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A Guide to Saving One of the Last Great Ecosystems

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton

A critically endangered Sumatran orang-utan in the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra Indonesia
A critically endangered Sumatran orang-utan in the Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra Indonesia

My eyes burn and my throat is dry as we leave the city of Palembang and hit the road to Jambi in South Sumatra, Indonesia.

I’m on assignment for Wildlife Asia to document the forest fires that are choking massive areas of this country, and the threats they pose to the critically important Leuser Ecosystem and its wildlife. From East to West, fire hotspots fill the maps of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua.

The city of Jambi, covered in a blanket of toxic smog, Sumatra, Indonesia
The city of Jambi, covered in a blanket of toxic smog, Sumatra, Indonesia
The use of fire in agriculture is still common in Indonesia, particularly among palm oil producers that clear vast stretches of peatlands annually to make way for their plantations.
The use of fire in agriculture is still common in Indonesia, particularly among palm oil producers that clear vast stretches of peatlands annually to make way for their plantations.
Indonesia made international headlines this year as one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, after fires caused by slash-and-burn activities raged out of control for months to destroy nearly three million hectares of land.
Indonesia made international headlines this year as one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses, after fires caused by slash-and-burn activities raged out of control for months to destroy nearly three million hectares of land.

Schools have been closed in Singapore, and flights are cancelled across the region. Already, the carbon emissions from the burning peat forests are exceeding the entire U.S. economy, putting Indonesia on track to be one of the world’s largest carbon polluters this year.

As we pass signs for Jambi, I reflect on how it’s taken me almost two decades to  get to visit one of the great tiger capitals of the world. For years, I’ve heard of stories of shamans, or ‘Pawang Harimau’ as they’re called, being able to call tigers out from the forest. Here, tiger culture runs deep.

We arrive at Muara Merang village and meet Mr Sayuti. He tells us that in the past 12 months alone, there have been 150 conflicts between people and wildlife, and in the past decade, more than 50 people have lost their lives to tigers in area, most of them illegal loggers. He tells us how he often dreams of tigers bringing messages to him about natural disasters or bad omens. He even speaks about riding a tiger, before the fires.

Mr Sayuti in Muara Merang village, Sumatra Indonesia
Mr Sayuti in Muara Merang village, Sumatra Indonesia
“Many children are sick now from the smoke––it’s been like this for three months already,” Mr Sayuti says.
“Many children are sick now from the smoke––it’s been like this for three months already,” Mr Sayuti says.
Fires rage on. Global consumer companies and traders must face up to their role in fuelling this disaster. Existing ‘No Deforestation’ policies and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) membership are not enough.
Fires rage on. Global consumer companies and traders must face up to their role in fuelling this disaster. Existing ‘No Deforestation’ policies and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) membership are not enough.

“Many children are sick now from the smoke––it’s been like this for three months already,” Mr Sayuti says. “All of the community has been working around the clock to put out the fires on the local palm oil concessions, but unless the rain comes, the fires will just keep burning. The peat is very deep. The fires are much worse this year.”

He blames the plantations for cutting down too much forest. “Now we have small blocks of forest that don’t link up,” he says. “Tigers and elephants are forced to move in and out of these areas just to survive. When I was young, we’d see tigers all the time, but now there are only a few left. I only dream of tigers now.”

Small blocks of forest in the Tripa, peat swamps, Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia
Small blocks of forest in the Tripa, peat swamps, Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia
A tiger displaced by the palm oil plantations will have to spend the rest of it’s days behind bars.
A tiger displaced by the palm oil plantations will have to spend the rest of it’s days behind bars.

We leave the village and head back to the city of Jambi. Fires rage along the roadside. Toxic smog blankets the city. That same day we hear of two tigers that are being held by the BKSDA in Bengkulu province, the conservation unit appointed by the Indonesian government.

According to a local veterinarian, Drh. Erni Suyanti Musabine, a female tiger was caught in a poacher’s snare on a plam oil plantation, and was reported to the authorities by locals. Sadly her leg had to be amputated as infection set in. The other, a male tiger was caught after killing a plantation worker. Sadly for these two tigers, the future is not very bright.

With no tiger facility across the whole of Sumatra, they will most likely end up in the Taman Safari park in an enclosure, or in some dank cement cell in one of the many depressing zoos across Indonesia.

The tiger population in Sumatra is now as low as 300, and each one of these critically endangered and majestic cats are critical to the survival of the species. Indonesia has already lost the Balinese and Javanese tigers: They simply can’t afford to lose the Sumatran.

We’ve seen enough in Jambi and decide to head up to the North Sumatra capital city, Medan, to escape the fires. What was once called “the tiger capital of the world”, is no more – I’ve come 20 years too late..

Tigers are not the only key species threatened by palm oil development. Near Medan, we arrive at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) quarantine facility, where we’ve arranged to meet Dr Ian Singleton and one of his dedicated team, Drh Yenny Saraswati, Senior Veterinarian. When we arrive, an orangutan named Little Lilly is having her vitals checked and being microchipped after a bullet was removed from her young body. This 3-month-old was recently confiscated from a military personnel in a nearby village. Although Lilly’s mother was most likely killed by plantation workers as forest was being cleared, leading to her daughter being caught and sold to the military. Lilly’s rescue gives her a good chance of survival and possibility of being released back into the wild.

Little Lilly on the operating table.
Little Lilly on the operating table.
Dr Ian Singelton inspects Little Lilly.
Dr Ian Singelton inspects Little Lilly.
Dr Yenny Saraswati, Senior Veterinarian comforts Little Lilly after her operation.
Dr Yenny Saraswati, Senior Veterinarian comforts Little Lilly after her operation.

