The missing link pt.1 - Batu Kapal : the environmental ark

The missing link pt.1 - Batu Kapal : the environmental ark

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My name is Sean Delaney and my wife Sue Delaney and I started this program about 4 years ago after visiting Sumatra to come and see orangutan. Sometime after our first visit, we started to make a trekking company, which employs local guides to do ethical tourism. And we started looking for an opportunity to play a role in conservation of the Leuser System. And we were looking for land.

And we knew of "Batu Kapal". So we were invited by some people in this community to purchase this land. So, "Batu" is rock, "Kapal" is ship, The Karonese people make it, the name of this place. We knew that there was a remnant population of orangutan up here and had noticed the geological formation of limestone that runs behind us in terms of a cliff. The limestone feature has, on the top of it still remnant forest and quite a significant number of old growth fig trees which provide important food and the ability for orangutan to move quite easily through this range, even after farmland has encroached on both side of that structure.

So it's a little bit of an unusual circumstance, it's acted a little bit like an "environmental ark", has protected the species. And not only has it protected it, the wild orangutan population here is actually not just surviving, it's thriving. We seem to have a particularly high number of young and orangutan are in good health.

So it's an interesting area to study and learn more about. The real battle front, if you like, for conservation isn't in the center of the park. It's the boundary area, this transition between the park, the primary forest of the park and the secondary forest and mixed farming.

The food reserves in the boundary area are significantly higher because of the planting and the clearing and the effect of the grass, more fruit trees, more farms. But equally, this boundary area is a high conflict zone where animals and humans fight over those resources. So we feel very strongly that if we're going to make a stand and protect it, then this is a good place to start. Here we have the boundary of the park, which is under attack.

And you don't start by putting a fence around it, telling people to get out. We don't preach to local people and hold our pointed finger and telling them that they're doing it all wrong. You start by working with local communities on what do they need. We go to lock in those boundaries sustainably, which means it's got to be people that live here, on this boundary edge, that get the benefits from the system. They have to play a custodial role, and they must not just survive, but they must prosper, both culturally and economically, for doing that work. If we don't do that for the local people, then the park will continue to shrink.

You can't fix an environmental problem without understanding and resolving both the economic and social issues. "My wall." Once you actually take the time to fully understand what is driving palm oil production and rubber production, that's in quite simple requirements there in terms of reliable economic that have to be met. And at the moment the solution is : more money means, more palm, more money means, more rubber trees, and more palm and more rubber trees means, more clearance. All over Asia, ecosystems are under threat. And the Leuser System is an ecosystem that's under threat.

Make no mistake. It's under threat. It's under threat from deforestation. Is under threat from poaching. It's under threat from development.

As the land use has changed, significant trees have been removed. And what happens, of course, also is as those forests roll back, wild populations of animals are now missing from tropical environments. It's not just a shame those species are lost, what happens when you lose species from the environment is the ecosystem is changed forever.

Species that live their entire life in the trees, like gibbons and orangutan become isolated and fragmented. We no longer have gibbons on this side of the river, and that causes some issues for the genetics of the species, wild orangutans in mating season, where they can call to the females on this side of the river, there's no path to cross. There are, we think, significant opportunities to value add and change farming practices to provide an equal, if not better economic benefit for farmers. That's one of the key strategies in locking in the position of the park boundaries so the park doesn't continue to retrate. So one of the things that volunteers are involved in is connecting a canopy corridor which allows for the movement of tree dwelling species to move back into the park. Those trees are planted not just on our lands, but on neighboring lands.

That we will gift a high value fruit tree, so we would agree the position of the trembesi tree to bridge the river. We get agreement for a spreading forestry. We try to talk with the owner of the land, when they say "yes", we can plant. We have maybe around 150, of the trembesi, the strong trees. Trees grow very slowly.

So those activities actually have 3 different strategies. The long term strategy is the growing of canopy species to allow that reconnection to occur. The medium term strategy is the growing of bamboo, which is a very fast growing plant. And the third one is the construction of aerial bridges using rope systems that we make. The volunteers are also involved in 2 types of monitoring : monitoring of regular sites and "wild monitoring", where we roam much further back into the farm and mixed farming areas so we can build up a more comprehensive picture of orangutan habitation. But that's got 2 purposes : introducing the community that lives here with our activities, building relationships, explaining to people what it is that we're doing.

