and rehabilitated before being released in this area. Mina bears both deep physical and psychological scars from years of abuse at the hands of humans. She approached our group aggressively and had to be dissuaded by 4 or 5 of our guides beating the bushes with sticks and shouting loudly. Eventually nothing would stop her and the guides had to give her some fruit for fear of someone getting injured.



Bearing in mind Emma’s story about the feeding platform, this raised a difficult dilemma about what would be the best way to deal with this kind of behaviour; could a feeding platform actually be beneficial, the lesser of two evils perhaps, this would prove to be a recurring theme. Our second day in the forest was again spent trekking. We did not see much of note, however we did end the trek at a spectacular waterfall, before rafting our way down the river back to the Eco lodge.



The next day we ventured into the village to carry out our sustainable tourism questionnaires around the various guesthouses, restaurants and bars. Unfortunately, it was rather quiet and we didn’t manage to complete as many as we had hoped.

That evening we gathered to discuss our findings and thoughts from our stay at Bukit Lawang. The overwhelming consensus from both the questionnaires and our own observation was that there could be a lot more done to educate tourists on what is suitable behaviour within the rainforest and towards the animals there. This could take many forms, such as posters, beermats, key rings, information videos etc. It was generally thought that although it would be good to educate guides as much as possible, they most likely already know what the best practices are and are simply doing their best to make money for their family. Therefore targeting tourists would be more effective.


Our final destination was Tangkahan. Our time here was largely spent reflecting on the trip as a whole. Myself and a few others went into the town to play football with the locals, at a place our lodge manager Alex jokingly described as ‘Estadio Palm Oil, a football pitch in the middle of a palm plantation. It was good to immerse ourselves with the local people, who were all extremely friendly and welcomed us to their match. Whilst at Tangkahan we got to see another CRU centre where they use tamed elephants to ward away wild herds. In contrast to the site in Aceh this CRU uses tourism to raise funds. As such it was a little sad to see the elephants performing for us and other tourists during their wash time, however the funds from these activities also go towards supporting the local community and the CRU itself is helping to save the lives of wild elephants.



My time in Sumatra was both awe inspiring and inescapably depressing. The rainforest here is a magnificent hotspot of diversity and the only place on earth where Rhino, elephants and tigers can all be found cohabiting in the same ecosystem, not to mention the orangutans and wealth of other primates and wildlife. It is at once stunningly beautiful, unfathomably immense, yet extremely fragile and threatened. It sits in unavoidably stark contrast to the vast, homogeneous plantations of palm oil, that seemingly stretch into infinity, threatening to swallow this precious and irreplaceable ecosystem.

The problems faced by Indonesia are numerous and complex and as such it is extremely difficult to offer conclusive or satisfactory solutions. It is easy to make ‘knee jerk’ comments such as ‘we must ban palm oil’ but such ideas are not realistic and fail to take into account important social, economic and political factors.

Although much aid is given to try to alleviate deforestation and associated issues in Indonesia, much of this comes from NGO’s. These funds often do not always end up in the hands of organisations that need them most, to support operations such as the CRU’s, or even to help communities affected by deforestation and related issues. The government of Indonesia needs to be held to account for this, but at the same time provided with the necessary help and expertise to support a move away from damaging and unsustainable practices. I believe its time governments of wealthier nations and their populations, stopped regarding this as an Indonesian problem, but as a global issue. It is important to realise that we are complicit in these problems by our actions, not only when we cause damage to these places as tourists, but each and every day when doing our daily shopping at the supermarket. These issues must be faced head on by all nations as a united front if we are to preserve this and other precious resources for the future.