During our visit we also check up on Chocolate, a young orangutan that will be released into the wild in early 2016. In 2013, members of our team posed as buyers and coordinated with local police and SOCP to rescue Chocolate from poachers who were trying to sell him into the exotic pet trade for a mere US$200.

To have seen him in such a desperate situation back then and to now know he’ll be released in a few months’ time brings me some hope. This is why we do what we do: These are the stories that keep us going, and we draw comfort in knowing that we did what we could to make things right. Click here for one of my previous stories on orangutan rescue in Indonesia.

Without the dedication of SOCP and the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), these orangutans wouldn’t stand a chance.

While there, Dr Ian Singleton tells us about his experiences rehabilitating orangutans and releasing them back into the wild.

“I still get a massive kick out of seeing the orangutans we are able to save once they’ve been returned to the wild and living free once again,” he says. “It’s really something special to see them, with the chance to live as much as 50 years as a wild orangutan, and then to have kids who have never known captivity. It’s especially rewarding when you remember the conditions that some of them were in when they were first rescued: Often terrified, skinny and many with injuries from being tied or chained up….or with air rifle pellets in their bodies, like Lilly, which they almost certainly got when their mothers were killed.

“These guys have a second chance. They are the founders of a brand new wild population of a critically endangered species. You never get tired of seeing that and realising what an immense achievement it is to get them back to the wild again. But you also have to always remember that these are the lucky survivors of forest loss. Their mums are killed and these kids end up as illegal pets simply as a by-product of all the destruction. They’re effectively refugees from forests that no longer exist.”

Dr Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian from Racing Extinction, has also joined the team at the SOCP facility. Heather has come to see first-hand the destructive nature of Conflict Palm Oil expansion.

Dr Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian from Racing Extinction, enjoys a moment in the Leuser Ecosystem
Dr Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian from Racing Extinction, enjoys a moment in the Leuser Ecosystem

“Over 50 percent of packaged goods in the supermarket contain palm oil, and presently we have no way to tell if the palm oil being used in these products is conflict free,”  she says. “It is complete insanity to destroy biodiverse rainforests and peat swamps for palm oil, when climate change is spinning out of control, and we are facing increasing floods, drought and other disasters across the world. Indonesia’s forests regulate the water table, hold valuable topsoil in place while protecting against landslides, provide clean drinking water for millions and store massive amounts of carbon.

“These forests also provide plant species for medicinal uses – some have not even been discovered yet. Millions of species work together to create the fabric of our existence, of life. Why are we destroying our life support system?”

The Leuser Ecosystem
The Leuser Ecosystem

This point brings me back to the Leuser Ecosystem. It’s an incredible system that provides so much for both the people of Sumatra, and for the planet. It’s still teeming with life. Its dense forests supports abundant prey species, and it contains the last viable populations of Sumatran tigers. In the Leuser, orangutans number in the thousands. Great herds of Sumatran elephants can still be found within its lowland forests, alongside rhinos, sun bears, clouded leopards, hundreds of bird species, and many more. It is among the most biodiverse and ancient ecosystems ever documented by science. At 6.5 million acres, the Leuser Ecosystem is a world of its own. And now we are facing our last chance to get it right and save this majestic place – one of the last of its kind.

In November, Rainforest Action Network released a new report exposing the “Conflict Palm Oil Culprits” responsible for the ongoing destruction of the lowland rainforests and peatlands of the Leuser Ecosystem. The report names Wilmar International, Musim Mas Group and Golden Agri Resources as the “Big Three Buyers” of palm oil from the Leuser Ecosystem region and outlines the steps that they, and government officials, need to take to protect endangered species and community livelihoods from encroaching Conflict Palm Oil development.

Global consumer companies and traders must face up to their role in fuelling this disaster. Existing ‘No Deforestation’ policies and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) membership are not enough.
Global consumer companies and traders must face up to their role in fuelling this disaster. Existing ‘No Deforestation’ policies and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) membership are not enough.

Although reports like this and ongoing public pressure have convinced many of the world’s biggest companies to commit to cut Conflict Palm Oil from their supply chains, the fact is these paper promises alone will not stop the imminent threat of extinction that’s eating away at the Leuser Ecosystem. We are racing extinction in the Leuser Ecosystem, but together we can turn this around.

As ecosystems continue to fall and global leaders  gather for climate talks in Paris to decide  whether or not the world’s forests will be razed for palm oil and pulp, or protected,  there is an opportunity to drive real change – from the ground up. Now is the time to take action. As we speak, there is a diverse team comprised of the world’s most talented investigators, communicators, videographers and corporate campaigners, ready to go undercover and expose the culprits driving extinction in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Wildlife Asia is teaming up with Racing Extinction, Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to launch a bold mission, dubbed Racing Extinction in the Leuser Ecosystem.

Because it’s a race to shine a global spotlight on the destruction of the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants still live together in the wild.

It’s a race we cannot afford to lose.

With your support we will amplify the global call to protect this magical place and produce the tools that will enable action to save it. Please join us by supporting our crowdfunding campaign and sharing the call to #SaveLeuserEcosystem.

Support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers by donating at this link.

Comments

  1. Alex finazzi
    Bergamo, Italy
    December 26, 2015, 5:46 am

    What can I do ? This disaster can’t go on …

  2. Lewis
    Georgia
    December 20, 2015, 9:51 pm

    Beautiful and as it should be, big efforts to save it

  3. Deirdre Fitzsimmons
    Staten Island, NY
    December 12, 2015, 11:11 am

    If only, I could do more!

  4. Kelli Jankens
    Bay city, Mi
    December 12, 2015, 7:27 am

    Please save this ecosystem!