Sumatra: Where wildlife and humans are foes in a bitter and constant struggle for land
Statistics never tell the whole story. The same is true for the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the continued assault on its ecology by humans. Home to over 50 million people, Sumatra is the world’s fourth most populous island, but then that does not start saying even half the story.
but most of all, the wanton massacre of its amazing wildlife
The ever-burgeoning population is really what lies at the heart of this tale. A story of forest degradation, soil erosion, a constant onslaught on the island`s ecology, but most of all, the wanton massacre of its amazing wildlife like the Sumatran Orangutan, the Sumatran Tiger, the rhinoceros, and last but certainly not the least, the Sumatran Elephant.
Sumatra is home to a variety of ethnic groups like the Batak, Minangkabau, Krui, and Pelalawan-Petalangan. For centuries, man and animal stayed more or less in consonance with each other, both living off the land, taking only as much as was needed to survive.
Till man turned greedy. The onset of industrialisation followed by the globalisation of recent years has taken its toll on Sumatra. Here, statistics is but one weapon that Green warriors wield to wage an important battle against the ‘bad guys’ in this part of South East Asia. Here’s one number: Forest cover in Sumatra was reduced by as much as 48 percent between 1985 and 2007. Why? Rapid growth in population accompanied by ills such as infrastructure projects, migration, and development of plantations.
The island is home to oil palm plantations. Coffee cultivation is another developing home-spun industry here. Both have led to massive encroachments on forest land. Overall, Indonesia is home to approximately three percent of the world’s forests, and the island of Sumatra makes up a major portion of this, along with their neighbouring island of Borneo. But deforestation is happening rapidly. Trees are being mercilessly chopped down to be turned into pulp and paper, legally and illegally. Just as an aside, two of the world’s best tissue paper brands source their wood from the forests of Sumatra.
But this story does not end at the reduction in the green top. As the onslaught continues, the animals and birds here are being driven deeper and deeper into the forests to escape poachers and repeated attempts by humans to encroach upon their territory. It`s a story that may have ended in doom for the wildlife but for the work of a few who have decided to put up a stand, a final one some even say, to campaign for the rights of the Sumatran flora and fauna.
The battle for Sumatra is still touch-and-go
We will have to once again take recourse to statistics to illustrate this portion of the story:
- A recent survey shows that barely about 6000 Sumatran orangutan are left on the island from the 85,000 that were there at the start of the twentieth century. Of these, some are the Orangutan (Genus Pongo), which is the last surviving Asian great ape.
- The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is a rare tiger subspecies, the smallest (size-wise) in this category, inhabiting Sumatra. Global environmental organisation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature was forced to classify it ‘critically endangered’ in 2008 after the population came down drastically. Now, only about 400 survive.
- The Sumatran rhino seems to be going the tiger way. About 200 survive in the entire South East Asia, the bulk of them in Indonesia and Malaysia.
- The Sumatran Elephant, too, is on the critically endangered list. Total left: approximately 1000-2000 elephants.
Has all of this stopped human beings from their evil machinations? It would not be an overtly optimistic statement if one were to say that the sustained awareness campaigns combined with the government`s efforts to save Sumatra`s wildlife have had some impact, though there are still rogue elements like illegal loggers, squatters and wildlife smugglers out there who continue with their nefarious activities. A quick look at some of the Indonesian newspapers show occasional reportage of such events. Like the one which reported the death of three critically-endangered Sumatran elephants in an oil palm plantation in western Indonesia in mid-2012. All three, said the report, were suspected to have been poisoned.
Or this: Late last year, Indonesian authorities arrested a bird smuggler from a bus in Sumatra, after he was found transporting 20 rare birds including the palm cockatoo.
Of all the four types of wildlife named above, primates are one of the most heavily traded types of wildlife in Sumatra. While there is a legal trade allowed by the government of some of the primates, most is illicit. Primates are traded for consumption, for use in bio-medical research, to be sold to zoos, for extraction of material to be used in the making of traditional medicines; even the entertainment industry.
A few good men, women….and organisations
The fight against illegal poaching and encroachment has been a long, hard, bitterly-fought one. The end is nowhere in sight but let`s just say that an uneasy pause prevails currently in this war.
The Indonesian Government has tried to use its might to clamp down against the smugglers and those illegal squatters who encroach to reside or to do business on land rightfully belonging to the wildlife. The Sumatran tiger, for instance, finds refuge in Indonesia’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, a World Heritage Site spread over 356,000 hectare of land on the southern tip of Sumatra Island. But the government faces a daunting task – at least 20 percent of the park has already fallen to encroachers who have converted it to either coffee plantations or farms growing cash crops like pepper. The 2004 Tsunami in the Indian Ocean has worsened the problem because a large chunk of displaced people from the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra settled down within the park land.
Aiding the government, either in partnership or through their own individual efforts are other Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and individual wildlife experts. In the forefront is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In Borneo and Sumatra, the WWF works with local communities to wage a battle against those intent on destroying the last strongholds of tigers, orangutans, and other species.
Then, in far off Australia, the Taronga and the Taronga Western Plains Zoos, too, are working collectively on a programme to protect the Sumatran Tiger in a number of ways.
In 2010, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, a partnership between the zoos around the world and the fundraising organisation, ‘21st Century Tiger’ was struck to raise awareness about the plight of tiger species. The partnership also generated funds for tiger conservation, and both the Australian zoos are part of this effort.
The Sumatran Tigers on display at Taronga Zoo help raise funds and generate awareness about this species. The population of Sumatran Tigers held in the Australasian region is also vital against further declines in the wild.
For the cause of Sumatra’s elephants, there’s Elephant Family, one of United Kingdom’s largest fund raisers for the endangered elephants of Asia.
This organisation has a three-fold objective:
- Saving habitat, giving elephants the space they need, and reconnecting the great forests of Asia, so elephants can find new sources of food
- Preventing conflict between humans and elephants, by working closely with local communities
- Looking out for the welfare of those Asian elephants in captivity
For example, the Elephant Family works with The Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation (VESSWIC). Established in 2003, the Society, among other services, provides veterinary services to Sumatra’s captive elephant population.
Trying to save the Sumatran Rhino from smugglers is also the International Rhino Foundation, an international body formed over 25 years ago, to protect rhinos from around the world.
The IRF works to protect threatened rhino populations and their habitats in the wild. It also supports the management of and research on captive populations to improve the chances for long-term survival. IRF operates in situ programs in Asia and Africa targeted to the rhino species most in need of and most appropriate for intensive protection and management.
Then there are individual efforts. Anthropologist Michael Reid with the Department of Anthropology, University of Canada is currently doing research on the last remaining Asian ape, the orangutan. Michael’s research focuses on the natural transmission of diseases between humans and orangutans and orangutans and other primates.
There are many such individuals and organisations like Greenpeace, Families for the Rain Forests, to name a few, out there, in the forefront of this battle to save Sumatra’s fragile and wounded ecology. Lack of editorial space stops us from naming all of them and their herculean efforts here but that in no way takes away from the nobility or for that matter, the enormity of their tasks.
The battle for Sumatra is still touch-and-go. In a way, it is no different from the hundreds of similar wars being fought by Green warriors in different parts of the world, but in a way it is unusual, too. For at the heart of this particular war is the very survival of species which are so reduced in numbers that they cannot sustain any more depreciation, or else, we and the generations to come will only have their memories and some images to remember them by.