A short story from a field trip to the jungles of Bukit Tiga Puluh in Sumatra. I’ll try and communicate the experience I had in January to help those outside of Indonesia have a better understanding of the situation that the wildlife face here.
In January I followed the FZS (Frankfurt Zoological Society) team into the Bukit Tiga Puluh area to document the collaring of wild elephants. Afterw finishing the collaring work it was a good idea to take advantage of the time saved to head further west into Bukit Tiga Puluh and relocate a herd of 30 elephants that had found their way into contact with a village. Initially these elephants were residing in a concession area for a pulp and paper company. Companies like pulp and paper companies are required to reserve 10% of their concession land for conservation so the company managing the concession decided initially it was ok for these elephants to reside on the concession, which is a good thing because there is no other natural habitat remaining in the area for these elephants. It turns out the elephants had left the concession and traveled 5 kilometres outside of the concession and close to a village, causing great unrest amongst the locals and damaging crop land, and it was decided it was a good time to try and herd them back to the concession area.
So the fun and games began. I already knew from my almost two years tramping around Sumatra for conservation how complicated things are but I was about to experience another level altogether.
1. The first action in relocating the elephants was to get the various government departments on board to give us permission to go ahead with the task of pushing the wild elephants back to the concession and out of harms way.
2. Then permission was also needed from the pulp and paper company. The local arm of the pulp and paper company was not keen to have the elephants back into the concession area, but the umbrella company (external to Indonesia) was happy to give permission as it gives the company a message to provide to customers that they are on board with conservation, which is true to an extent.
3. Once those tasks were complete it was then down to our Indonesian team members to meet with the heads of the village. There were 4 heads of the village, of which only three could attend a meeting to seek permission to enter the village to start the work. The heads of the village were very angry that the elephants were encroaching on their crops so it was important not to send westerners to meet in case it caused further anger. You see part of the problem is that one of the elephants has a radio collar to try and prevent this very kind of conflict. But the heads of the village see this radio collar and believe that the westerners (NGO teams) are able to steer the elephants and have subsequently steered them onto their crops. So they are very angry with the westerners who have made the elephants come into the village area. So this was not a meeting any of the westerners could be involved with.
4. We were confident that permission would be granted so decided to make our way to the pulp and paper company where they allowed us accommodation while the work was carried out. We waited on location for 3 days for the political process to take its course. During that three days our Indonesian team members were given the go ahead to start trying to push the elephants back to the concession area. We were provided communications by our Indonesian team members that any involvement by westerners would cause anger and violence. It ended up being three days with no positive results and it was slightly frustrating to be benched for such a misunderstanding and the potential for violence. We all want the same outcome, which was to relocate the elephants, but I learnt to heed these warnings after hearing a story of what happened to the pulp and paper company that tried to meddle with the locals.
I was relayed a story by one of the team members of FZS. There is a lot of illegal logging happening throughout Sumatra and the Bukit Tiga Puluh area is no different. To put it simply if an external company owns land and it stays unused for any period of time then locals start to stake their claim to the land and it is very easy for them to gain (illegal) documentation to back up their claims, even if big companies already own the land. Once this happens it is next to impossible to companies to reclaim the land. There are some good examples of this is the area of Bukit Tiga Puluh, where companies have left concession areas or cleared land untouched for long periods and local villagers have just decided to claim it. At one stage and in an attempt to try to halt the illegal logging happening in the area the pulp and paper company destroyed a bridge that was built and used by illegal loggers. But as it turns out 100’s of villages stormed the pulp and paper head quarters threatening violence and destruction of their own and the company was forced to rebuild the bridge for the illegal loggers. Lets all collectively give ourselves a face palm right there. Is this notion simply insane? It sounded pretty insane when I first heard it and still does as I write it.
As you can imagine there is some very big and delicate underlying issues here and without going into to much detail and laying blame on certain people and governments, let’s just say that as long as the gravy train is flowing there is no stopping this illegal process unless the Indonesian government finally decides to enforce specific laws and deliver justice for those greatly effected by this illegal process. Including the critically endangered animals.
In summary it’s very heart breaking that things have become so complicated all due to chasing the almighty dollar/rupiah and for what? An individuals short term gains for the Indonesian country and environmental long term loss. I can only hope the good work of all NGO’s continues and is able to turn things around with the help of the many millions of people who want to make a change for the better.