An uneventful trip back to Medan is followed by a further seven days of travel, of meetings and of forming new elephant conservation research partnerships. The first is a trip to Banda Aceh to meet colleagues at the Universitas Syiah Kuala. Banda Aceh is a clean and bright coastal town famous for the 2004 tsunami which was the first place to be devastated in Indonesia. It is more attractive than Medan and the redevelopment relatively tasteful. 95% of the population are Islamic and since the conflict in Aceh province there is a stricter adherence to moderate dressing and behaviour. Despite the province’s past misfortunes, there is a positive, bright vibe to the city.
After the Tsunami the land near the coast was very cheap but now the high prices have returned as the coast is still the preferred location to live. Here I meet survivors of the Tsunami and am mesmerised by their stories of bravery and survival. The ship that was washed 5km from the sea is now a (dark) tourist attraction and a memorial for all those whose lives were lost that fateful day.
From Banda Aceh we travel to Langsa to meet Mr Rudi Putra who is an elephant specialist and a distinguished campaigner for elephant conservation. The Sumatran elephant is found only on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The population is decreasing with approximately 2000 elephants left in the wild. The rapid conversion of elephant habitat for palm oil plantations have led to increased contact between humans and wild elephants, thereby resulting in conflict in almost all districts within Sumatra. In the past, these elephant human encounters were handled by capturing problem elephants but slowly the need for elephant conservation is hitting home. It is through Rudi that we are invited to an opening ceremony of a new Conservation Response Unit (CRU) in Lokop whereby domestic elephants will be used to chase off wild elephants in order to avoid conflict.
A four hour drive into the forest and past the village of Lokop, we eventually arrive at the ceremony. In the middle of nowhere and in torrential rain and mud, we see before us a red carpet and an abundance of colour and activity. It is an important day for Rudi. His incredibly hard work in campaigning has resulted in the interest from several dignitaries and forest department officials. We become distinguished guests and an important foreign presence which adds weight to Rudi’s campaign. The event is marked with dance, prayer, speeches, rituals, high media presence and food and hospitality. We are delighted to be part of this and are made to feel very welcome.
More overland travel back to Medan and our next visit. This time to the Universitas Sumetera Utara in Medan where a memorandum of agreement is being drawn allowing Bournemouth University students to work alongside Indonesian researchers for orangutan and elephant conservation. For further details of this project and our research, please visit: http://go-leap.wix.com/home.
And finally we get time to visit the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation programme’s (SOCP) quarantine centre. The orangutans here are comprised of a number of animals with very sad histories of serious violence and abuse, of being captured for the pet industry or homeless as forest habitat is lost to plantation development. Despite these realities the primatologists at the SOCP remain positive and optimistic; every saved orangutan is worth celebrating. Their quarintine centre is doing fabulous work preparing the growing number of captured orangutans for release back into the wild. Contact with humans is as minimal as possible as baby orangutans learn from each other and adult orangutan are cared for until they are ready to be released into secret, but protected areas, of the Leuser national park. Females tend to fare better than males and success is relatively high.
The last day is spent in Medan, relaxing, sightseeing and drinking the most delicious banana milkshakes. It has been an incredibly busy two weeks of fieldwork and meetings. We end our visit to Sumatra but our research here carries on……