Sunday, February 19, 2006

On the trail of the Tiger

Saturday 6th August 2005

The last two weeks in Sumatra have been exhausting but exhilarating. We left Jakarta early one morning, accompanied by Pak Wald and Pak Daniel of the Sumatran Tiger Conservation Program, and began a four-day journey up impossibly bumpy roads to the forests of central Sumatra. En route we took in a ferry journey passing Krakatoa in the distance, stopped over at the elephant training centre in Way Kambas, and passed through the concrete skyscrapers that dominate the villages where bird’s nest soup is the primary industry. After three days circumnavigating the many potholes of the trans-Sumatran highway, we eventually arrived at the office of the STCP. That evening we were introduced to the rest of the team and were shown a small sample of the thousands of photos they have collected from their camera traps in the forests, including tapir, clouded leopards, porcupines, deer, elephants, and, of course, tigers. Pak Wald and Pak Yunus, the STCP field manager, then showed us some of the STCP’s recent confiscations – tiger and leopard skins, bones, and teeth.

BTNP, Sumatra

The next day we traveled to some of the palm oil plantations that surround the borders of the forest where the STCP’s Tiger Protection Units run their patrols. Approaching one plantation we managed to get some shots of a huge illegal saw mill just off the road, and talked to a rubber-tapper and his family whose livelihood is threatened by the continuous expansion of palm oil monoculture. Arriving at another plantation still being established nearby, Pak Wald was shocked to find how quickly the forest had been cleared – the area had still been forest when he had last visited, just weeks earlier. On our way out of this plantation we encountered two workers carrying an Argus Pheasant that they had recently captured on the outskirts of the plantation. The Great Argus is a CITES Appendix-I listed endangered species. The unfortunate bird we met had its eyes stitched closed to “keep it calm”. The workers expected to make around £14.50 from selling it. We resisted the temptation to buy this bird from them in order to set it free – our doing so would only mean that word would get round that foreigners were paying for animals and would compound the problem.

Great Argus Frame 3

Later, in yet another plantation, we came across a baby macaque being kept as a family pet and tethered by the neck on an extremely short rope. It is likely the macaque faces a bleak future – a macaque is almost certain to be killed by others in the group if released into a wild population. It felt like every way we turned there were animals that faced similarly uncertain futures as their forest disappears to make way for palm oil.


The next couple of days were spent more happily. We traveled to the STCP base within the forest borders and from there we were able to film siamang whooping through the treetops, and witness the spectacular site of hornbills swooshing and honking overhead. We spent a couple of days trekking the jungle trails with the team, filming the set up of the camera traps and looking for snares set by poachers. We were lucky enough to come across some tiger prints, including some left fairly recently by a tigress and her cubs.

BTNP with Hornbill Flight

Members of the tiger team are recruited only after rigorous jungle training, and although by now fairly acclimatized to the 33 plus degree heat, we found it hard to keep up with the speed with which they move through the forest. They decided we looked like Ninja Turtles due to the big camera cases we were heaving around on our backs, and I think that our obvious discomfort kept them entertained during the periods of time when we needed to stop and take a rest.

That evening we went to meet and interview a man who is known locally as Pak Harimau – Mr Tiger. This man, a small wiry 70-odd year old, claims to have killed 182 tigers over a long career of poaching. On five occasions, the tigers fought back. As his many grandchildren crowded round to listen, Pak Harimau told us the story of how the last tiger to do so dragged him 150 metres by his head. He showed us the horrific scars he bears from this encounter. Nevertheless, although he is now reformed, you get the impression that despite his age and his terrifying experiences he would resume his old career without a second thought if it became legal. He was quite a formidable character.

Tales of Tiger Hunting

Life with the Talang Mamak

Monday 15th August 2005

The next day brought with it another early start as we set off for a Talang Mamak village deep within the forest. Accompanied by Pak Yunus, Andi from the Department of Forestry, and four of the STCP – Pak Muji, Mario, Toto and Hendra, we set off by 4x4 on a deeply gullied track. Luckily Mario, Toto and Hendra had their motorbikes, because we were not long into the journey when the car gave up. It was then a case of ferrying the eight of us, plus food, camera equipment, a generator and gasoline deeper into the forest before all signs of a track disappeared. The team took everything in their stride and with great humour. Everyone had a good laugh at Nick’s expense when he was pitched off the back of the bike as it reared up a particularly nasty rut. With a huge rucksack on his back he got wedged in a gully in the road, legs waving in the air. After hiding the bikes in the forest we continued by foot.

