Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Friend Got Pinched! Tiger Poaching at Kerinci Seblat National Park

Camera trap photo from Flora and Fauna International;
photo by Matt Linkie
A couple of weeks ago the buzz around here was that two village heads from the Serampas region (which I wrote about  here, here, and here) were apprehended by the Kerinci district police along the footpath that runs 20 kilometers from Renah Kemumu village to Lempur town.  The village heads were arrested along with a middle-aged man (1) because they were in possession of a tiger skin which had presumably been killed in Serampas and which they allegedly had intended to sell.  I was a bit surprised and disappointed by this news, because one of the suspects, the head of Renah Kemumu village, is a friend of mine and has on occasion stopped by my house to hang out when he's in town.  This incident, while unfortunate, is an all too common occurrence in and around Kerinci Seblat National Park, one of the last remaining habitats for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae).

The Sumatran Tiger

Tiger range map from Sumatran Tiger Trust.
Tigers used to be found on several Indonesian islands, but since the extinction of the Bali tiger (1940s) and the Javan tiger (1970s) the Sumatran tiger is the only one of the three related subspecies remaining.  Though the range of the Sumatran tiger once included virtually the entire island, there are only a few remaining habitats left, and all of those face a variety of challenges that directly threaten the Sumatran tiger's continued existence.  The largest of these pockets is Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP, Taman Nasional Kerinci Seblat, TNKS; at 1.38 million hectares or 5300 square miles the largest national park on Sumatra and the second largest terrestrial protected area in all of Indonesia), where I'm currently doing my doctoral dissertation research.  These protected areas among the only remaining large forested areas on Sumatra, though just a few decades ago the island was essentially covered with forest.  Large-scale agricultural conversion, land clearing for settlement, and industrial plantations have eliminated huge swaths of habitat.  Since Sumatran tigers are for the most part solitary animals a significant amount of space is required to maintain viable populations.  Though the numbers vary, estimates as to the range of an individual tiger's territory are as high as 100 square kilometers.  Estimates also vary widely as to the current number of tigers, ranging from the low 300s to around 1000, but even on the high end the Sumatran tiger is in trouble.  This variability is because it is so hard to estimate the number of tigers in a given area.  Most "censuses" use camera traps to photograph tigers in a representative area, and then attempt to extrapolate the findings to a wider habitat area.  However models derived from these methods make assumptions and are not able to take into consideration all the myriad variables that affect tiger distribution. 

The Tiger Trade

Tiger skin photo from Sumatran Tiger Trust.
Though habitat destruction is the main cause for the dramatic decline in tiger numbers, tiger poaching is the main concern in Sumatra's protected areas.  The nature of poaching makes it difficult to gauge the scale of the problem; since all aspects of the tiger trade are illegal there are no records kept.  Poaching is difficult to detect, and only in a few protected areas (including KSNP) have authorities been able to build capacity to detect poachers and tackle the problem.  It used to be that many poached tigers were taken to fill "orders" placed by civil servants, most commonly policemen or members of the military or to be used as gifts to or by politicians.  Folks desirous of promotions would use the tiger skins as gifts for superiors as a way to "grease the wheels".  A friend of mine doing police-related research on Java once commented to me that (s)he was amazed at how often tiger skins were to be found in the homes of high-ranking officials.  It's been estimated that several decades ago, 80% of poached skins were for the domestic market and 20% were exported.  Now, though, demand has shifted, and a source close to the issue told me that it's likely that 80% of skins are exported.  Now the biggest destination for skins and bone is said to be Vietnam, but this is difficult to prove.  Tiger skins move through a network of brokers sometimes changing hands 5-6 times before they arrive at their final destination.  Investigators are sometimes able to estimate the number of middlemen from the final price, as each step entails a 10-20% "cut" for the broker.  Those that have poached tigers previously likely have established contacts and know the rules of the game, but "novice" poachers can expect to make a lot less.  Likewise, those without a direct line to bone/skin "bosses" have to go through brokers, but they often have unrealistically high expectations of the prices they can get.  A friend that works in tiger protection told me that end-market values for skin and bones that appear in media reports (for instance, a newspaper story that reports the final price for a tiger skin at, say, US$15,000) leads some would-be poachers to believe they can get close to that for a tiger, but the reality is that the price gets inflated along the extended chain of buying and selling.  This dynamic perhaps contributes to poaching.  Although it is hard to say with any certainty how much a poached tiger skin will bring (this depends on a lot of things; sex, size, age, condition and the experience and knowledge of the market on the part of the buyer), a villager may hope to net around US$1,000 for a skin plus $300-350 more for the bones.  This is, of course negotiable, as some village poachers may be dependent on the middlemen to find a buyer.

