From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The Rimbang Baling wildlife reserve is a 136,000 hectare patch of rainforest on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The reserve is home to a variety of wildlife, with the most charismatic being the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia established their Subayang Research Station just outside the border of the reserve in 2010 and have been working actively in area ever since, trying to preserve the forest and in particular the elusive Sumatran tiger. It is estimated that thirteen tigers currently live in the reserve.

Overall, the Sumatran tiger population has dwindled and currently only around three hundred remain in the wild. The dramatic drop in tiger numbers is a direct result of habitat loss and illegal poaching of tigers and their prey species. For the past three years, Biosphere Expeditions has been working closely with WWF Indonesia, supporting their monitoring and community outreach efforts in the region. This August, groups of citizen scientists from seven nations around the world helped the WWF tiger scientist Febri Anggriawan Widodo to survey the rainforest. “This year we focused on the buffer zone, which is a very important area as this is the region most vulnerable to encroachment by illegal logging. This is also where we have a gap in our data and help is most needed”, explains Febri.

Two groups of Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists placed eleven camera traps in the forest along the northern buffer zone and carried out surveys of any evidence of tigers or their prey species, as well as recording any illegal logging and poaching activity they encountered. “There much illegal logging in the buffer zone. Every day we come across cut logs and boats towing those logs down the river” says Claire Howells, an expedition team member from England.

Ever since the Dutch colonised Indonesia, local communities have also relied heavily on rubber plantations for their livelihoods. Rubber trees can grow in amongst the native forest and as such have relatively little impact on the environment. However, with the invention of synthetic rubber, the prices for natural rubber have dropped and now the plantations are not enough to sustain the local population. With limited opportunities in the area, people are turning to illegal logging and palm oil plantations.

“Perhaps the most important work that we do is community outreach” explains Febri. “We need to educate local communities about the importance of preserving the rainforest, and we need to provide alternative income sources.” The Biosphere Expeditions teams have been supporting WWF in their outreach work, both by visiting local schools to tell children about the importance of the forest and its wildlife, and by carrying out village interviews to help understand the perception of tigers and the reserve in the local communities. While most of the people interviewed believe that tigers are important to Indonesia and should be protected, the team did encounter a man who wanted the entire reserve cut down and made into palm oil plantations.

Hopefully the work carried out by WWF and Biosphere Expeditions can protect the Sumatran tiger from the same fate as the Javanese tiger, which is now extinct.  The Javanese tiger decline started in the 1900s when much of the island’s forest were converted to teak plantations. This meant that tiger habitat shrank drastically, along with their food supply. The last sighting of a Javanese tiger was in 1976, when much of the Javanese tiger’s food supply and habitat had already disappeared. The WWF office in Central Sumatra are currently working on a 10 year management plan for the Rimbang Baling reserve, which has been identified as an important tiger habitat. As part of the management plan, they are lobbying the government to upgrade the status of the reserve to National Park, as this would increase the amount of resources spent on protecting the reserve.

“This expedition has really opened my eyes to the problems facing the forests of Sumatra. I hope it isn’t too late for the tigers and I am proud to have played my part in its fight for survival”, says Matthew Kaller, an expedition team member from the USA.

A selection of pictures, many of which were kindly provided by Malte Clavin, is below. Biosphere Expeditions would also like to thank the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund for its support.

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The last week of the Sumatran tiger expedition has been very busy. The team took part in a village ceremony the day after the buffalo sacrifice. It was a festive affair with traditional music, dance and song. The whole team also went on an overnight camping trip to survey cells far up the river. One of the survey teams had quite a fright when two sun bears ran out in front of them! “Febri had to sound the air horn to scare them away from the area before we could safely continue the survey” explains Paul from the UK. In the same survey cell scat from a leopard cat was also found, a rather rare find. The other team did not encounter any bears, but they did get a birds-eye view of the reserve after a very steep climb to a clear summit.