Why do they have a group of three or four people with cameras and a GPS walking through their land looking up at the trees. Before there was any form of eco-tourism here if an orangutan or monkey was crop raiding, efforts would be made to remove or kill that animal. But now, because of the coming of tourism, that local person knows that one of his neighbors, someone in his community, earns his income from showing that orangutan to tourists. Tourism is a double edged sword. I think sustainable tourism doesn't harm or endanger wildlife, is incredibly powerful and beneficial. Good tourism can provide important jobs and economic benefits to the community.

It can educate and it can permanently change for the better the land use. It can absolutely be a strategy when done correctly. Unmanaged tourism puts enormous pressure on those resources that people are coming to see. Enormous people pressure. People come to make their fortune with tourism, with no controls in place for planning or development or population control.

Enormous pressure on natural resources, because now people need new houses and bridges and boats and buildings. Enormous problems in terms of waste, particularly in areas that are remote and don't yet have established refuse recycling schemes. Plastic is just dumped into river systems. So unmanaged tourism is, quite frankly, catastrophic for the environment. The practice of feeding wild animals is really problematic for a couple of reasons : it fundamentally changes the behavior of wild animals, orangutans walking on the ground, chasing after you, wanting your rice or your banana.

This is not natural behavior and conditions them to interacting with humans in quite an unsafe way. It creates opportunities for significant risk of transference of disease. You know, we've got thousands of people coming from all over the world, on airplanes, that the chance of human disease being passed to orangutans is really, really significant. Feeding exists because a significant proportion of the tourists coming, which we refer to as "selfie tourists", want to come and see orangutan and have their picture taken with the orangutan.

The local tourism offer caters for that because that's what people want. Is it sustainable? No. Is it good for the environment? No. Is it high risk both for the individual and the population? Absolutely, yes.

But it exists because that's what tourists want. "Your flash! Sorry, your flash!" " Ah, sorry, sorry! " So the way to change it is to change the education and tourism behavior. So we need tourists to understand that if they're coming and they're going to want to have their picture taken with them with an orangutan, and then there's consequences of that, that there is a model that sits behind that quite selfish need to have your photo taken with an orangutan, that orangutan is conditioned to come to the food, can become quite aggressive if it doesn't get the food. And every time it does that and every time you take your food or leave your rubbish or have a toilet break, you pose a significant risk to completely wiping out that entire population of orangutan, because that type of contact. It's not so much a question of inappropriate behavior from the locals.

The locals are responding to a need. What we need to do is we need to educate, educate the tourist, the tourist has the power. Ethical tourism want, Humans want to have an experience where you can commune with nature, where you can observe this remarkable animal that's 97% the same DNA as us. What we need to do here is provide a good example.

There's no reason why what we're doing here couldn't be replicated in other places : low impact, small scale, and not just one string to the bows, tourism alone is not going to address this issue. What counts is on-ground work. You know what counts is community building. What counts is trees actually getting into the ground.

These are the things that count. Design, plant and create entirely appropriate, sustainable environments where that interaction between wild orangutan and humans could occur. It's absolutely, critically important that humans and orangutans learn to share the same environment.

I think it's absolutely important that the people that live in the boundary of the Leuser Park have a custodial role. It's an ancient concept that's been practiced here for a long time. It's just forgotten with the types of development and activities that we're seeing now. Often it's not a case of educating local people, it's a case of listening to local people, the right people, because the answers are here. You know, there are Karonese people that have lived here for many generations in a very harmonious way with this environment, particularly the people on the park boundary, the people that are already there, the indigenous people, the farmers, the small landholders are absolutely the reason that we can save the park, if we work with them. I think we all have an obligation, you can't leave it to somebody else.

Clever people have said : "Think global and act local". Get involved, have a go. Small actions can have a significant, significant benefit.

2022-08-25 15:50

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