Boar snares (6).  I lifted this photo without permission from
a flickr page associated with this site.  
It's not just tiger skins that are valuable, though.  Their bones and certain body parts are believed by some to have medicinal or magic powers.  At the export level bones and skins may be marketed through a different network, though, and it is thought that nearly 100% are exported (2).  Again it is difficult to get precise information on the tiger trade since bones, skins, and other parts are covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) and so the trade is entirely illegal and undercover, but it is suspected that some if not most of the trading is coordinated by cartels based in Southeast Asia.

Snared tiger photo from here.  When tigers get their
paws caught in snares the paw often must be
amputated.  If the operation isn't done quickly enough
there is a high risk of infection which can lead to the
death of the tiger.  Sometimes post-operation tigers
can be reintroduced into the wild, sometimes not.  
Although poaching is a problem at KSNP, conservationists have had a higher level of success when compared to other protected areas and there is some basis for hope here.  When directed tiger enforcement began here, the park's administrators were not aware of the scale of the problem, and so tiger conservation was not a priority.  It was soon determined that tiger poaching was indeed a prime concern, but since regular and routine patrols have begun year by uear the percentage of patrols recording active snare poaching has continued to decrease.  Still in that time that I've been working here (around 9 months) there have been more than 8 documented cases of tigers being killed or snared (3).  Though some tigers are killed by villagers as the result of tiger attacks (4), it is known that several have been poached over the past year.  Specialist forest police patrolling the park still on occasion encounter tiger snares, which indicates that poaching is for the most part done with intent rather than by opportunistic villagers.  Again, estimates vary widely regarding the number of tigers in the park; the local paper just last week printed a story indicating 166 tigers remain, but other experts suggest there could be twice that many.  But if you consider that possibly 5% of the extant population has been lost over the past year alone (this is probably a low-end estimate given that there are likely tigers poached/killed without being discovered/reported), it is clear that the Sumatran tiger is facing a hard struggle for survival. 

As I've mentioned in the past, it's my responsibility as a researcher to maintain neutrality on pretty much all the issues I'm investigating.  I understand the concerns of conservationists, many from "developed" countries who lament the loss of creatures like the Sumatran tiger.  However, I also hear stories from villagers who see, with reason, wildlife as a threat to their way of life.  Their encounters with wildlife like tigers and elephants are generally confrontational in nature (5).  I find it impossible to maintain neutrality when discussing poaching, though.  There is no way it can be justified.  I also get a little sad when I imagine myself telling my children "we used to have these things called tigers...."


(1) Who is being charged as the actual poacher

(2) There are a couple of minor exceptions to this.  Certain body parts, like whiskers, are for the domestic market.

(3)  This figure does not include incidence happening just outside the park in protection forests (hutan lindung)

(4)  Most of these attacks occur in places where humans have encroached in tiger habitat or where there has been very heavy poaching of tiger prey species.  In/around KSNP there have been only 3 documented attacks on people since 2008.  In one case that I am aware of, an illegal logger was attacked by a tiger deep within the national park.  In another recent case a villager claimed that a tiger attacked him but the investigation showed that this was not the case. 

(5)  Again, the fact is that most conflict is due to habitat destruction.

(6)  The snares in the photo are actually neck snares, but tigers sometimes get caught in them.  Poachers prefer foot hold snares because neck snares can damage the skin.


Many thanks to my friends that work hard in the field and put themselves in danger to protect tigers, mitigate human/wildlife conflicts, and increase awareness.  

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Two Gems of Kerinci Valley...

Yesterday I was invited by some friends to visit one of Kerinci Valley's many natural treasures, Danau Gunung Tujuh (Seven Mountain's Lake), the highest lake in all of Southeast Asia.  The lake sits in the caldera of an extinct volcano, and is a great day trip from Sungai Penuh.  Since I haven't been posting much lately, I figured I'd share a little bit about this trip and another day trip I took about a month ago to Danau Kaca, the Glass Lake.  Though most people have never heard of either of these places, they can be a fun and relatively easy part of a trip to Kerinci Valley.  

Danau Gunung Tujuh, Seven Mountains Lake

We started out in the morning around 7:30 from Sungai Penuh on our bikes.  We stopped for a quick breakfast at a friend's place in Semerup, a few kilometers north of Sungai Penuh.  Then we headed up towards the northernmost corner of Kerinci district, through the sprawling tea plantation at Kayu Aro.  It around an hour to get there.  You can park at the ranger post (theoretically this is where you buy a ticket to enter the park as well, but it is pretty much always unmanned) or right next door at the home of the village head of Pesisir Bukit.  Then head into the park though the gateway.  You'll pass through about a half a kilometer of illegal cultivation (which I've discussed in previous posts) and past another part marker.  From here according to the sign it's 5 kilometers to the lake; according to my GPS it's just under 4 kilometers, but that's flat trail distance.  I didn't think to count paces either.  If you're not familiar with the area it's probably a good idea to take a local guide since with all the illegal cultivation the trailhead isn't really clear.

