Day 2: Bukit Lawang to Medan

Up at 6am awoken by the exotic calls of the Thomas Langur monkeys and the meaner looking long-tailed macaques. These were accompanied by the myriad of birdcalls and the arrival of the rainforest day-shifters…. it is impossible to sleep on.

Time for a cold shower and to gather our kit wearing our forest clothes (to deter leeches and mosquitos) we set out for our dawn walk. Not far beyond the boundary of the forest we encountered early sightings of bird and mammal activity. The first highlight was a Thomas Langur family with a dominant male posing perfectly on a lower branch. He was totally aware of our presence and kept one eye closely on us whilst he listened intently to the calls of his nearby family. Every now and then he looked down upon us with contempt and then glibly turned his back. We held our breath and stood completely still as our cameras rolled.  The fact that he was so close and that our eyes could lock into his made this a very intimate moment.

In the background an Eagle bird shrieked and two chestnut–headed bee-eaters perched above us; their elegant silhouette cast clearly against the blue sky. There were two very scrawny Slender squirrels chasing each other vehemently up the branches of a fig tree. Their scruffy and scraggy little tails jauntily cast upwards towards their bodies.   I later spotted a much larger bodied jet black squirrel with an enormously thick tail which looked incredibly like the flying black giant squirrel; however I could not be sure as this is usually a nocturnal species. Nevertheless it was large and striking especially in comparison to its scrawny cousins.

Further along the trail we had two very good sightings of female orangutans and their offspring: two groups, one consisting of three generations, a mother, her baby and its older sibling, and another just a mother and her baby. Perfectly adapted for life in the canopy, the mothers wait patiently for their boisterous and bold babies to practice their swinging techniques. They are constantly on the move; giving the impression of a naughty, playful child.  The mothers sit still and look down upon us with the most ancient of faces and an expression situated somewhere between boredom and curiosity.

By now given the number of orangutan we had seen already in only two forays in the forest, we conceded just how habituated these animals were. One baby extended his long arm to us and clearly gesticulated for a banana.  Somehow it lessened the experience.  Whilst still lovely to have close uninterrupted views of the animals and to be able to take photographs, it started to feel more like a wildlife park than a rain forest.  Our guide told us of one female, Mina, who had become very aggressive towards guides and visitors. It was apparent that the guides did not like us to get too close as their behavior could be unpredictable and they can inflict serious damage if so inclined.

Frequent human contact blurs the boundary between humanity and animality and paves the way for such conflict.  These animals can be naturally quite aggressive despite their angelic, placid faces.  Interestingly their Bornean counterparts are more aggressive than Sumatran Orangutans.  This is mostly because the Bornean forest is less abundant with fruit trees and therefore there is more competition for scarce resources.  In Sumatra there is a better quality forest for them and an abundance of fruit trees which they don’t have to fight over.

Bukit Lawang is not a wildlife park but they describe themselves as a ‘viewing centre’. It was set up by a lady called Regina Fry in the 1970s as a place for rehabilitation of orangutans; it was never meant for tourists. Today, the orangutans who reside there (some released back into the wild following captivity or capture by farmers) are free to roam and to be as wild as they choose; there are no boundaries for them, and there are some ‘wild’ orangutans in the vicinity who keep their distance from tourist activity.  But whilst there are people and food, there is little reason for habituated animals to branch out on their own thus making the notion (or story) of rehabilitation a façade.

Now that our forest experience here is at an end, we acknowledge the touristic nature of the place and although enjoyable, the experience was both contrived and sadly not a deep, authentic or holistic view of the forest and its inhabitants. That said, the accommodation at the Ecolodge was actually very good and  potentially a good blueprint for further ecotourism development in Sumatra.   We had some time for further research before we packed our belongings and checked out back to Medan.

In Medan we headed straight for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation programme’s (SOCP)  office where I was introduced to the team that Mandy and Ross had been working with. I took the opportunity to chat with David Delatore, whose paper I had read regarding tourism and orangutan conservation.  Our conversation culminated in rather a depressing scenario for Sumatran ecotourism and orangutans.  Together we described a list of problems with tourism which do little to support conservation.  That said, one has to keep tourism impacts in perspective; compared to deforestation they often pale into insignificance; without preservation of the habitat, there is no tourism.

Whilst orangutan tourism can protect areas of forest which otherwise would undoubtedly be lain over to palm oil plantation (providing there is sufficient economic benefit), Indonesia is nonetheless missing or squandering a huge opportunity to offer a high quality, unique eco-tourist experience. Sumatran rainforests have a wealth of flagship species as well as interesting birds, insects, mammals and reptiles.  There are Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, rhino and several species of primate including orangutan (which only occur in Sumatra and Borneo). But as it is, the ecotourism that is offered at Bukit Lawang, Lake Toba and Tangkahan exhibit several issues:

It is orientated towards mass tourism and an already saturated market mostly focused on a single species.

The tourist guides are largely uneducated about the wider species and habitat. They are not well trained, are poorly versed in forest ecology and species, and do not always exhibit responsible, sustainable behaviour (certainly this resonated with our experience at Bukit Lawang where the guide could not name even the common birds and butterflies. He only knew about the primates and a couple of trees or plants).

There is hardly any interpretation either from the guides or indeed from within the lodges. In other countries, ecolodges often have a small reference section in the restaurant where there are maps, photographs, interpretation and natural history books.

There are no planning regulations or rules.

The experience the offer is far too cheap. The permit to enter the national park is 150,000 Sumatran ringgits (£7.76) which is absurd given what it is in other countries to visit national parks. Whilst you may argue that it broadens access, it actually serves to undervalue the experience. It sends out the impression that the forest doesn’t really matter, that orangutans are there for everyone and for those tourists at Bukit Lawang that the orangutans are numerous and doing well, which completely opposes reality. There is no real attempt to explain their plight.

The loss in revenue is a lost opportunity to raise the bar in terms of quality accommodation and also profits to be invested back into the habitat and the conservation of species.

Nobody really cares. The government hardly gets involved. There is no investment in ecotourism infrastructure, training, regulation or wildlife guide accreditation. Instead they are just cashing in on short-term profit.

In fact in Indonesia nobody expects the Government to care or do anything about anything. There is a lot of apathy, corruption and lethargy.

Malaysia (Borneo) is a better model and modes operandi for orangutan tourism. It is marketed better, it is relatively exclusive, it is not entirely focused on orangutans but also other primates, birds, snakes, butterflies etc.  There are forest walks, night time walks and cultural activities in the local villages, and most importantly, the wildlife guides are more knowledgeable about a range of species.  From my experience in Borneo last year, it leaves a better impression on the visitor.  Therefore ecotourism can support conservation but only if managed and packaged appropriately and properly.