Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Front Line Forest Defender...

Photo courtesy of Arifin Rahmat
This is my new friend Arifin Rahmat.  Pak Arifin is a forest policeman (POLHUT, polisi hutan) at Sumatra's Kerinci Seblat National Park (1).  I met Pak Arifin at a training session for auxiliary forest rangers here in Sungai Penuh where he taught me and some folks from local communities some of the basics on how to patrol the forest and handle crimes like poaching and illegal logging.    Pak Arifin has worked in and around KSNP since 1990 when he first became an honorary ranger (2).  In 1996 Pak Arifin became a full-time forest policeman posted at the Bukit Tapan resort at KSNP, which is located just outside Sungai Penuh.  After that Pak Arifin was instrumental in setting up the park's innovative Tiger Protection and Conservation Team, which still operates and has experienced a great deal of success in protecting the endangered Sumatran Tiger.  Pak Arifin is also recently received Indonesia's highest award for environmental service, the Kalpataru, which is awarded to around 10 people annually.  Pak Arifin received the award for his dedication to safeguarding and conserving the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.  Pak Arifin graciously afforded me the opportunity to interview him for about two hours during a break in the training.  I wanted to talk to him within the framework of my research, but I also wanted to share his accomplishments and commitment with folks outside Indonesia.

Meeting Pak Arifin

Photo courtesy of Arifin Rahmat
When Pak Arifin entered the room he was decked out in his full dress uniform, which is pretty imposing when your sitting amidst a bunch of villagers.  But one of the first things you notice about him is his easy rapport with his audience.  He immediately had everyone at ease with his warm smile, and within about 3 minutes everyone was hanging on his every word.  Since Pak Arifin has spent years in and around the park, there are only a few of the 400 or so villages bordering the park that he hasn't visited.  As we went around the room introducing ourselves, Pak Arifin related anecdotes about each of the participants villages and asked after the health of people he knows there, though he didn't have any anecdotes about Honolulu.  Throughout his presentation on patrolling tactics he was able to convey technical information in easy-to-access language, and by the end of the day everyone was on the same page.  These interpersonal skills are one of the things that makes a good ranger; many of the residents around the park are lacking in knowledge about the park and its ecological importance, and hence there's a lot of bad feeling towards the park.  A good ranger, besides being able to enforce the rules, is able to "win hearts and minds".

During a coffee break I had a conversation with Pak Arifin.  He told me that he's originally Javanese but he grew up in Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra.  During his youth he was always interested in nature and enjoyed camping.  He became interested in being a policeman after some POLHUT visited his village.  A boy at the time, he told me that he was fascinated by their uniforms and gear, and so he started talking with them about their job.  As a young adult Pak Arifin wanted to go to school for forestry or law enforcement, but there were no opportunities where he lived so he made his living doing a variety of odd jobs.  Eventually he moved to Sungai Penuh, where Kerinci Seblat National Park was just being established.  At the same time he got involved in a local nature-lovers' group, and when the opportunity to become an honorary ranger came up he seized it.  Eventually after a six-year "internship" he was made an official POLHUT and went to the national police school in Riau to get formal training in policing.

Pak Arifin told me that both of these experiences really helped him develop a personal philosophy that has made him into one of the best rangers in the country.  In the early 1990s the park didn't have many resources (3) and there was a lot of illegal logging and hunting.  At that time facilities were very limited, and when he was posted to Tapan the outpost only had one motorcycle for four policemen.  In addition to infrastructural problems, there were also command-and-control problems which made doing the job difficult.  This taught Pak Arifin the importance of structure, planning, and discipline to make the most of the resources that you have.  Pak Arifin told me that because the park has to make due with around 100 rangers to police an area larger than the state of Connecticut, it is crucial to make sure the rangers are used in the best way possible.

As we talked I was really impressed by Pak Arifin's knowledge and understanding of local conditions.  He sees himself as an instrument of national policy tasked with the responsibility of enforcing the law and protecting the park, but he also understands the perspective of the people living around the park and the difficulties that they face.  We talked about the various villages that we had both visited and compared notes, and he told stories that illustrate different aspects of on-the-ground conservation.  Arifin is always eager to share his knowledge and experience, and seems to really enjoy teaching others.  We also talked about the ceremony in which he was awarded the nation's highest honor for environmental service.  I was interested in the food at the national palace.  "It was okay", Arifin said.  He was more interested in telling me about the excellent work of many of his colleagues, and how the award was less a reflection of his personal performance and more the recognition of a team effort.

Pak Arifin told me that his ambition is apply all that he's learned to help improve conditions in the villages around the park.   Now that he's been a ranger for 22 years he wants to move into local development and create projects that would reduce local pressure on the park.