 Once you enter the undisturbed forest the trail goes up at a pretty good angle until you get to the peak of Gunung Tujuh.  I would call this section of the trail moderately strenuously, but if you are reasonably fit you won't have any problems.  Once you get to the top you have to descend again to the lake, and this section of the trail is the steepest and most challenging.  If you take your time and are careful you won't have any problem though.  Overall the hike is quite nice, and given the altitude it's pretty cool.  If you are in a hurry you can probably do it in an hour or less (one way); at a leisurely pace it's more like two hours.  It's better to start out early because it tends to rain in the afternoon, and you're much more likely to slip when the trail is wet, especially when descending.  

This photo was taken by my friend Barlian
from the NGO GenesisMukomuko.
By the time you get to the lake you'll probably want to take a break and enjoy the scenery, as it really is breathtaking.  The lake is 4 kilometers long by 3 kilometers wide and probably covers around 10 square kilometers total.  You can swim, but because of the elevation the water is fairly cold.  Some residents of the villages at the foot of the mountain keep dugout canoes at the lake for fishing, so if you've made arrangements you can cross the lake (about 1 hour) to Pesisir Putih where you might be able to find the rafflesia, the world's largest flower.  The rafflesia only blooms for a few days before decaying away.  It gives off an odor similar to rotting meat to attract flies and other insects for pollination.  There are several species of rafflesia found in various places across Indonesia and Malaysia.  If you have a chance to see one you should definitely take it; the flower looks like something from outer space.  You can also take the trail around the lake, which takes 2-3 hours.

While we were there we encountered a group of locals that had been employed by the department of public works to clear garbage around the lake.  Among them was one of my friends that worked in the park, so we chatted for a bit, swapped stories, and ate lunch.  After about two hours we headed back out of the crater and then down the slopes of the mountain.  On the way out we encountered a film crew from the US television show "Finding Bigfoot", who were there to film a show about the Orang Pendek, an as yet unconfirmed primate species that may or may not live around the lake.  I chatted with the show's host, who was really surprised that I'd never heard of the program, and the expedition leader, Adam Davies, who has led several previous expeditions to the area in search of the elusive creature.  He was interested in my fieldwork and asked me to contact him about a possible interview for the show, so we'll see how that goes.  After coffee at another friend's place the gang and I headed back for Sungai Penuh.  

Danau Kaca, the Glass Lake

Another very worthy destination in the Kerinci Valley is Danau Kaca, which lies at the other end of the valley near the village of Lempur.  This is another place you can easily visit in a day, but there's also an area for camping if you'd like to spend more time.  You start the hike at a neglected monument which marks the end of the road "maintained" by the district government.  Here you enter the forest along the footpath which eventually leads to Sungai Ipuh in Mukomuko district, 40 kilometers away.  This part of the trail has been widened and used by off-road vehicles, so it's pretty easy to hike.  The old trail to the lake branches off from the Sungai Ipuh trail a couple of kilometers in, but it's well marked.  A newer, shorter trail that's been blazed by local nature lovers cuts 30 minutes to an hour off the trip, but this trail is not marked as well and if you don't know it it's hard to find.  Along both trails you have to cross a stream, so be ready for that.

Depending on the trail you take, it's about 2-3 hours to the lake, but for the most part it's relatively flat and relaxing.  Though small, the minerals suspended in the lake give it a beautiful blue hue (if you've ever been swimming in a quarry hole, it's like that).  You can swim in the lake, which is probably about 7 meters at its deepest.  

In addition to these two spots there are a number of other places which make Kerinci a great place to visit.  Unfortunately, although the local government proclaims tourism to be a target industry for development, there is little in the way of marketing or information.  I recently had a discussion with one of the higher-ups at the regional tourist bureau (a government body) and suggested that they at least provide a map of the area to visitors.  Currently Kerinci doesn't see a lot of tourists, but in my mind that's because no one really knows about the area, and since it's so far out of the way of established tourist routes its potential is relatively underdeveloped.  Most visitors come to climb Gunung Kerinci, the highest active volcano in Indonesia, but other than that there seems to be little awareness about other places like Danau Gunung Tujuh, Danau Kaca, and the Kayu Aro tea plantation.  If the local government could get its act together and market the place as a 4-day to one-week destination there would probably be more people through.

More Information on "Danau Kaco"....

My friend David, who is one of the foremost scholars in the world on Kerinci area, dropped me a line to remind me that he wrote a tourism guide for the Kerinci Valley a few years ago.  The book, which is really outstanding, tells about the culture and history of the area and has comprehensive descriptions of 25 tourist sites in the area.  The following information is verbatim from the guide and describes in greater detail Danau Kaco.

Located near the village of Lempur, Lake Kaco (Danau Kaco) is an absolute gem of a lake. Fed in part by several underwater springs, this very small lake has eerie, crystal blue water, making it unique among the lakes of Kerinci. Unfortunately, however, Lake Kaco's distinctive crystalline qualities also almost lead to its demise.

