I wanted to learn more about tropical forest protection before I begin research at my Masters program at Yale University in September 2010. I headed to Indonesia – a hotbed of urgent action to save species and forest resources from deforestation, poaching, and encroaching palm oil plantations. These threaten one of the largest areas of tropical forest in the world. There is no better place to learn how the fight to save forests and species is taking place.
I spent five days in the field with the WWF-Indonesia tiger monitoring crew (“the tiger team”) based in Pekanbaru, Riau Province, Sumatra. Riau (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riau) lies directly on the equator and contains the Tesso Nilo National Park, which provides habitat for the endangered Sumatran elephant, tiger and other protected wildlife species. The Sumatran tiger numbers fewer than 400 individuals now, and the tiger team’s job of monitoring the population’s presence and use of corridor areas is increasingly crucial.
The tiger team had recent success video capturing a Sumatran tiger with her two cubs (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/07/wild-sumatran-tiger-cubs-camera), but they are out to establish a more systematic link between two protected areas in the south of Riau. Fragmentation of habitat – when habitat gets divided into smaller areas without links between them – can be very harmful to the tiger population, isolating groups into smaller and unhealthy gene pools. The two areas I visited with the tiger team still have a thin corridor remaining between them, but encroachment of deforestation for logging and oil palm and rubber plantations is making the need for protection of this corridor urgent. Some parts of this corridor are now less than 10 km wide.
In the time I spent with the team, the team set out to determine that tigers were using this corridor and to establish that its protection is therefore critical for tiger conservation.
So how does the team do that?
I tagged along for five days, and I have recorded my observations over these five days in five separate entries. I was impressed with the team and the skills and individual contributions necessary to protect these animals from habitat loss and extinction. It is hard work, and I was grateful to get this opportunity to come with the team and see how many pieces it takes to build a case for tiger habitat protection. My time with the team will be chronicled over the next five entries.
Day 1 was spent preparing for the field. We made sure I had long pants, long sleeves, mosquito repellent, a hat, and rubber boots. (“In this heat?” I thought. It was over 80F and humid – it is the jungle.) I brought a backpack, sleeping bag and sleeping pad, and a headlamp for camp. We supplied ourselves with food and water and loaded up the two trucks with our personal gear and the technological tools for the team’s mission. Along the 8 hour drive, we stopped for food and to make a repair to the rear passenger door of one of the trucks – the back roads are hard on these trucks, and the latch gave out somewhere on the highway.
We passed rubber plantations and towns. As the sky got darker, the road got increasingly rough, eventually reducing to a rutted red dirt road through miles of oil palms. This was my first exposure to oil palm plantations. Riau is a relatively wealthy province because of its supply of petroleum, but oil palm has been another lucrative industry in Sumatra. I had heard of deforestation for palm oil, but I had no context for the scale. We spent hours driving only through oil palms, but I would not appreciate further the scale until later in the week. Tonight we would be staying in team member Agoeng’s parents’ house, not far from the field site, so we didn’t have to pitch camp when we arrived.