Hornbill at dusk

We arrived at the village just as the light was beginning to fade, after a long and hot five hour walk. The villagers are familiar with the tiger team now – the patrols pass through regularly – although Pak Yunus tells us that the first time he came here a woman ran away screaming when she saw him, thinking, due to the military-style clothing warn by the Unit, that he was part of an invading army. The village is still very isolated and the villagers almost completely self sufficient. They survive on what the forest has to offer them, and they manage to do so sustainably. Yunus tells us that the first time he visited the village there was not really any concept of money. Everything cost 5,000 Rp – one fruit cost the same as ten of the same fruit. With a growing involvement in life outside the forest, money has become more important and villagers can now raise some hard currency by selling the sap that they collect from a rare and particularly valuable sort of rattan that grows locally. A villager is taxed if they kill the plant when they harvest, and fined one goat.

Talang Mamak Hunter

We spent a few days staying at a house in the village that, confusingly, had no walls but did have doors and windows with padlocks and shutters. When we asked why there were doors and windows but no walls, the team laughed and admitted they had not noticed this before. During our stay we got to know several of the villagers including the chief, his son, and the teacher. We swam in the beautiful and pristine river that passes by their doorsteps, and ate what tasted like delicious feasts cooked up by Mario, although they mostly consisted of supernoodles, kecap, and edible bracken picked from the forest. Pak Muji was asked to fix the village’s new TV, the first and only one, powered by the village’s one generator. We understand that someone had inadvertently killed the colour with on of the dials. When the colour was successfully returned, Pak Muji was hailed as a healer. The village now has a school, which Pak Yunus was instrumental in setting up a few years ago, but as yet literacy is still very low. Yunus told us that everyone in the village smokes, except one person, and we even saw very small children smoking. Life expectancy here is well below the national average.

We made the journey out of the forest by dugout canoe, traveling downstream for two days with Pak Yunus, Andi, and the Chief and his son (Mario, Toto, and Hendra traveled out of the forest on foot). The chief displayed his amazing knowledge of the local area and ecology – he was able to name every subspecies of Meranti, and knew every ladang (small forest clearing) by name. Meanwhile Andi entertained us with enthusiastic renditions of virtually every Phil Collins song ever written (during- and post-Genesis) as well as sharing his anecdotes of his time working at Tanjung Patung National Park in Kalimantan, where he was stationed during the making of the now fairly infamous Julia Roberts Orangutan film.

BTNP, Sumatra

Pak Ari, an STCP driver, picked us up in the jeep further downstream where the river meets a track. The journey back to the main road was not plane sailing once we were back in the jeep however – unfortunately, although perhaps quite suitably – a palm oil truck was stuck in the mud and had blocked the road. It seemed a fitting conclusion to our final day of shooting.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Waitrose Ltd. Join the RSPO

After months of campaigning British supermarkets are beginning to agree with conservation groups that the future of the orangutan and sustainable palm oil is the responsibility of the entire supply chain. Waitrose have now followed ASDA in signing up to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. For those of you who have been kind enough to support our work through writing letters to the supermarkets you can now stop writing to these two companies, or perhaps you may want to write to them to thank them for taking this positive step.

We are still waiting for Morrisons to write replies to all the letters that have been sent to them. Not one of the many people who have written to all the major supermarkets have let us know of a reply from Morrisons. We are also still waiting for Tesco to join the RSPO. Tesco are the biggest supermarket in the UK and with expansion across the globe, an announcement of this kind would send a big signal to producers in Malaysia and Indonesia. The RSPO is working hard to make sustainable palm oil a reality, we need to do our part to help the industry realise this. We are not talking about sustainable palm oil as a niche product. We want non-destructive palm oil to be the only type available on the market. The RSPO is the best mechanism to allow this to happen.