From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

John, the birder in this second group, has helped us to open up our bird inventory. Group by group we want to build this catalogue. And it’s good to see how a person with skills such as John’s is able to create interest with others just through passion – and knowledge. Thank you, John.

Things may go wrong….and a broken engine of a boat on its way out to a survey destination in the field is such an example. But with the tremendous energy of Sugi and the boat driver, they managed to paddle back. Thank you!

Mahwel, our camp helper, plays the guitar. So, one evening we were treated to a concert given by Mahwel and Beston (who brought his guitar along). There were internationally known and unknown songs in English, Spanish and Indonesian, with an international audience (Dutch, English, American, German, Indonesian).

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On Thursday we decided to survey a larger area downriver, next to several smaller villages, knowing that we had to expect palm oil and rubber tree plantations. And indeed there were enormous private, fenced and guarded areas with monoculture farming. On a hot, hot day we walked long distances along logging roads without the shady canopy of the forest that still rules upriver. Still, we returned with some good sightings, tracks and, once more, a wildcat scat. Thirsty and exhausted, we invaded a tiny shop for cold drinks, before getting the boat back upriver, into the forest and home.

Heavy thunder and lightning brought a downpour of over 10 hours in the night from Thursday to Friday. The rainforest lived up to its name. The following survey day continued the wet theme with wading, almost swimming, along freshly swelled streams. On Saturday we visited villages around our field camp and concentrated on conducting interviews.

Today, Sunday, is our day off. Almost everyone decided to go out on a boat very early in the morning to float back downriver as the sun rose, watch birds and other creatures. Later, we are all invited to a wedding in Tanjung Belit. Sapri’s (one of our boat drivers) daughter is getting married and apparently a big party awaits….


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Group 2 arrived safely on Sunday and was put through its training paces and first training surveys.

Yesterday was our first full day out in the field. Splitting into two groups, each had to face the ‘usual’ jungle challenges of wading through streams, climbing over fallen trees and rocks, getting up and down slippery slopes and more. Olga and Inge rocked us through the field with amazing energy and spirit. Besides some minor slips, a lost hat and machete, everybody made it back in one piece and good spirits.

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During the last few days we recorded nice, warm and dry weather during the day and pleasant cool(er) nights. As we now have a small weather station on the patio, I am able to give you more accurate information: temperature during the day between 27 and 33 C, nights 23 to 29 C and humidity between 65 and 80%.

Well, I don’t want to forget to tell all those who are looking forward to attending this expedition that so far everybody was more than pleased with the food that has been served. Even the non-vegetarians are happy ;)

Best wishes

Ronald


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

Our first slot has come to a close, and what a busy two weeks it has been. Our overnight team, which were Steve, Michael and Manuela, came back brimming with things to tell us about their night in the jungle. Firstly there was the rain, and lots of it. Their base camp for the night was along a stream off the main river next to the boats. It started raining hard at 21:30. While the three had set their tents uphill a bit, the boat drivers stayed by the boats and after three hours of non-stop downpours, they had to relocate their shelter as the water level started lapping at their feet. The rise in water seemed to flush out a few more local residents as well, in the form of three snakes who did not seem too interested in us as they were swimming along the river.

But the overnighter’s biggest news by a long way was found in their first day during an interview with a rubber plantation guy, who has heard tigers twice in the last two weeks. This was backed up by another interview with a worker at another plantation who also had heard two tigers in the last two weeks. These were both in the same area in the nature reserve and we’re looking forward to getting back in there and setting some camera traps. The team would have done this themselves, but the water level the following morning made it impossible to cross over to the other side. They did, however, set some camera traps in a promising area that we’ll be eager to revisit in in the coming weeks.

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During our last day in the field, actually it was just a half day, as we had to pack up and work through the data input and summary sheets on the computer, Steve spotted another track of a leopard. Wow, really unexpected great news in the last minute of the first slot.

On our last night at the base, one of the park rangers who had been with us at the beginning of the slot came up to the station and told us that the following day they were going into the reserve with a team of twenty, including the police, to try and combat some of the illegal logging taking place.

Well, thank you all for your tremendous input. It was a pleasure working with you. Please don’t forget sharing your photos.

