The Volunteer Coordinator at the Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat is a young man by the name of Santa (pronounced sônta). The retreat is in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia which is on the Island of Sumatra and just north of the Gunung Leuser national park. The Leuser ecosystem is known to be the only place where Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans all live together. However, current population estimates for the Sumatran Rhino are less than 100 individuals and the number of Sumatran tigers is estimated to be 400-500 animals. One of the guides who took me into the rainforest told me he was hired for a 7-day trek into Leuser in search of the elusive Sumatran tiger, but they never saw any.
Santa said the village where he grew up used to look very much like Bukit Lawang. He casually mentioned they didn’t have electricity when he was a boy. Santa told me there is so much oil palm now, a forest like Bukit Lawang is becoming rare. Preserving Bukit Lawang and other corridor forests is very important to the survival of the struggling animals of Sumatra. Without viable pathways into other DNA pools, species become isolated and less robust. Right now, there is a group of 8 to 10 orangutans that are secluded to Bukit Lawang. They are unable to cross the river that separates this area from the Leuser national park because all the tall trees have been removed in favor of oil palm trees. Orangutans use the tall trees to move across geographical barriers like rivers and find new forests.
Santa told me they have mapped the surrounding properties and gotten to know their neighbors, one by one. We spent a couple of evenings with neighbors who came by to play guitar and sing songs with us. They have allowed Santa and his crew of volunteers to plant trees more conducive to orangutan mobility on their property. The neighbor to the north actually cut down their small oil palm plantation in favor of planting durian trees. They hope to attract Sun Bears and open an eco-tourism spot like Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat. Santa said he talks with the neighbors about how they can earn a living from saving the forest and preserving the animal habitat. His passion and love of the forest are infectious. He hopes to stop the spread of palm oil because it is destroying the forest he knew as a boy. “I am jealous with my father, with my grandfather”, he said to me. “I never see the rhino”, he said with his rolling R, “rrrhino”. “They make us not see. I want my little brother to see [the animals] one day”. He continued, “For me, money is not number one, because I want, one day, my younger brother, my [future] child, that they still see this forest. That they see what I see, the animals, you know. And then I hope one day we can see the rhino come back here. Long, long time ago in this area, there were wild elephants but now, not anymore. We hope we can bring the elephant back here too.”
Santa is just 21 years old but probably the most knowledgeable, capable and humble person I’ve ever met in my life. His level of knowledge about the flora, fauna, and dangers of the region was truly astounding. I followed him through the jungle like a child follows the protective care of their parent. His ability to spot nests and animals 100 yards away rivaled the vision, Superman. He was grateful for the opportunities he’s been given at the Sumatra Rainforest Eco Retreat and the chance to make a difference. He didn’t have the wide-eyed naivety of a typical western 21-year old. He is optimistic but also a realist. He is acquainted with the harshness of life. The jungle is harsh. He has worked on a palm plantation. His father once grew oil palm. He knows back-breaking labor and desperate poverty and few choices. He kept saying, “maybe we can’t stop palm oil but, we can stop it from grrrowing and protect the animals”. He was also quick to say the people must have something else. “We can’t take palm oil away and not give them something else”. His friend Edi was a hired as a cook. Embra was hired as an “assistant”, a title that seems like such an under-representation of what Embra does to keep the retreat running smoothly. Jaka works as a forest guide and serves as President of the Yayasan foundation. They all have employment, which they didn’t have before, and they are working for their own future and the future of the next generation. They have good ideas on their own to solve the problems facing the wildlife of Indonesia. They just needed an opportunity and now they have one.
Eco-tourism & Palm Oil Alternatives