I asked my friend Debbie Martyr, who has worked with the park's Tiger Protection and Conservation Program since its inception in the 1990s (4), about Pak Arifin, since she'd worked closely with him when he was a member of the team.  She related the following anecdote about Pak Arifin:

Photo courtesy of Arifin Rahmat
Back in 2007 we got a call that a tiger was caught in a gin-trap in Saralunto (a district in West Sumatra province some distance from the park).  I contacted the head of West Sumatra's Office of Natural Resource Management to ask if they needed any help.  He told me that a vet was on the scene and that everything was under control, which relieved me because it was a long way away.  But about 5pm I got another call, and this time he was obviously under a lot of stress.  He told us that the anesthetic didn't work and that the tiger was very aggressive and they could use some assistance.  So me, Arifin and [another tiger team member] drove up there, arriving at about 3am.  When we got there the head of the office was waiting for us, and together we hiked about 4 kilometers to the site.  The vet there was young and enthusiastic, but he'd never faced a situation like this before, so I contacted some vet friends in other countries, rousing them out of bed.  I rattled off the list of unpronouceable and unspellable names of drugs we had on hand and they gave me a recipe to tranquilize the tiger.  After the vet mixed up the proper dosage Arifin volunteered to dart the tiger, which required him moving to within 5 meters of the trapped animal.  Now to really understand the danger here, you have to remember that the tiger, which was a large one, was in extreme pain and under extreme threat.  The gin trap had also sheared completely through the bone, so the only thing keeping him in the trap was a layer of skin and sinew, which would not hold him if he pounced.  Arifin calmly and carefully approached the tiger in full and certain knowledge that if the tiger pounced he would most likely be killed.  He was able to successfully dart the tiger, and we ended up saving him.   Arifin was able to save the tiger because he's a good ranger.  It was one of the bravest things I've ever seen.  

Debbie went on to tell me that Pak Arifin was recognized "because he's someone that has gone out and done his job better than he has to."  She also told me that "he's a ranger in the forest service that has maintained his conservation values and transferred them into field action".

So congratulations to Pak Arifin for his outstanding achievement for his dedication and all his work at Kerinci Seblat National Park.  Hopefully his award helps others to see that conservation isn't just enforcement, but human relations as well.


(1)  Pak Arifin is currently on secondment to the Ministry of Forestry's rapid response forest crimes force (SPORC) based in Jambi City.  The job of polhut in Indonesia is roughly equivalent to that of forest rangers in the US.

(2)  The Indonesian civil service is interesting because many times people will become a civil servant on an honorary basis (Indonesian: "Honor"), which means that they receive a stipend and are given certain tasks within the office or organization.  My understanding is that this is a sort of "foot in the door" tactic and that people become honor in hopes that they will eventually be elevated to official status.  Lots of teachers, at least in my study area, have an arrangement like this.

(3)  The park is still underfunded and underresourced.

(4)  Debbie is probably the world's foremost non-Indonesian expert on both the park and the Sumatran tiger as well.


  1. In Dennie Martyr's story about the tiger, she and Pak Arifin had to travel a long way to assist with the downed tiger. Is Kerinci Seblat National Park the only post for a tiger protection and conservation program in Sumatra?

    1. Hi Jeremy. I think there are some other programs in other parts of Sumatra, like in Riau province, but the one at KSNP is the longest running and most successful.

  2. I think the love that Pak Arifin has for the land and its animals are great! Hard to believe that there was only 100 rangers to patrol an area that is about the same size as the state of Connecticut, its no wonder why he was awarded the nation's highest honor for environmental service!

  3. Pak Arifin is a really honorable man, I must say. His willingness to protect the forest and prevent people from poaching and illegal logging; is really unmatched. He even so goes out to help wounded animals. Like the tiger in Saralunto. It’s a good thing what he does, even if others think he just prolonging the inevitable.

  4. Pak has built his credentials by volunteering his services and did such a good job it turned into a career.This is an excellent example of how he took the time to volunteer his services to build his credentials,build a network of contacts,create awareness, even putting himself in harm’s way to protect the animals, people and land that he loves.It should be appreciated by anyone interested in protecting the environment.

  5. This is a great story of man who has a love and passion for what he does for a living it shows in how he cares for the forest and the story about the tiger. It also shows in how he is well respected by those in the community. I believe if you have a love and passion for what you are doing than you will prosper and those in your community or network will prosper because of your values and passion. I see the same in you and your love and passion for Geography, you have a hunger for it, that it creates a hunger for students like my self and I too have become more interested and hungry for this type of knowledge. Thanks!!