Save travels home and stay involved.

Anthony & Ronald


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

The article below was written for a wildlife magazine based on the experiences of the first group and we thought you might light to read it:

Riding the tiger

On a volunteer expedition to save the Sumatran tiger in its embattled jungle home

“Not long ago”, whispers Febri as he crouches down on the dimly-lit jungle floor. With his hand he outlines a faint track in the mud, then lets his arm rise to trace the animal’s path between the towering trees. My world shrinks as I realise that I share this forest with a big cat. A very big cat. “Don’t worry”, Febri assures me with a smile on his face, probably because the look on mine is so obviously uneasy, “they are not aggressive and humans are not on their menu – unlike perhaps in other countries where they have real man eaters”. I relax and stand in awe. Of this forest. Of sharing it with one of the most fascinating predators on the planet.

This forest is Rimbang Baling Wildlife Sanctuary on Sumatra and I am here on a volunteering project with Biosphere Expeditions to study the Sumatran tiger. My journey here from Pekanbaru, a bustling city where I saw exactly zero foreigners over two days, took me past nothing but palm oil plantations for three hours. The destruction is as staggering, as it is heart-wrenching. I am reminded of the Scottish Highlands that once were covered in forest too and now are nothing but a heathery desert. Here on Sumatra, essentially every scrap of flat land has been converted into plantations. But Rimbang Baling lies in the mountains. Mountains so steep and inaccessible that they are of no interest to the palm oil barons. Mountains where the jungle still rules, where there are no roads, only rivers and streams along which you can travel into the forest. And as the world slips by under the humming of the outboard engine and the gurgle of the water under the longboat, buttressed forest giants guard the river, as they have done for what feels like thousands of years, their branches hanging over the green waters of the Subayang river, like cathedrals of nature, stirring something deep inside me, a visceral sensation of being part of the web of life. And this web of life is everywhere here. Wild pigs stand on the banks, completely oblivious to our passing (pigs are not hunted by the local Muslim population). A massive monitor lizard emerges from the water and snakes its way onto the bank. Gibbons sing their songs in the trees without revealing their location. Macaques are not so shy and perform their aerial acrobatics in the branches. Birds twitter, flap and fly. And green comes in a million hues – from the murky, muddy swirls of the river to the bright, clean colour of palm leaves.

And it is here that the tiger has taken refuge. The Rimang Baling sanctuary was established in 1984 and currently measures 1360 km2 comprising highland and mountain tropical rainforest ecosystems. Slopes vary between 25% – 100% and the highest elevation is 1070 m. The sanctuary is a biodiversity hotspot and a known Sumatran tiger breeding area. As such it has been classified as an all-important global priority tiger conservation area.

Although the outlook for tigers may often sound bleak, there are success stories too. In well-managed areas with effective tiger patrols and where local communities benefit from tiger presence, there are clear signs of recovery. It is therefore of critical importance that tiger populations are monitored regularly to safeguard effectively the populations that still exist and that local communities play a key role in and benefit from tiger conservation. And this is why Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit conservation organisation, together with WWF Indonesia, has established this expedition in Sumatra. This expedition is why I am here.

A few years back, WWF Indonesia asked Biosphere Expeditions for assistance with tiger monitoring and to act as a showcase for how responsible, low-impact tiger tourism activities can generate local jobs and build capacity. My being here in the jungle is the result and I am on the first group of the inaugural expedition.

We get up with the sun and to the sounds of gibbons singing as the forest awakens. In small teams we venture out into the green, sometimes sweating our hearts out as we climb the steep hills in search of signs of tiger and their prey, sometimes enjoying the natural air-conditioning of a boat ride to a remote community to ask them about tiger events and their attitudes towards the big cat. Only yesterday we had word and a mobile phone photo of a tiger track in a rubber tree plantation. Today we are back to have the man with the story and photo lead us to the spot to search for more signs and perhaps place a camera trap that will monitor the area for us. Wherever we go, small crowds gather to look at the strange strangers looking for the tiger. Wherever we go, there is purpose and drive in the team, made up of people from all over the place. There’s Tessa, a user experience designer from California; Manuela and Matthias, a health worker and an architect from Germany; Michael, working in IT from Australia; and Steve from Hong Kong; and of course our Indonesian scientist from WWF and his helpers. But despite our different backgrounds and ages, we mould into a team quickly, united by our common goals and interests in nature and wildlife.

