Leaving Kerinci early in the morning, I travelled across country to Jambi for the next leg of the journey. After the hills of Kerinci, we headed down into flattened countryside. Having seen bananas, rice and coffee growing on the hill and road sides, we eventually passed into more large-scale monocultures of rubber, acacia and oil palm.
The journey to Jambi, with Iding from ZSL Indonesia and his family took 12 hours. After a week away from my own family, it was delightful to share the journey with them. Iding works for the Ministry of Forestry, and has been seconded first to FFI in Kerinci and lately to ZSL in Jambi. His enthusiasm and knowledge, coupled with his sense of humour made the journey a pleasure despite the long hours and slow traffic. He shared stories of the places he had visited both in Indonesia and overseas and wonderful tales of the expeditions and adventures in the forests of Indonesia. He told how his forestry training was like being in the army with barracks, polished boots and hard physical exercise. No wonder these guys are all so tough!
The last couple of hours of the journey we shared the road with truck after truck of coal. I later found out these lorries were banned from entering Jambi until after dark so we were unlucky with our timing!
The next morning after a brief visit to the ZSL office, we headed towards Berbak. Three hours by 4×4 to Nipah Panjang through a landscape of plantations broken by endless long dykes and straight roads. Next followed a boat journey, out into the South China Sea, down the coast and then inland again to Air Hitam. From the river we had a short pillion ride on scooters to the Air Hitam Laut ranger station where we were staying the night.
I have to say a big thank you to Faried, who gave up his room and bed for me and to the rangers who cooked the most amazing meal of fresh crab, prawns and rice.
We left Air Hitam early morning to take the ZSL boat upriver to the Berbak research site. Every so often the outboard motor would become snagged with something and we’d drift while it was cleared. Half an hour into the trip, it became clear that the outboard was not at all happy and we turned and limped back to port. Luckily one of the National Park boats was free and we set off again with only a short hold up. Still a basic open boat, this one had a planked deck to sit on rather than the ZSL one which had some planks to sit on but your feet sloshed about in the bottom of the boat! Nevertheless three hours of sitting crossed legged in the bottom of the boat resulted in a very numb bum and stiff legs!
The view along the river was stunning as the tall Nipa palm trees that crowded the banks became more and more sculptural the deeper inland we got. The fronds curved over and the reflections curved up to meet them.
About an hour on, we suddenly came across a crocodile, basking in the morning sun! The boatman managed to swing the boat around and cut the engine so that we were able to observe the enormous beast for several minutes before he scarily slipped silently into the water in front of us and disappeared from view.
At some stage along the river, as we traveled further from the sea, the water became less brackish and the river bank trees changed. The water, as we traveled further into the peat forest became darker and darker.
At the Berbak study site, we set off for a 1.5km walk along a hazardous trail consisting of a boardwalk build above the peat swamp that was is various states of decay. At times the planks were sound, at other times partially submerged, but mostly completely disintegrated and replaced by sunken logs that you had to feel for with your feet and hope for the best. Funny thing was, the rangers who we were traveling with were completely mud free. I on the other hand was completely wet and filthy within minutes!
It was a struggle! You couldn’t reach out to steady yourself without taking a swift look first as there were monstrous inch long thorns on some of the trees. You didn’t know how deep the mud was till you sunk into it. You didn’t know if you were going to leave your boot in the mud when you tried to pull your foot out!
It was hard going and I was pretty relieved when we got to our destination – the site of two camera’s set up to see what animals were using that part of the park.
And then it was back the way we came! Swamp, boat, scooter, boat, 4×4!
Dinner with members of the Jambi Tiger Response Team the next evening gave me an opportunity meet another group of seasoned professionals working for the protection of the Sumatran tiger with the support of ZSL. These men, from different Jambi districts of the government’s BKSDA (Nature Conservation Agency) come together in response to tiger conflict. Their last rescue of a tiger came just a month before I arrived.
Before heading back to Java the following day, Iding and I had two tasks. The first was for me to sample a Durian fruit. If you’d have asked me a few months ago about Durian, I would have looked back blankly, but a chance viewing of a Durian on a programme about the famed explorer and naturalist, Alfred Wallace, a few weeks before, had me intrigued. The smell wasn’t as bad as expected, but in all honesty? I really didn’t like it! Slimy rather than creamy is what came to mind, lardy rather than juicy. The flavour? Bland. Sorry Durian lovers!
The second was to visit the Jambi Zoo, conveniently for me located next to the airport to see a wild conflict tiger, held at zoo whilst a decision was made on its future. The zoo was small and government funded and had a strong educational focus. Many of the animals had come to the zoo following human conflict issues including two Sumatran elephants. According to the zoo’s vet who showed us around, there are plans to extend and modernise the animal enclosures.
I had come to Indonesia expecting not to see a rare, elusive wild Sumatran tiger. How devastated was I to see this young, female wild tiger in a tiny enclosure, with a mangled foot as a result of snare. An animal rescued from certain death at the hands of poachers, to end up here as political indecision resulted in a failure to make a judgement on her future. This was an animal so different from the tigers I normally see born and living their lives in captivity. ‘Wild’ is not a big enough word to describe the power and intensity she exuded.
This experience more than any other throughout this trip, rammed home how essential wild tiger conservation is. Tigers need to remain wild in their natural habitat. Yes, captive bred tigers have their place in zoos to raise awareness and inspire generations, but the loss of wild tigers is something that just cannot be allowed to happen.
Back in Java, I headed to Bogor, the main base for ZSL and many other conservation organisations. I met with representatives of Harimaukita, Hariyawan A. Wahyudi and Fn Tirtaningtyas (Noni), who took me out for a delicious dinner and to discuss possible funding opportunities for 2014. I do so love the Indonesian food! Noni later presented me with my fabulous Harimaukita shirt.
On my last day in Indonesia I got up early for an 8am visit to the wonderful Bogor Botanical Garden. You can see a couple of the photos in the slide show below and just made it back to the hotel in time for my last meeting of the trip with Andy and Annette of Animal Sanctuary Trust Indonesia (ASTI) who I had been communicating with over the past months about their plan to build a tiger facility in Sumatra. It was weird to drink my first “western” cappuccino in two weeks after all that delicious strong sweet Indonesia coffee!
And so my trip came to end. I met so many amazing people working hard for tiger conservation, kind, dedicated professionals who are giving the Sumatran tiger a very real chance to survive and thrive!
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