Local legend tells of a village "king," Raja Gagak, who had a beautiful daughter named Puti Sulluh Makan. Raja Gagak amassed a large number of jewels from various suitors, who gave the precious stones as a token of their desire to marry his daughter. Unable to resolve the problem that he had promised Put's hand to more than one suitor, while having actually impregnated her himself through an incestuous relations, Raja Gagak fled the village with his daughter and all of the jewels. Before killing his daughter out of shame, Raja Gagak supposedly buried the jewels in Lake Kaco, thus giving the lake its beautiful blue color.

Spurred on by this story, the lake's unique blue water, and the desire for quick wealth, a group of 15 villagers tried to drain the lake in the late 1990s in hopes of discovering the supposed jewels. The group spent 10 days widening and deepening the channel flowing out of the lake with hoes, all the way to where the stream empties into the Manjuto River. The sudden and unexplainable death of one member of the group, however, persuaded the remaining members that their efforts were not endorsed by ancestral spirits--but only after the surface of the lake had dropped by about a meter. 

The trip to Lake Kaco takes four hours from the village of Lempur, with most of the trip being inside a surprisingly flat portion of the national park. The first forty-five minutes of this trip, which takes you almost to the outer edge of Lempur's agricultural fields, can be bypassed by taking an ojek to the irrigation canal (irrigasi). From the irrigation canal, continue up the main road for 15 minutes until you come to a large cement statue marking the earthen embankments of the Fort of Depati Parbo (Benteng Depati Parbo). This fort, which sits alongside a major pre-colonial transporation route between southern Kerinci and the west coast of Sumatra, was built as a bulwark against the Dutch invaders and saw action in 1901 when local villagers used its embankments to ward off advancing troops. The defenders were led in their struggle by Depati Parbo of Lolo (the fort's namesake), who is reputed to have had supernatural abilities that made him invulnerable to Dutch bullets (see also "Mt. Kunyit" entry).

After visiting the fort, you can also pay a brief visit to Seluang Bersisik Emas Waterfall (Air Terjun Seluang Bersisik Emas) which is located less than a five minute walk away. To get to the waterfall, follow the main road which ends at a small river which you will have to cross to continue on the path on the other side.  Contrary to the sounds of water coming from the right-hand side of the road, the waterfall is actually located on the left side. Continue on the main road until you hear sounds from the waterfall coming from the left (less than five minutes from the river crossing). There is no established trail to the waterfall, but a location from where the waterfall can be seen is close to the road and easy to reach.

Lake Kaco is an additional three-hour hike on a forest trail from the Fort of Depati Parbo and Seluang Bersisik Emas Waterfall-the combination of which would make for a full day hike from Lempur. A guide is absolutely necessary for the trip to Lake Kaco due to a large number of forking paths.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

What is Palm Oil and Where Does it Come From?

Oil palms on school ground in Bengkulu Utara.  Even
the area around the mosque is used for oil palms.
I remember flying into Kuala Lumpur International Airport a few years ago to begin the year of research funded by my first Fulbright award.  From around 25,000 feet the Malay Peninsula appears to be covered by a blanket of what you would assume to be lush, tropical rainforest.  As you descend for landing though, you notice that it's not primeval rainforest, but rather kilometer upon kilometer of a certain type of palm tree which extends as far as the eye can see in all directions.  As you ride away from the airport you notice that the trees are spaced in neat, exact grids, and beneath them grows nothing at all.  This was my first look at the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis).  Last week when I traveled to Bengkulu province on the southwest coast of Sumatra I saw another oil palm-dominated landscape.  Since palm oil grows well in tropical lowlands, the coastal regions around Sumatra have gone over to the tree crop in a big way. 

Palm Oil: The Basics

Photo from FAO oil palm page
Elaeis guineensis originally comes from West Africa, where the fruit of the plant has been used for thousands of years.  During the Age of Exploration (15th-17th centuries) the plant made its way to the New World and from there on to Southeast Asia, where it thrived.  In 1960s Malaysia's Department of Agriculture started doing research on the tree crop which led to widespread cultivation on the Malay peninsula.  Oil palms are mainly grown for their fruit, which yields palm oil.  The tree itself yields 10-40 kilogram bunches of small fruits that kind of look like dates.  Palm oil has a lot of saturated fat, but not nearly as much as coconut oil, which comes from another type of palm.  It's used mainly by the food industry (82.3%) and according to the Rain Forest Action Network it's "used in 50% of all consumer goods, from lipstick and packaged food to body lotion and biofuels" (1).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), by 2008 there were more than 13 million hectares of palm oil in the tropics, a 300% increase since 1961.  Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's leading producers of palm oil (together they produce about 85% of the world's palm oil), and in both of those countries palm oil is on the increase.  It's estimated that since 1990 more than half of the huge increase in palm oil has come at the expense of forests.

