Mist drifts through the emerald labyrinth of the forest canopy. With no place to escape through the tangled leaves and vines, it rests in the air and clings to our clothes as we trek through the jungle. Vibrant speckles of color periodically pierce through the overwhelming mass of green, as we pass pink flowers of wild ginger, golden hyphae of coral fungi, and iridescent jewel beetles perched on drooping leaves. Joyous hoots of siamang, the world’s largest species of gibbon, ring out from the canopy seemingly above our heads, but I know they are further away than they sound. The more distant wailing of the smaller white-handed gibbons carries with it a somber contrary, as if they were singing the blues of the jungle. We are trekking through a rainforest that has only very rarely been visited by outsiders. An air of mystery permeates through the understory and our innate human curiosity propels us forward. We are on a mission to capture evidence of rare species, and there’s no telling what we will find.
After leaving Thailand in late January I ventured to Sumatra, one of the many tropical islands making up the country of Indonesia. Located within the vast Malay Archipelago, Sumatra is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. It is the only place in the world where it is possible to see elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, and orangutans living in the same forest. I touched down at an airport that was little more than a bus station in the small city of Lubuk Linggau, located within the province of South Sumatra. There I met my good friend, Pungky Nanda Pratama who works in collaboration with the Biodiversity and Conservation Agency of South Sumatra, or BKSDA. Pungky and I have been following each other’s work for the last couple of years, and I was extremely excited to meet him in person and help him with his local conservation efforts.
Upon arriving in the small village outside of town, Pungky introduced me to Ozzi and his family who were so incredibly kind to host me as their houseguest for much of the time during my two week stay. They made it their objective to fatten me up in that short time with rice, fish, chicken, chutney, and delicious fried bread filled with sugar plum and coconut. I had no complaints! That evening I witnessed one of the most surreal sunsets from the house. The cloudy tropical sky morphed into a golden sepia backdrop above a sleepy forest on the fringes of the village. The faint sounds of siamang gibbons off in the distance along with the Muslim call to prayer that graced the town brought me a sense of peace and serenity in this amazing land.
During my first day Pungky and I visited the local plant nursery near the border of the vast Kerinci Seblat National Park. Pungky is one of the founding managers of the Flora Rescue Project in South Sumatra, among the largest initiatives of its kind in the world. Pungky travels to local areas in and near the national park that have been selected for logging and mining, and he carefully removes threatened species of plants to transplant into his secure nursery. His target is endangered orchids as Sumatra has a large number of endemic species, many of which are at risk from environmental degradation and the illegal flower trade. The ultimate goal is to propagate these plants and collect tissue for seed banks before replanting them back inside the national park away from heavy development.
I spent all day helping Pungky replant some recently rescued orchids. I sliced up coconut husks to use as a substrate for the hanging orchid roots to cling to and take up moisture from the saturated tropical air. We carefully mounted the plants to upright beams in the nursery to mimic their epiphytic habits of clinging to tropical rainforest trees. Pungky is an amazing naturalist, with a particular love of plants. His great passion for orchids is contagious and he devotes so much of his time and care to these special plants that they are like his children. He has had great success with propagating orchids and he hopes to expand the effort in the near future. For more information about the South Sumatra Flora Rescue Project in Pungky’s own words, click here.
The following day we took a train from Lubuk Lunggau to the tiny town of Lahat. The railroad ran right through the jungle and we passed by some of the infamous oil palm plantations that have ravaged so much of Indonesia’s rainforests. These plantations produce palm oil which is an additive in many processed foods and cosmetics sold around the world. The palms need tropical climates to grow so many rainforests across Indonesia, Malaysia, and other equatorial countries have been cleared for this lucrative crop. Thankfully South Sumatra has a relatively low number of plantations because the terrain is so rugged and inaccessible. We also passed through several small towns that seemed to spring right out of the jungle. As the only westerner on the train, I gained a fair amount of attention and strangers continuously offered me fruits and snacks along the way.
We arrived in Lahat and Pungky took me to the local office of BKSDA where I met the conservation staff that Pungky works alongside with. They welcomed me with open arms, and we sat around the porch drinking coffee and sharing stories about the field. The team manages several conservation efforts in the area and works with local communities and government bodies to preserve forested land. The office staff also assists when human-wildlife conflict arises. Many of them were exhausted after just returning from a month of trapping for a tiger that had killed several people in a distant village. A majority of the victims had entered the protected forest illegally. The staff told me the gory details about attending the autopsies of the victims, and how the whole ordeal had traumatized the entire village. Amazingly, no one in the village had sought to kill the tiger, and BKSDA was able to safely trap the animal and relocate it to a wildlife sanctuary in Lampung Province. The press release for the trapping can be found here.
The following two days I accompanied Pungky on a three hour motorbike journey to Isau Isau Nature Reserve, a largely unexplored jungle in the lush hills of South Sumatra. It would be here that I would help him with one of his main conservation projects. Along the way, we had to walk the bike over a makeshift bamboo bridge above a roaring river with the aid of local villagers, upon finding that the main concrete bridge had been pulverized by the flooded torrent. It was a wild ride indeed!
Pungky, with funding and support from international patrons, has initiated a camera trap project in Isau Isau to try and obtain evidence of rare mammal species like tigers, clouded leopards, and tapirs. The project has already yielded exciting results of several rare finds and it is hoped that the Indonesian government will soon designate the area as a new national park. We entered the forest with local villagers as our guides.
