On patrol with The Rangers of Tangkahan
Photo credit: Jason Savage
The Rangers of Tangkahan is a grassroots, community conservation initiative; the only one of its kind protecting the buffer zone of the endangered Leuser ecosystem. The Leuser is one of the most biodiverse and important ecosystems ever described. It forms part of the largest wilderness area in South East Asia and is vital to the health of the entire planet, storing millions of tons of Carbon in its’ ancient peat swamp forests. The Leuser is home to the last of the iconic Sumatran megafauna: the Sumatran orangutan, tiger, elephant and rhinoceros – the ONLY place left on Earth where these species co-exist.
It is home to almost 90% of the last remaining Sumatran orangutans and one of the last strongholds of the other charismatic species. It spans the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, with 80% of the Leuser in Aceh approximately one third of the entire ecosystem is made up of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The buffer zone is crucial to the survival of the ecosystem, acting as a protective barrier between human settlements and the forest. There are numerous human settlements along the buffer zone and these communities are in conflict with the environment in a number of ways.
The Rangers of Tangkahan is a programme designed to protect the buffer zone and work alongside the buffer zone communities to engage them in positive actions to protect the environment they live in. The project is fortunate to have the support of Raw Wildlife Encounters as one of their priority conservation programmes. I was lucky to spend time with the patrol unit this July, collecting data, conducting surveys, and community engagement sessions in our focal communities.
Palm oil conflict right up against the Gunung Leuser National Park border in the buffer zone community of Gelugur, one of our focal communities. Photo credit: The Rangers of Tangkahan drone pilot team
The very first village of Pancasila we arrived at on day one of our patrol had a conflict situation with a Sumatran orangutan. An elderly male had been crop raiding in a community owned Jackfruit garden for several days and was at risk of being killed by locals as they feared further income loss to crop raiding or that he would attack their children (which is highly improbable). There were few options to move him on – he had crossed palm oil plantations to reach the community garden and was at least 4km from his forest home. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) liaised with our patrol unit and we decided to call Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in to relocate the orangutan. Although this requires intense resourcing, the orangutan was too far from the forest to allow us to push him back passively and without coming into further conflict with people. At 1am, fresh from two other relocations in Aceh province, the OIC HOCRU (human-orangutan conflict response unit) arrived and with practiced precision they immobilised the orangutan high up in the canopy and before translocation back to the forest, they conducted a physical health check. He was found to have old air rife injuries throughout his body, including the loss of an eye, which seems to be an increasingly common phenomenon with crop raiding orangutans who are deliberately incapacitated in this way by retaliating villagers. We were incredibly fortunate to have been present for this operation as we are collaborating with OIC to send some of our rangers for intensive training with their HOCRU team.
A male orangutan estimated to be 30-35 years of age, with a tranquiliser dart visible in his hindquarters, was relocated back to the forest from the community of Pancasila
Once the orangutan was relocated we moved on to the next buffer zone community of Sumber Waras, a days’ walk away. We stopped for the night at a forest restoration area, managed by OIC. This is a project that has involved taking back illegally planted palm oil in the Gunung Leuser National Park and reforesting the area. Here, seedlings are grown up and when big enough are transplanted.
Seedlings waiting to be planted as part of OIC’s forest restoration project
Throughout the following days’ walk we followed fresh Sumatran elephant tracks and saw endless human-elephant conflict signs. Villagers have planted community gardens in the buffer zone, right up against the forest, are in daily conflict with crop raiding elephant herds. They attempt numerous methods to prevent them entering their land which ultimately prove fruitless. Methods include noise deterrents such as fireworks, sirens and cannons as well as kerosene lanterns and laying ant nests across frequently trodden elephant paths. We talked with the locals about ways to mitigate or prevent crop raiding elephants but the problem seems insurmountable. We are looking forward to working with international experts to determine a plan of action for the worst affected communities. Recently, an elephant was snared in one of our focal communities, with WCS performing the rescue aided by The Rangers of Tangkahan.
A Sumatran elephant recently snared in the Leuser buffer zone /
We followed fresh Sumatran elephant tracks for hours through the buffer zone
While in Sumber Waras we met with a community group to start implementation of an alternative income stream, utilizing the wire waste
collected from the removal of snares in the buffer zone to make handicrafts and jewellery. The group they established are very excited and thanks to
one of Raw Wildlife Encounters’ past guests from a North Sumatran Highlights adventure led by Raw Wildlife Leader Amy Robbins, were donated an extensive
collection of pliers and tools to get the project started. The rangers will check in with them next patrol to keep an eye on their progress.
A group of women in the village of Sumber Waras discuss the snare wire handicraft programmeOur time in Sumber Waras came to a close but not after we ventured into the highlands to fly the Phantom 4 drone, searching for the herd of 13 elephants. The drones are used by The Rangers of Tangkahan to conduct aerial surveys of our focal communities, mapping the current National Park borders which are often moved by locals to encroach on the forest. They are also useful in searching for the elephant herds, but due to the elephants’ behavioural habit of venturing into the communities at night and returning to the cover of forest in the morning, we are looking for infra-red technology to enable us to find, follow and remove the elephants using the drones.
Drone pilots Pirman and Abo get the Phantom 4 ready for flight
The walk back to Tangkahan saw us following numerous, well used elephant trails and we walked in the footprints of some very fresh tracks. We followed the fresh overnight tracks of a Malayan sun bear which was incredibly thrilling, until we reached the boundary of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where a wall of snares had been set. These were removed and documented as part of the illegal activity data the rangers collect and report to the National Park office. The final snare was located at the end of the track, with a makeshift fence built to funnel wildlife directly into the snare. We can only assume the Sun bear took the safe route away from the forest. Even though the patrol unit are removing fewer snares, they still present a serious threat to the critically endangered wildlife that must pass through the buffer zone to reach the forest. To support the snare removal component of our programme please visit www.gofundme.com/snareremoval
Ranger Jack collects fresh Sunbear scratch marks on a tree next to its’ footprints and an impenetrable wall of snares. Photo credit: Jason Savage
A wire and rope snare set to indiscriminately catch wildlife trying to get into the forest. The white boundary marker for the Gunung Leuser National Park can be seen to the left of the photo under a leaf.
The Rangers of Tangkahan is the only community conservation initiative focussing on buffer zone protection in the Leuser ecosystem. There is extensive destruction, conflict and encroachment upon the forest but the progress the patrol unit have made in the past 6 months is very promising. Communities are engaging positively and are looking to the future for alternative livelihoods that don’t continue to destroy the environment or harm wildlife. There are very few alternative options available to these communities living in poverty and our programme has ambitious goals to develop other income streams in these areas. This is vital to ensure the ongoing survival of this very threatened ecosystem.
I feel very fortunate to be working with such a skilled and dedicated team of rangers and proud to be working to achieve what many others are also striving for. With continued collaboration, networking and support from our very generous donors and sponsors we will continue to develop this programme into a world-leading conservation programme.
Huge thanks must go to Raw Wildlife Encounters and the inspirational guests who contribute to The Rangers of Tangkahan through conservation levies and fundraising. You are all contributing to the success of this unique project and we thank you.