What's driving the expansion?  Well, palm oil is extremely profitable, and the prices have increased rapidly over the years.  In 2006 crude palm oil (CPO) fetched $478 per ton, but by 2008 the price had more than doubled to $1,196 per ton.  Palm oil is harvested twice a month after the third year after planting, and so it provides a ready source of cash to villagers that cultivate it, but most oil palms are grown on huge estates operated by large companies using high-yielding clones and efficient processing techniques.  The market for palm oil is tied to other vegetable oils, and so global trends and events directly and indirectly affect the price.  For instance, a substitute for palm oil is soybean oil, which is a major crop in the US.  However, in the mid-to-late 2000s, much soybean land in the US was given over to production of other crops to be used in ethanol (soybeans are used in a lot of foods), and so the demand and hence the price of palm oil increased dramatically.  Increasing incomes in South, East, and Southeast Asia are also driving palm oil production, since most of it is exported (the major importers are China, Europe, and India) for the food processing industries of emerging countries.

Can't See the Forest for the Oil Palms...

As I mentioned in a previous post, palm oil is the crop of choice in the districts of Mukomuko and Bengkulu Utara in Bengkulu province.  I described some of the environmental impacts of the oil palms themselves, including the fact that they are very thirsty trees, and are thought to be lowering the water table in the region due to their high water demands.  This in turn makes the coastal regions more susceptible to erosion, which is a big problem in the region.  But there are also problems with the palm oil business; most of the land in these districts has been granted to big companies, and the local people, who are mainly farmers, are forced to grow their crops further away from the coast in the direction of the mountains.  Though most of them also choose to grow oil palms, the price they can get is lower because the condition of the roads and the distance to market cuts into their profits. 

I started thinking about this a bit more today as I was doing some background reading for a project I might be working on in the near future.  The project is related to the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) framework which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by addressing forest clearance, which is said to account for about 18% of all carbon dioxide emissions.  In theory REDD programs provide support (money) directly to local communities in an effort to get them to stop cutting and burning trees.  The idea is to help them to find alternative livelihoods and enlist them as partners in the fight against global warming.

Anyway, REDD is really big in Indonesia now, and there are a lot of international organizations interested in getting REDD programs going in Indonesia.  Some of these efforts are aimed at slowing the spread of oil palm cultivation, since oil palms, though they are trees, sequester about one-tenth the amount of carbon as an equivalent area of rain forest (26 megagrams of carbon per hectare as opposed to 225 megagrams for an average hectare of rain forest).  The objective of many REDD programs is to alter the cost-benefit calculations of farmers since it's assumed that they make their decisions based on how much money they can make for a particular activity.  Thus in order to convince a farmer not to convert forest to oil palms, you have to make the forest more valuable to him in terms of cash money.  One of the studies I read, though, found that under the current REDD framework, given the way the programs are implemented and funded, it will always be in the farmer's best interest to convert forests to oil palms.  This is pretty discouraging.  You can see accumulated profitability curves in the graph below.  

However, the authors of the study brought up some exceptions.  REDD could be more profitable if the soil is bad, thus limiting the productivity of the oil palms.  Or if the infrastructure (roads) are so bad that they increase the costs of production for the farmers so that it's actually better to join a REDD program.  I immediately began thinking of Bengkulu Utara and Mukomuko, since my rear end still hurts from riding my motorcycle across tens of kilometers of bumpy, gravelly roads.  The people in these districts deal with these conditions all the time, and they complain that it really makes it difficult to make a living.  Nevertheless, villagers are still converting forests to oil palm.  So why not target these areas for REDD projects?  It seems to make more sense in these areas where the economics support the project rather than some other places where you're swimming against the tide.  And if villagers opted to participate in REDD initiatives, it would decrease the pressure on the district government to provide roads to new plantation areas (though it would not relieve the district government of its responsibility to improve the roads to the villages themselves, an area in which they've been terribly remiss).  

I'll likely write more on REDD in the coming weeks if I get more involved in it.  Since it seems to be "the next big thing", there's a lot to talk about.  


(1) Take this with a grain of salt because the Rainforest Action Network is sometimes wrong about stuff.

References and For Further Reading

There's a lot of information out there on palm oil, but the study I cited in this post is

Butler, Rhett A, Lian Pin Koh, and Jaboury Ghazoul.  2009.  REDD in the Red: Palm Oil Could Undermine Carbon Payment Schemes.  Conservation Letters 2, pp67-73.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

With the Elephants

This past week I made my way down to Mukomuko to visit an activist friend in Sungai Ipuh.  Previously another friend had invited me to visit the Seblat Elephant Conservation Center, one of nine elephant camps on the island of Sumatra.  The elephant camp is located in the district of North Bengkulu, about 3 hours south of Sungai Ipuh.  Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to stop by the elephant camp for a few days.  To get there I had to drive over gravel roads for about 25 kilometers (evidently there's a grand total of one sealed road in the whole province of Bengkulu), park my bike, and then cross the Seblat river in a dugout canoe.  The trip was definitely worth it, though, as I had the opportunity to help bathe the elephants and participate in their training.  I even got to drive an elephant, which is harder than it looks.

