At 4am, bleary-eyed but excited, we made our way to Lampung, in the south-west of Sumatra. I’m travelling with lovely WWF colleagues from Indonesia, Philippines, Japan and New Zealand. We’re met by WWF staff based at Lampung and given a fascinating overview of the work being done to help protect Bukit Barisan Selatan (BBS) national park.
WWF’s BBS project leader, Job Charles, tells us how more than 600km2 of this narrow national park has been illegally encroached by farming (coffee and cacao plantations are very common, because chocolate and coffee are booming industries in Indonesia). WWF’s goal is to protect an area nearly six times this size by 2013.
I was shocked to hear that, according to the most recent figures from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and national Rhino Protection Unit (RPU), the park has only a very small number of elephants (500), tigers (50-60) and rhinos (40-60) left in the wild. Key habitat for them in the south has already made way for roads.
I’m still hoping I’ll get to see one of these animals in the wild, but it’s looking doubtful.
It sounds like I’ll certainly be seeing some domesticated elephants – and even riding on one. Elephants like this are a crucial part of local people’s daily lives in many parts of Asia – for example as transport through otherwise impassable terrain, or as part of wildlife-spotting eco-tourism, or for poacher-deterring ‘ele-patrols’, as we’ll see later…
We drive to a butterfly park owned by WWF consultant Gita and her mum. It’s absolutely sweltering – must be mid 30s. The refreshing drink and food they provide is a welcome relief. We’re treated to a typical ’gado gado‘ lunch of chicken, rice and salad in a box with add-your-own peanut satay sauce. Delicious!
I’m curious to try some fresh cacao too… although thankfully I’m warned in advance not to bite into it expecting it to taste like chocolate, or I’d have a very bitter taste in my mouth! Instead you chew off the sweet pulp around the seed – it’s quite pleasant.
Then we head off on a walk. The fact that there are so many butterflies here is a good sign, reflecting an area rich in biodiversity.
The Gita Persada Butterfly Park was founded in 1997 to counter the butterflies’ extinction. Since then, the park has been successful in conserving more than 160 species of Sumatran butterflies.
On our stroll we see all sorts of weird and wonderful insects – from spiders that resemble starfruit to scary-looking caterpillars. One of the butterflies takes a shine to me and latches on to the back of my neck!
In the afternoon we go on to Kota Agung where we meet up with members of the WWF-funded coffee co-operative KOMIT. We’re given a taste of their local coffee, served hot and sweet – along with more snacks! I’ve quickly learnt that everyone in Indonesia is very welcoming.
WWF provides microfinancing to this cooperative to pass on to farmers to help them increase production and earnings. These are farmers who are farming sustainably and legally, away from areas of the national park that need protecting.
As part of a co-op like KOMIT the farmers have a better bargaining position to sell products. At the moment their coffee is only sold locally but they’re hoping to gain an international market.
One thing that might make this easier is the fact that KOMIT has helped them with the process of becoming certified with the Rainforest Alliance, a well recognised label for ’forest friendly’ products that’s becoming more popular with environmentally-conscious consumers.
The co-op also looks after things like media and communications, as well as supporting the national park authorities to develop the area, and providing training to farmers (including the use of GPS technology). It all means the farmers can focus on what they should be spending their time on – crop production, costs etc.
And the coffee tastes so good I put my order in to buy some!
Next we have a few hours’ drive to the elephant patrol camp. It’s getting dark already, but our driver Maria, from WWF’s Lampung office ,carefully navigates the very bumpy uphill roads to get us there.
It’s well worth it – we’re shown to the brand new shelter they’ve just built to cater for the emerging eco-tourism trade, increasing partly due to a nearby surfing hotspot. It’s also a base for the elephant patrol itself, whose main function is to monitor and report on any illegal encroachment activity, such as farming, in the national park.
We meet some of the elephant patrol team, the ’mahouts‘, who describe over dinner the relationship they have with the elephants they each look after. It’s a very dedicated one because they patrol the national park with them every day, sometimes eight hours at a time, and this partnership will last a li
fetime. I ask Ali from the office what qualifications you need to become a mahout, and he replies simply: “Must love elephants!”