To work in conservation but never to visit field projects is a shame, but when the opportunity arose thanks to our grant from Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation, I was keen get out to Indonesia to see what I’ve been working on the last seven years of my life.
Despite never having been in the field, 21st Century Tiger’s links with the NGOs in Sumatra have always been close and the collaborations have meant that this field trip felt like I was going to visit old friends!
My plan was to first visit the FFI/ National Park project in Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP) to meet some of the teams who patrol the forest and use intelligence gathering to catch poachers and uncover the crime networks behind tiger poaching.
From Kerinci, I would travel to Jambi to meet some of the ZSL team working in the Berbak National Park. Here is the first of two of my Sumatran blogs.
Part 1 Kerinci
Sumatra is a large island – easily double the size of Great Britain. Traveling from Padang to Sungai Penuh which didn’t seem very far (only 207km) took 10 hours. We took the West Coast Highway – sounds like somewhere in the US but it was in fact a single lane road cutting through small village after village. Hence the fact that no one talks about distances in miles or kilometres, but in how long it takes to get there! In parts the road was unmade, in other parts it was just broken a result of both the rainy season weather and a lack of investment. Not only did the bumpy surface make it slow going, but so did the cows and goats… and sheep … and chickens… and dogs that made the road edges their homes. They didn’t seem to mind the constant beeping of traffic as they strolled at leisure across the road.
I soon got used to the sound of the car horn – it said,
“I’m coming up behind you!”
“I’m here – beware!”
“I’m in the middle of the road so move over!”
“I’m over-taking so you’d better not be coming around that blind corner!”
The last couple of hours we crawled up a steep, windy and unmade road in pitch dark, often getting stuck behind large trucks into the Kerinci National Park. As we climbed over we started to descend into the Kerinci valley, a widely populated area that cuts a swathe through the park ending at the beautiful Lake Kerinci.
Plans were made for me to accompany one of the Kerinci tiger patrols into the forest near Maura Emat. They were patrolling in an area where, in the run up to Ramadan, there might be an increase in poaching. During this time the teams compete in the “great Kerinci snare sweep” when the team who finds the most snares win a bonus.
We stayed one night at the guard post, and left the next morning for the drive to the drop off point.
We crossed the Batang Merangin river using a raft made from bamboo poles strapped together that was hauled across the fast moving current. The Tiger Conservation and Protection Unit (TCPU) were Pak Muslim (team leader), Harry, Dion, Ricky and me! The guys carried heavy packs with all that we would require for two days in the forest. I just had a change of clothes and my sleeping bag and that felt heavy enough!
It was hot. The temperature was in the mid-30s and the humidity was high. It didn’t take two seconds for me to be drenched with sweat. At first the going was relatively easy and I relaxed – the men discovered a bird poacher’s camp and pushed it over into the undergrowth.
The trees around were amazing – it’s funny how little time we spend these days in a mixed forest, but the variety in colour, size and leave shape was astounding.
The going soon got tough as we hit a stream bed strewn with boulders. The height of the river was low, so we spent a couple of hours travelling upstream, hoping to rock to rock and crossing from side to side. It had been explained to me that Sumatra has two seasons – the wet season and the not so wet season! In the wet season this would have become a swollen river and much more dangerous to cross.
Despite quickly learning that the green rocks were the slippery ones, it didn’t take too long for my feet to be soaked as I slipped ankle deep into the water!
The fitness and the skills of the TCPU were astounding. They moved easily through the forest, all the while watching for signs of human incursion or animal tracks. They worked so seamlessly as a team. When we saw our first tiger tracks it was surreal! The reality that a wild Sumatran tiger had walked that way a few days ago was amazing! When we saw a second set of much more recent it was surreal!
As I had been unwell the previous couple of days from traveller’s tummy, we camped down at the river’s edge for the night. There had been some discussion about climbing to the top of the ridge, but as there had been little sign of recent human disturbance it was decided against. (Perhaps it was it because they thought I wasn’t fit enough!?)
That night we slept in a camp constructed by the team from branches, and covered with tarpaulins. We ate rice cooked over the open fire accompanied by local fish, and fried chicken, with plenty of local coffee, drank hot and sweet.
As the darkness descended, the noise of the forest increased. During the day, other than the odd bird, the forest was eerily quiet. I had been warned about the night noise but it was quite a shock as the decibels from the bugs and birds escalated.
Thunder in the night, predicted a change in the weather and the next day we just managed to get back out of the forest just before the rains began! No snares were found on our trip.
Many people have asked me about the press stories concerning the smoke that was affecting Singapore and Malaysia so badly. When I took off from Jakarta on my flight to the island of Sumatra there was a definite smoky haze in the sky. Whilst in Sumatra, smoke from Riau Province where the large fires were burning, was blowing in another direction so it was less evident. However throughout all the areas I visited – fires burnt. Large and small, fire seemed to be a way of life for the people of this Island. Whether it was cooking, burning rubbish alongside the road or clearing a tree in front of a house, fire is a tool. It certainly opened my eyes to a more complex view of the problems facing this area.
Next week – the second half of my journey – on to Berbak!