We are up early and off back on the bumpy dirt track, this time to ‘Rhino Protection Unit camp area 50’ on the border of the national park, next to a limited protected forest.
When we get out of the vehicle there’s a noticeable difference in terrain – the soil underfoot is a deep red colour and we’re handed wellies for traipsing through the mud. It’s not long before we need to put on our jackets as the rain arrives.
After some tea and introductions to the rangers (who are equipped with machetes and rifles!), we head off on a two-hour trek through the jungle.
This used to be rhino territory, hence the name ’rhino camp’. But sadly rhinos haven’t been seen here since 2007. The last rhino to live at the camp, Rosa, unfortunately had to be relocated to the Sumatran rhino sanctuary because she became unafraid of humans, which made her vulnerable to poachers.
After Rosa was moved a big road was constructed – we can hear the traffic noise now from inside the jungle. The road had a big impact on the rhino population, which moved away, and none have been seen here for the past four years. In fact the only wildlife seen in this particular camp now are elephants and tapirs.
Our guides point out markings on some of the trees – trails of mud from where elephants have had a good old scratch against them!
The rangers in this particular region are doing a three-fold job: protecting the national park with guard posts; helping with ecotourism; and of course routine patrols every night, along with the local people, to prevent human-wildlife conflict that could arise with tigers and elephants living so close by.
The guards also go much further afield to survey and patrol the area. There are 28 of them and they do two big patrol trips a month inside the national park, walking 25-40km over 8-10 days per trip. They’re basically looking for encroachment activity and researching animal numbers and their movement.
Plus they monitor a few areas to see if they can be considered ’rhino hotspots’. They divide the area into ‘grid’ cells, each 8.5km2, and each grid is then surveyed for any signs of rhino presence (footprints, browse marks, faeces and wallows), to establish animal numbers.
WWF has also been helping them instal and monitor camera traps in these hotspots, which are automatically triggered to photograph or film animals as they come near. These traps cost $300US each. It’s only been going six months here and they need $3,000US per month for two teams to monitor them. It’s a far more efficient approach than what they did previously – prior to this rhino patrol units gathered data for the whole park rather than priority areas.
I have a lot of respect for the rangers. Without them the rhino would probably be extinct in this area. Current numbers estimated from the survey in BBS are 40, and we estimate there are fewer than 200 in the whole of Sumatra. There are just 13 grid cells left for the rhino, all in the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.
And the rangers’ commitment and bravery is admirable. On their big patrol trips they’ll have to camp outside, sometimes sleeping near the river – which can be very dangerous because of the tigers in the area.
It’s arduous terrain here too, muddy and often steep. We’re slipping and sliding all over the place as we trek in the rain – and of course yours truly ends up falling over! And I haven’t even mentioned the leeches…
My highlight of the trip – second only to the elephant ride of course – was this afternoon’s visit to the women’s co-operative. We meet Mrs Dami who runs it. The co-op has been going since 2007 and was WWF’s idea. We also gave them funding and training. There are now 10 women in the co-op and they work a couple of hours a day.
Essentially these women take the coffee beans their husbands have harvested from the farm and turn it into the finished product ready for market – they separate, grind, roast and package it using equipment we’ve provided. We are shown the equipment – it’s impressive.
The women help the farmers with their work too and sell the product in the local market.We also help them promote their products. This all supplements their income, supports the farmers and helps them improve the quality of their product. And it prevents the women from say harvesting illegally from the national park.
The most rewarding outcome to see is that their children can now go to school (even secondary) because of this supplementary income. It also means they can get better food, so their health has improved.And there’s more promising news. The local government plans to take this model and give funding to other local groups for tools and equipment.
We get a chance to enjoy some of the coffee. This time I try the ‘Kopi Lewak’, otherwise known as civet poo coffee! Yes, gross as it sounds, this coffee really is made from beans that have passed through the civet cat and into their faeces. But it’s actually considered a real delicacy, selling for ten times the price of the normal robusta coffee. And having sampled it I can vouch that it smells and tastes delicious!
Basically the civet cat picks the best coffee beans in the first place, and then does the first part of the harvesting and de-shelling. So it’s far better quality all round.
I hadn’t realised coffee fruit has so many layers before you actually get to the bean – red skin, pulp, shell and then the bean. And there are so many opportunities for it to rot and be thrown away – in fact 70% of coffee is rejected.
For normal (non civet poo!) coffee, pests can infect the bean causing them to go black. Farmers put both the (healthy) red and (infected) black beans in water after harvesting to separate them – the diseased black beans float to the top. Then the skin and pulp is removed, the beans are dried and the shells cracked, they’re washed and dried again until you’re just left with the green bean, ready for roasting. We’ve helped them refine this process too.
All this washing and drying can lead to more rot – for example beans are often dried on the floor close together, leading to fermentation and infections, resulting in poorer quality coffee that yields a lower price.
So you can see why the civet doing the first part of the process makes it so much better! Apparently this natural process has been used for centuries, ever since the Dutch planted coffee on these islands. But sadly opportunism has crept in and civet cats are now kept in captivity in some places for this purpose.
Coffee is only harvested at one point in the year, so another important (and yummy) local income source is honey, which we also sample.
And then it’s time to say our goodbyes We get back into our cars ready for the long trip back, waving to the kids who are home from school and playing footie outside the coffee co-op. I’m sad to say goodbye to my new friends but know we’ll stay in touch.
It’s been a fantastic, fascinating trip and an enlightening experience. It’s also really wonderful to see the huge reach WWF has, and what a difference we’re making to conservation around the world.