The Seblat Elephant Conservation Center

The center I visited was established in the early 1990s as a response to increasing human-elephant conflicts in Southwest Sumatra.  Most of these conflicts stem from diminishing habitat; as farmers and oil palm plantations expand the area under cultivation and open up new fields where there had previously been forest the space left for the elephants decreases.  Elephants are not shy about raiding crops, and they really like eating palm oil palms, and so in many places they come to be viewed as a pest and hazard by local folks.  Elephant conservation centers (ECC) are theoretically places where elephants can be trained to avoid inhabited areas.  They also provide a place where injured or sick elephants can receive treatment.

The Seblat ECC currently has 19 elephants who are cared for by 29 mahouts (keepers) who mostly come from the villages surrounding the elephant camp.  There is also a small support staff there and a vet (my friend) who generally spends a couple of weeks a month at the camp.  The ECC, which is the only one of the nine elephant camps on Sumatra that still has a significant amount of forested area (the camp is around 8000 hectares total), is also home to forest pigs, mousedeer, Sumatran tigers, hornbills, and other wildlife. 

While at the elephant camp I got the chance to visit with a group of three folks visiting from Australia (one of them was a New Zealander living in Australia) who had come to help care for a baby elephant named Bona.  Bona was rescued from a trap in early 2011 and was brought to the camp for care.  At that time there were no signs of the two-year-old elephant's mother, and she was in really bad shape and not expected to live.  Fortunately for Bona word of her plight spread to Australia, where my three new friends (Bruce, Murray, and Amanda), all formally employed at the Australian Zoo, decided to take action.  They began a fundraising campaign to buy medicine and nutritional supplements.  When I met them they told me how Bona's plight has drawn attention around the world.  They also told me about the difficulties they faced actually getting the medicine and nutritional supplements to the camp.  As a result of their efforts, Bona is doing a lot better and has been "adopted" by one of the resident female elephants.  My new friends are having the time of their lives caring for the baby elephant; every morning they wake up early to prepare her meals and they spend a good part of the day taking care of her.  If you'd like to follow their adventure you can read their blog by clicking here.  

The Politics of the Elephant Camp

Sumatra's elephant camps fall under the authority of the Forestry Ministry's bureau of natural resource conservation.  Though the Seblat camp is located near Kerinci Seblat National Park, it is separated by an area designated as production forest (which hasn't been utilized yet) and thus is about 1.5 kilometers outside the boundary of the park.  Since the elephants would have to traverse the production forest to get to or from the park, there is always the possibility of human-animal conflict.  To address this problem the ECC and its supervising agency several years ago proposed the establishment of a forested corridor which would connect the elephant camp to the park.  The proposal was rejected for unspecified reasons, but an examination of the "political ecology" of the elephant camp sheds some light. 

The major "problem" with the elephant camp is that it sits on land that is thought to contain significant coal reserves.  Indeed, there are a number of coal mines in the vicinity, and the night sky is always illuminated by the high-wattage lights used so that mining can continue 24/7.  The district and provincial governments get a chunk of the mining, but what is more important than the official payments are the informal payments (bribes) and benefits that get channeled to political leaders ranging from the governor on down to heads of villages.  Although the district and provincial governments would like to move (or close down) the elephant camp, they can't because it's under the jurisdiction of the national government.  So what has happened here (this is pretty common around the park in my experience) is that the local, district, and provincial officials find ways to undermine the elephant camp through neglect or even underhanded, back-room dealings. 

In the map I've provided above you can see the layout of the ECC and it's relationship to the park.  I've also indicated the proposed (and rejected) corridor that would have linked the two areas.  Lastly I've indicated an area just outside the ECC but between the ECC and the park where 400 households have established an illegal settlement in the production forest.  These people are not locals; they come from the vicinity of Tapan which is in another province to the north.  They have "bought" the land from the head of one of the villages near the ECC.  The village head coordinated bringing the people in and has issued certificates of ownership, but he has absolutely no legal authority to do this because the land is far outside his village.  This makes the whole endeavor completely illegal and in violation of numerous laws, but the district and provincial governments, though frowning upon the illegal settlement, have made no efforts to address the situation.

The reason for this is that the presence of the illegal settlement makes any potential corridor between the park and the elephant camp impossible, and though the ECC's initial proposal was rejected there's no guarantee that the issue won't come up again.  The district and provincial governments have petitioned the Ministry of Forestry to move the camp because they want to grant mining leases on the land.  Thus from their point of view anything that is bad for the elephant camp is good for them, because it strengthens their argument that the camp should be moved.  Removing the wildlife corridor from the picture makes the camp less effective so the district and provincial government turn a blind eye to the settlers.