The green hills are steep and hard work. Easier access is provided by the myriad of streams that cut their way through the steep mountains around us. It is cool and shaded down here. Butterflies skirt the clear air. A wild pig crosses the river 20 metres behind us, with one eye on us and the other on the path ahead. We have a wildlife ranger with us – there are only four for the huge sanctuary! – and he documents illegal logging that we come across (and later some arrests are made). We follow the bends of the stream, sometimes wading, sometimes climbing over logs and sometimes cutting through the forest, our machetes singing, on a bend with deep water. Some of us opt to swim instead. Deeper and deeper we get into the forest, documenting tracks in the mud and sand, scratch marks on the trees – made by the Malayian sun bear and the tiger – setting camera traps in promising locations in the woods. It is a long, wet and exhilarating day. And at the end of it, we reach a stone bowl where the stream cascades down the rocks, power-showering us with diamonds of water, creating rainbows where the sunlight penetrates the canopy above, bathing the forest in spray and colour, soft green moss everywhere. It is an enchanted place and in our hearts we are certain we are the first foreigners to set eyes on it. We are trailblazers, explorers of old, having swapped our guns for camera traps, helping with tiger research and conservation and bringing money to local communities by buying their food and using their boats, expertise and other services. And as the sun sets on our day, camera traps hold a silent vigil in the forest next to the giant forest trees. We fall asleep hoping that they will see the tiger pass through the forest and take pictures for us. Pictures that will be one piece in the puzzle that is the survival of the Sumatran tiger in his beautiful and embattled jungle home.

Info box Sumatran tiger

The Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) is endemic to Sumatra, one of the largest islands in the Indonesian archipelago. It is the smallest of all of the tiger subspecies and is distinguished by heavy black stripes on its orange coat. Listed in IUCN’s Critically Endangered category, there are probably fewer than 300 individuals left in the wild. As a top predator, the tiger needs large joined-up forest blocks to thrive, and used to roam across the whole island. It now occurs in isolated populations, its habitats having been drastically reduced by clearings for agriculture, plantations and settlements. This habitat destruction also forces the tiger into settled areas in search of food, where it is more likely to come into contact – and conflict – with people. Next to habitat destruction, poaching is another very potent threat. Studies have estimated that up to 78% of Sumatran tiger deaths, consisting of about 40 animals per year, are as a result of poaching, either as retaliatory killings or to feed the demand for tiger parts. Despite increased efforts in tiger conservation – including law enforcement and anti-poaching capacity – a substantial market remains in Sumatra and the rest of Asia for tiger parts and products.

Info box Indonesia

Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 17,000 islands, only 8,000 of which are inhabited. It encompasses 34 provinces with over 238 million people, making it the world’s fourth most populous country. Sumatra is one of the biggest islands of the archipelago. Indonesia’s size, tropical climate, and archipelagic geography support the world’s second highest level of biodiversity (after Brazil) and Indonesia is second only to Australia in terms of total endemic species.

Info box Biosphere Expeditions

Biosphere Expeditions is an award-winning not-for-profit conservation organisation, and a member of IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council & Global Ministerial Environment Forum. Achievements include the implementation of conservation recommendations and species protection plans by numerous national and regional governments and NGOs, the creation of protected areas on four continents, scientific and lay publications, as well as capacity-building, training and education all over the world.

Their annual expedition to Sumatra is on www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra. Everyone can take part and there are no age limits or special skills requirements to join. Other project include leopard of the Western Cape, marsupials in Australia, snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan, reef surveys in the Maldives, Oman & Malaysia and many more – http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org.

TOP TEN TIPS on choosing a wildlife volunteering experience

These days it is hard to find a worthwhile volunteering experience that achieves tangible benefits. The market is full of profit-driven, unscrupulous operators, which do little for local wildlife at best and are harmful to it, and local communities, at worst. Biosphere Expeditions was amongst a group of experts in volunteering, wildlife conservation and protection to develop pointers to provide practical help to those looking to choose a holiday or gap year experience that was going to be beneficial not only for themselves, but also for the wildlife and communities that they would encounter. http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/toptentips.

