George Horsington travels with his family to the Indonesian island of Sumatra and gets a first-hand look at the devastation being wrought on the jungle and its inhabitants.
To witness the destruction of the Sumatran jungle is a once in a lifetime experience – once in your own lifetime and once in the lifetime of the planet. If you care about the environment, this should be the trip you make while you live in Southeast Asia.
In their hearts, I think almost everyone in Singapore knows what is happening across the Straits of Malacca, but most seem in denial about it. Each September, a cloud of smog at the end of the dry season descends; people tut at how terrible it is, asthmatics are advised to stay indoors and the visibility drops. Then the monsoons change, the rains fall, the haze clears over Raffles Place and life goes on.
Eco-tourism is in its infancy in Sumatra, and I can’t guarantee any comforts, not even hot water, air conditioning, regular electricity or a mobile phone signal. The area is malarial and I experienced a month of vivid dreams as a result of the prophylactics.
However, it is only by visiting the fragile, threatened national parks of Sumatra that we can make it worthwhile for the local people and local authorities to preserve and protect the forests. You can make a difference, so this incredible habitat can be protected for future generations. If you don’t go, the loggers, the poachers and the palm oil plantation owners have the place to themselves. There are fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers left in a fragmented and threatened habitat, and less than a thousand wild elephants.
SilkAir flies to the gritty frontier town of Pekanbaru three times a week. The flight takes 50 minutes. Ours was ominously delayed due to haze at the destination. We arrived and headed straight for the WWF office to see a video about the conservation issues facing Tesso Nilo National Park. It was overwhelming, with photos of a poisoned elephant, depressing statistics on deforestation and habitat destruction, and a voice-over emphasising the collapse of the wild elephant and tiger populations. Indonesia is now the world’s leading palm oil exporter and the lowland forests of the province of Riau are prime land for clearance.
Then we drove the four hours to Tesso Nilo. The roads got narrower and narrower. Soon we were on dirt tracks cut through the ochre soil of the palm plantations, passing crude wooden houses with chickens running around outside and washing drying on bushes. We crossed rickety wooden bridges over whisky-brown rivers, stained by the peat.
Arriving at Tesso Nilo, we found a large gateway with the WWF panda logo on it. There was an office and two spartan whitewashed chalets, each with two bedrooms.
We went out to meet the famous Flying Squad elephants, used to patrol the park boundaries to keep the wild elephants in the 35,000 protected hectares. The mahouts were washing the animals at a concrete water trough in a paddock littered with dung and discarded palm leaves. My six-year-old daughter Poppi was awestruck. Several of the female elephants had babies and there were two adolescent elephants.
We fed the elephants and admired their almost obscenely pink and fleshy mouths and tongues as they devoured the bananas and pineapples from our hands. Then we made “elephant brownies”, slicing cylinders of palm sugar with a machete and crushing it with the flat of the blade, then grinding some mineral salts and mixing it all together with maize flour in a cauldron over flames, stirring it with giant paddles.
The next day was unexpectedly physically arduous. Breakfast was fried noodles eaten outside at one of the wooden tables. The mahouts were gathering the elephants for their morning wash, then they saddled them up. All the previous elephant trekking that I have done has involved wooden frames on the elephants’ backs. In Tesso Nilo, the saddle was a simple padded blanket over a hessian sheet. This makes riding the tuskers harder than riding a horse, as there is nothing in front of you to hold on to. You cling on with your thighs and knees for dear life.
We headed off through the jungle along a path to the river. Each elephant attracted huge flies, but thankfully they didn’t seem interested in us, only in the elephants. Both bull elephants submerged themselves to the crowns of their heads with us riders on board.
Then we ventured into the jungle. An hour or two of blundering through the forest followed. We forded streams, slipping and sliding up the muddy banks in an almost uncontrolled manner, which was terrifying given the five-ton weight of an elephant. We were cut by thorny rattan branches, we brushed off vines and we had to tuck our legs in when the beasts squeezed between trees. The elephants fed along the way – they need 200kg of vegetation a day. At one point they walked along a fallen tree trunk, balancing perfectly. The final leg was through a peat swamp. By the end, we were all sore but exhilarated.
After we had fed the elephants the next morning, we headed to the village beside the murky Sawar River to take a pair of wooden boats up into the heart of the park. Logging was going on all around us. If the jungles of the tropics are the lungs of the planet, then I’d say we’re all at risk of emphysema.
The diesel engine, open and exposed in the centre of the boat, thumped along. It felt like a scene from Apocalypse Now, travelling up the river in little more than a slender skiff. We saw no villages, but a few fishing traps were evident. The forest canopy wasn’t as thick and luxuriant as it perhaps might have been. Our guide led us into the jungle to find a WWF camera trap, which had been set to record the movements of any large animals that passed.
It was clear, though, that all was not well. The track we were following was marked by sawn-off pieces off bark. The guide pointed out some claw marks on a tree trunk from a sun bear, and also some notches hacked there by loggers. We found a logger’s shack with a woven palm front roof, open on the sides. The builder had positioned it beside a stream, which would be used to float away the timber in the rainy season. Further up the hill we found the largest tree in the vicinity lying on its side, felled by a chainsaw and in the process of being chopped up, wood shavings and bark everywhere. This was in a national park.
We found the camera trap, but in three weeks it had only snapped a proud wild boar and some monkeys. No tigers. I popped Poppi onto my shoulders and we walked back along the track. We ate lunch in a clearing in the jungle, sitting on a naturally fallen log and eating rice wrapped in a banana leaf with beef and chilli sambal. Then we trekked back to the boat and returned down the river, aware that in a few years, nothing of the forest may remain. Go now.
We arranged our trip by emailing the WWF field office directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The cost was approximately US$450 per person including return transfers from the airport to the park (about three hours) and everything else. There is a 150,000Rp ($18) departure tax per person in Pekanbaru and a $25 visa-on-arrival fee. We paid $50 per room to stay at the clean and pleasant Ibis Hotel in Pekanbaru for the last night.
SilkAir flies direct from Singapore to Pekanbaru for around $250, but not every day.
For more information, visit www.savesumatra.org.
Like this? Read more at our travel section.