In addition the provincial government has violated national law by granting permission to mining companies to do exploration in the elephant camp.  A couple of years ago the former governor of Bengkulu province (who is now in prison for corruption) signed a letter authorizing a mining survey of the elephant camp.  Normally the camp is periodically patrolled by rangers who attempt to prevent logging, poaching, and other extractive activities (a survey is an extractive activity and thus illegal), but in this case officials within the Forestry department received calls from a couple of generals and highly-placed police officers "asking" them to allow the mining survey.  The team went in and took coordinates and samples which would later be used in proposals and other material used to attract investors.  In the picture you can see the actual list of coordinates, which pretty exactly match up with the boundaries of the elephant camp, signed by the former governor of Bengkulu.  This document, of course, is pretty clear evidence of illegal activities.  I've also included a map below from the same set of documents.  There doesn't seem to be anyone in the elephant camp's camp on this matter, though, as everyone not involved in the maintenance and care of elephants seems to have accepted that moving or closing the camp is a foregone conclusion.

Although one of my responsibilities as a researcher is to remain neutral, it is a bit sad to see things play out this way.  I know the dedication of my friends at the elephant camp, who work for pretty paltry salaries but still love their jobs.  For their part they are trying to work closely with the village heads around the camp to increase awareness and to illustrate the potential value of the camp.  They are working to develop tourism packages and are exploring ways in which local communities could be involved, thus provided tangible benefits to the communities around the park.  Unfortunately the deck seems to be stacked against them, because when bupatis and governors smell money they tend to ignore local folks.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

From Illegal Logger to Forest Defender

Barlian and daughter Novi taking a break on the "road".
Note the Ipad.
This past weekend I took a trip down to a town called Sungai Ipuh in Mukomuko district, Bengkulu Province to see Barlian, the head of GenesisMukomuko, a small non-governmental organization (NGO) concerned with a number of conservation and social justice issues.  I'd communicated a good bit with Barlian via Facebook and I knew a bit about him and his NGOs activities, but we never met personally.  In addition to getting to know Barlian, I wanted to pick his brain about some of the proposed road projects that would cut through the national park.  In addition, Barlian was recently profiled in Kompas, Indonesia's newspaper of record, which is pretty cool.  We met in a cafe on the side of the road about 20km south of Tapan.  I found him sitting there fooling around with his new Ipad (which I would come to learn is an essential accessory for Barlian), and after a coffee we saddled up and rode a further 2 hours to his home in Mukomuko.

Barlian's Story

In 1998 what would come to be known as the Asian financial crisis swept like a wave across Southeast Asia, crippling the economies of most of the countries in the region along with that of South Korea.  Indonesia was among the hardest hit, and my friend Barlian, like many others, was seriously affected.  Previously Barlian had harvested non-timber forest products to be sold to cosmetics companies, but the market collapsed.  To feed his family, Barlian turned to illegal logging in the forests of Kerinci Seblat National Park, where I'm doing my PhD research.  Barlian worked as a kind of scout or surveyor for a cukong (1), entering the forest to locate valuable species, like Meranti and Damar Laut which would later be harvested and cut into logs by a chainsaw operator and hauled out by porters.  Barlian told me that a single Meranti tree could yield 15 cubic meters of wood, and that he and his crew could harvest around 50 cubic meters per week.  The pay was very good; in a week Barlian could make what others make in a month, and he suddenly found himself with more money that he knew what to do with.  He even ended up lending a significant amount to neighbors in need.

But then in the early 2000s something happened.  Barlian got involved in a grassroots campaign to prevent the district government from granting a large land concession to a giant plantation company.  The company planned to plant palm oil, which would put a lot of money in the pocket of the local government, but much of the land involved was already occupied by villagers, and so they would lose their land and source of livelihood.  Due to his involvement in the ultimately successful campaign, Barlian's eyes were opened not only to issues of land equity, but he also learned about all the ecosystem services that forests provide to the local people.  He decided to turn away from illegal logging and he eventually founded GenesisMukomuko, which has developed into a highly-regarded organization that carries out educational programs, forest monitoring, and lobbying activities.  GenesisMukomuko works with international organizations like Conservation International (CI) and Flora and Fauna International (FFI).

Barlian also has become an expert at using social media to spread the word about illegal activities or policies that might threaten the national park.  Though Barlian is quick to say he's lacking in formal education (he only finished middle school), he points to his background as an illegal logger (2) as an asset; as we sat surveying the site one of the 33 proposed roads that would cut through the park (Sungai Ipuh-Lempur) he told me that if a helicopter dropped him anywhere in the park's forest, he could find his way out without a compass or map.  Knowing how the illegal logging business works helps in identifying networks and getting the word out.  Barlian also travels extensively; he said he's already worn out 2 motorcycles exploring and visiting different parts of the 1.3 million hectare park.