Pictures

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

With our first slot in full swing we’re starting to get somewhere. Pushing ever further into the nature reserve, it is proving hard to find areas that are not showing signs of human impact, with land either being used for rubber plantations or for legal/illegal logging (the margin seems a little blurred). But our best results have been in these areas so far. A couple of days ago, while interviewing a shopkeeper in a village, he showed us a picture on his phone that had been taken 5 km away in a rubber plantation of a what looked like a tiger track print. He took the picture within the last year and we are currently trying to arrange with him to take us there so we can look for more signs in that area.

Also, along one trail we stumbled across a big-cat/bear trap, although it didn’t look like it had been used in a while. But the big news this week is clear tracks of wild cat and tracks of clouded leopard along with scat samples plus sightings of siamang gibbons.

With all this going on, we’ve even managed to squeeze in a day off and went onto a couple of the local villages, Gema and Tanjung Belit. In Tanjung Belit we were invited into Anto’s (whose kitchen we are having our food prepared in) house for ice tea and snacks. Word must have gone out fast amongst the little ones in the area, as almost instantly their faces were pressed up to the windows as they all tried to get a look at the strangers in town. Reminding me of playing granny’s footsteps, as they got ever closer until we would turn to look at them and they’d flee the scene screaming, only to do it all again when our backs were turned.

Today sees our first group going out for an overnighter to do a lengthier survey in the forest, following a stream that feeds the Subayang river. Hopefully there will be some exciting news from them on their return; sadly, however, there were no campfire song sheets or marshmallows with them, so we hope this does not affect the morale too much.


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

On Friday one team tested the limits of boat navigation on the two main rivers through our study area. They floated past rocks, waterfalls, through some rapids, fords with stones knocking the bottom of the boat, and monitor lizards, monkeys, buffalos, wild pigs on the banks. Two other teams surveyed more impacted areas near human habitation with logging, rubber and palm oil plantations.

Today, Saturday, Matthias & Tessa and the two journalists Franz & Andreas left us as the rest of the team went out on their surveys again. Tomorrow is our well-earned rest day.

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/sumatra)

With Ronald back on track after having been ill in the week proceeding the start date, our first group have arrived and are fully in the swing of the first slot of this expedition.

With the first two days of training (on navigation, datasheets, camera traps, machetes, etc) taken care of, we set out to find our data in the field. Working in two groups, boarding long boats in the morning, on the Subayang River, to get to our daily destinations, which start along its banks. With our scientist Febri and lots of input from the park rangers who’ve accompanied us into the forest, we’ve collected signs of animals in the area (sun bears clawing trees, wild pigs frequenting the rivers, otters, muntjac deer, etc.) and spotted the odd one or two in the flesh (monitor lizards and water buffalos crossing the rivers swimming, a fearless wild pig staring us down, macaques performing aerial acrobatics, siamangs and agile gibbons singing for us at all times of the day). There’s human impact too with clear signs of illegal logging and legal or semi-legal rubber plantations seemingly everywhere close to the settlements.

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The biggest hardship for the group is getting used to the climate, a day out in the field is thirsty business. We’ve also had lots of great interaction with the locals along the way, finding out their views on the tiger situation.

The tiger, alas, is, as expected, elusive. We have only scratched the surface of the reserve with a handful of cells surveyed near the rivers and villages, which obviously attract human activities. The tiger will avoid those and the few interviews we have conducted are anecdotal evidence of this.

One team ventured (or rather waded and swam) deeper into the forest today, along a smaller stream. A day’s journey away into the green produced the pig sighting, illegal logger camps, but also more mature forest with buttressed tree giants towering above and shading the forest floor below. The pigs were everywhere (as the local Muslim population does not eat them for religious reasons) and we logged our first track of the shier muntjac. The highlight of the day was a spectacular waterfall spewing out of a black stone bowl with wet moss and greenery at the end of a small stream. The power shower was, well, powerful!


From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday with tigers in Sumatra, Indonesia