On the border of the reserve I had my first introduction to durian, a tropical spiky fruit that grows native only in Sumatra and Borneo. February happens to be the fruiting season for this beloved fruit, and one smells the characteristic scent of raw sewage given off by it in every town. Thankfully durian does not taste how it smells in my opinion (many people would strongly disagree) and I actually quite enjoyed it. It has a very unique sweet and buttery flavor, but every individual fruit is said to possess a slightly different taste. It turns out that durian is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get! Once it was discovered that I liked durian, my eager hosts served it to me for every subsequent meal (or afternoon coffee break) and excitedly encouraged me to gorge myself on it each time.
The rainforest of Isau Isau is perhaps the most breathtakingly beautiful rainforest that I’ve ever visited. There were signs of life everywhere: gibbons hooting, hornbills screeching, and giant fig trees towering over the understory, their canopies obscured by fog. Pungky pointed out all the orchids and rare plants that we passed by on our trek. We checked each camera trap, all of which had been tied to tree trunks in prime clearings where wildlife was suspected to wander through. Pungky had not checked these cameras for over three months due to the tiger attacks near the neighboring preserve. Although no tigers have been officially recorded in this forest for decades, many villagers are convinced they still live here, and even some of the guides who patrol the area for illegal poachers are convinced that they have found tracks. The trapping of the tiger outside the neighboring preserve has further convinced locals here.
We stopped at each camera trap and Pungky downloaded the memory cards onto his laptop. The feeling of anticipation and excitement filled us all as we gathered around the laptop to view each video. The cameras are triggered to record video at each sign of movement, so every video has recorded either an animal… or a swaying branch. One video opened up to reveal a large clawed paw covering the entire lens of the camera. We all froze, holding our breaths in sheer excitement. Could this be a tiger?! After a suspenseful five seconds that seemed to last over a minute, the mystery animal put its paw down to reveal its face. It was a curious sun bear. Not a tiger, but a rare and exciting species to capture on camera nonetheless. In fact we found signs of sun bear everywhere. There were claw marks on many trees throughout the forest left by sun bears marking their territory and scrambling up trees in search of bee hives and insect nests. I have to admit this was a little unnerving, as sun bears can be notoriously aggressive and have killed people in this area.
However this small risk is well worth the important data that Pungky collects on the biodiversity in this mysterious forest. Although we got no evidence of tigers on the camera traps, we did see several other incredibly rare species captured on video which can be reported to the Indonesian government and hopefully gain more protective measures for this unique ecosystem. Click hereto learn more about or donate to the Sumatra Camera Trap Project.
While planning my visit to South Sumatra, Pungky promised to take me to the habitat of the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia. These giant crimson flowers are also known as “corpse flowers” because when in full bloom, their fleshy petals look and smell like a rotting carcass to attract the flies that pollinate them. Back in Lubuk Linggau, Ozzi drove us across the provincial border into Bengkulu and up the winding forested road to the realm of the rafflesia. Rafflesia arnoldii, the largest species, is found only in a few localities across Sumatra and Borneo. A single flower when in full bloom can grow to over a meter in diameter. Rafflesias are parasitic and only grow on vines of the genus, Tetrastigma. These vines wrap around the roots and trunks of trees, often snaking across the forest floor and understory. When a rafflesia seed comes into contact with a Tetrastigma, it infects the host and without forming any roots, stems, or leaves, develop a small knob-like pimple on the vine. After about a year of development the pimple blossoms into the spectacular corpse flower for less than two weeks to be pollinated by flies, and then it withers away and dies.
Pungky led me down a trail to get to the area known to be a hotspot for the rafflesia. We found the Tetrastigma host plants everywhere, some with the knobby pimples that are indicative of a future bloom. Unfortunately we were just a few days too late as we found two large flowers that had since bloomed, died, and rotted back into the damp earth.
Although it was slightly disappointing to have missed seeing the rafflesia in bloom, which is among the most remarkable botanical wonders this planet has to offer, we were able to visit the nearby flower conservation center and meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to propagating and conserving Sumatra’s giant flowers. In addition to growing rafflesia flowers, of which this center is among the first facilities in the world to succeed, the staff here has also propagated several species of rare Amorphophallus flowers, the tallest flowers in the world. Here we got to see the mighty Amorphophallus titanum flower which towers over two meters tall. While talking to the staff here, I was again reminded of the intense passion and dedication of so many conservationists across Sumatra.
In the short while that I was in Sumatra, Pungky and I also trekked to the top of a steaming volcano, visited the tiny village of Pagar Agung (in which I was apparently among the first westerners to do so), and toured the small local elephant rescue center run by some of the compassionate staff at BKSDA. I have been deeply moved by the kindness and generosity shown to me by everyone I met in Sumatra. I was welcomed into the homes of strangers who quickly became second family over the matter of just a few days. Pungky is among the most genuine, kind-hearted people I’ve ever met and he works with remarkably selfless people who have devoted their lives to conservation work. He has the love and support from many local villagers who live near the rainforests that he works in, some of whom were once poachers that have since renounced their old way of life. Pungky’s undying love for this remarkable island is highly contagious and he has inspired and shared his work with hundreds of people all over the world. There are still many uphill battles to be won for conservation in Indonesia, but with determined and caring people like Pungky I have so much hope for the country. It was quite sad to leave this amazing place and all the great people I met but I plan to return some day to explore more of the island with my brother, Pungky and assist with the ongoing conservation effort in this enchanted land of South Sumatra.