The Sungai Ipuh-Lempur Road

As I've mentioned previously, the Sungai Ipuh-Lempur road is one of 33 road proposals currently being discussed by various agencies at different levels in the Indonesian governmental hierarchy.  This particular road would join two villages on different sides of the Bukit Barisan mountains, the first being in Mukomuko district (where Barlian lives), the second being in Kerinci district (where I live).  Currently it takes about 6-7 hours to go from Lempur to Sungai Ipuh, but a 40 kilometer shortcut through the park would turn it into a one-hour trip.  Proponents of the road say it would improve cultural ties between the historically linked villages and that it would improve the economy in both districts by increasing trade and access.  On the other hand the road would cut through sensitive ecosystems and the habitat of several endangered species, including the Sumatran tiger.  Opponents of the road also claim that it would make it easier for illegal loggers and poachers to enter the park, and that it would facilitate forest encroachment by pioneering farmers.

Another break on the "road".  Again, note the Ipad.
Barlian and I took a pretty extreme motorcycle tour of the area so I could get an idea of the location of the proposed road.  We had to pass through acres and acres of village palm oil patches using dirt and gravel roads and crossing streams.  Fortunately it hadn't rained in a few days, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to get anywhere.  One of the things that strikes you (literally and figuratively) in Sumatra is the general condition of the roads.  Opponents of roads through the park often make the point that if the district governments can't maintain the roads that they already have, why do they want to build new ones through the park?  As I struggled to guide my motorcycle through the mud this question occurred to me, since poor roads increase the cost of production for village farmers and make it difficult to get their goods to market.

Barlian told me that for the most part the people of Sungai Ipuh aren't very concerned about the road (3); conversations with other residents confirmed that most of them could go either way on the issue and that their main concern was indeed the condition of the existing roads.  There doesn't seem to be much substance to the economic development arguments because there aren't really any complimentary products or services between Mukomuko and Kerinci, and the trade that does exist wouldn't be affected one way or another by a new road.  Barlian told me that he can't figure out who is actually in favor of the road on the Mukomuko side, but the real backers are the folks in Lempur, who are relatively wealthy.  Barlian told me that the true motivation is that they want to be able to buy land in Mukomuko that can easily be accessed from Lempur.  This, he explained to me, would increase pressure on the park because the value of land would increase and people would be pushed to illegally cultivate fields in the park.  He predicted that if the road was opened, all the forests in the area would be cleared in 10 years.

Palm Oil: Another Concern

GenesisMukomuko also focuses on the palm oil industry in Mukomuko.  Palm oil comes from a palm tree and is used for all sorts of purposes ranging from cooking to powering vehicles.  It's one of the more valuable crops in terms of yields, and so over the past 20 years there has been a huge increase in palm oil cultivation in coastal areas of Sumatra.  Most palm oil is produced by large corporations, and many of these firms were granted vast estates by the government of President Suharto, who resigned amidst widespread protests in 1998.  During the Suharto years rights to exploit Indonesia's natural resources, especially those of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Papua, were granted to friends and family of the corrupt regime.  A few people got very rich, but the people living around the mines and forest estates enjoyed none of the benefits.  When Suharto fell most of the concessions awarded during his reign remained, which has caused a lot controversy now that power has been decentralized to the provinces and districts.  Local people (and local governments) want to reap the rewards of resources they perceive to be, by right, theirs, but long-term leases and concessions with terms very favorable to the large corporations are still in effect.

This is particularly problematic in Mukomuko, where AgroMuko, a Belgian-owned firm, and other large corporations control approximately 130,000 of around 400,000 total hectares in the district.  Although the palm oil produced by these big firms is by far the largest industry in the district, most of the revenue goes to the national government, and many argue that the taxes and other contributions are far too low.  In addition, the laborers on the large estates are poorly paid, and so very few local people are willing to work there, which means that there are a lot of people from outside the district moving in.  Local people would rather own and grow their own palm oil patches, but the problem is that the best land has already been given to the big companies, and the government has so far neglected to provided the transportation infrastructure necessary to enable the local farmers to thrive.  They also complain that good seedlings are too expensive and so they are forced to use inferior varieties that often fail.

Palm oil and coastal erosion.  The wall and armoring to the
right of the photo were started a couple of years ago.  
On the way down to Sungai Ipuh Barlian and I stopped at the beach, which is just off the road.  I was amazed to see glassy conditions and set after set of perfect 3-7 foot waves coming in over a 2 kilometer stretch (I've already named one of the breaks).  I was shocked though when Barlian told me that just 10 years ago there was a large conservation area protecting coastal marshes where the beach is now.  He and others contend that the rapid coastal erosion that is such a big problem in Mukomuko and other districts on the western edge of Sumatra is caused by the big oil palm estates.  One tree sucks up 800 liters of water per day, and so the idea is that they lower the water table, altering the hydrology of the region which hastens coastal erosion.  Thus this is another way in which the local people are hurt by the big companies; though they suffer all of the environmental consequences they don't share in the profits.  According to people like Barlian, if more of the land was owned and managed by local people, they would use more sustainable methods.

I had a really good time staying at Barlian's place over the weekend and am happy to have made a new friend.  If you'd like to learn more about GenesisMukomuko, you can check out their website by clicking here, though most of it is in Indonesian.  If you have specific questions you can email me at