We also visited the school in Batu Sanggan village. This is one of the eight villages that lie inside the reserve. About 40 children attend the elementary school there and they were all eager to learn about the rainforest and its animal inhabitants. One of the five rangers that work in the Rimbang Bailing wildlife reserve accompanied us to the school visit, and in the evening back at the research station we had the chance to ask him questions and he told us about his work in the reserve, “We work closely with WWF and one of the most important parts of my work is education. Through education and local empowerment we have managed to turn 60 hectares of palm oil plantation back to the reserve and we are currently working on reforestation of that area.” This is good news indeed, considering the rangers here have no power actually to enforce the rules of the reserve, and lacking any boats to patrol the reserve themselves the partnership with WWF is of utmost importance.

During the second slot of the expedition, we successfully collected all of the eleven camera traps that were placed by the first team and surveyed the same amount of cells. One extra camera was placed behind the research station, making it twelve camera traps in total. We conducted four interviews with local villagers, hosted one school group at the station, and visited one school inside the reserve. The camera traps recorded banded palm civet, pig-tailed macaque, long-tailed macaques, barking deer, mouse deer, porcupine and wild pig. We also recorded signs of agile gibbon, siamang, sun bear, water buffalo, leopard cat, wild pig, porcupine and long-tailed macaque during our surveys. This is good news as it means there are plenty of potential prey for tigers. More good news is that Febri’s tiger team who work deep inside the reserve caught tigers mating on one of their camera traps this year. Hopefully there will soon be more tigers inside the reserve.

A big thank you to everyone who has helped out this year. Thanks to your tireless effort we have successfully been able to survey the northern buffer zone of the Rimbang Bailing Reserve, an area where data was seriously lacking. Because our focus this year was there, no tiger signs were recorded, but closing this gap of knowledge was very important for the overall picture that WWF is building of Rimbang Baling and tiger survival there. The outlook for tigers is much better at Rimbang Baling than many other places in the world – and you have contributed to making it so. Thank you from me, from Biosphere Expeditions and WWF for giving up your time and money to do this. You also helped educate local communities about the importance of preserving the forest. This is also vital if tigers are to have a future, because their future is tied intimately to that of their human neighbours in remote areas such as Rimbang Baling. So thank you again for your contribution and I hope to see you again sometime, somewhere on this beautiful blue-green planet of ours.

Ida Vincent
Expedition leader

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The past few days have been busy. We had one overnight trip camping out in the jungle and surveying cells further upriver, as well as surveys in cells closer to the station. There has been a lot of rain upriver and the Subayang River rose as high as it does during the wet season, making it impossible for us to reach the furthest upstream survey cell. Giant logs were coming down the now rapid river and the illegal logging activities were sent into a flurry, with people trying to utilise the high water levels to transport their booty. “It is heartbreaking to see how much illegal logging is taking place, right out in the open” says Claire Howell from the UK. The buffer zone is a beehive of activity with the constant noise of chainsaws going, trees falling, men dragging logs down towards the river, and boats transporting long trains of logs. “We are currently lobbying the government in Jakarta to upgrade the Rimbang Bailing Wildlife Reserve to National Park status” explains Febri, the WWF tiger scientist, “if it gets National Park status, there will be a lot more resources available and the illegal activities in both the buffer zone and inside the reserve can be better policed.”

The team also attended a local ceremony. The community in Tanjug Belit village believes a bad spirit is residing at the local waterfall and that this spirit is responsible for a recent accident there. To appease the spirit, a water buffalo was sacrificed followed by the biannual opening of one of the sacred ponds. The scared ponds are a part of the river, which is closed to fishing apart from twice a year when fishing is allowed for one day only. We watched as men pulled up large catfish much to the delight of the surrounding boats. In the afternoon after the fishing had concluded, we hosted a group of eleven children at the research station, educating them about conservation and playing games. “Today was a game changer for me“ says expeditioner Matt from the USA. “Seeing how welcoming the community is, them wanting us to be part of their ceremonies, and meeting the kids who all seem to care a great deal about the environment really gave me a lot of hope for the future of Rimbang Bailing.”

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The second Sumatran tiger team have settled into the WWF Subayang Research Station and have been trained in the field methodology and use of scientific equipment. After extensive training, we set out yesterday into the jungle to test out our new skills and to place a camera trap on the hill behind the research station. In 2015 our expedition recorded a leopard cat there, so we figured we would try our luck again. There certainly is a lot of animal activity in the jungle at night – we can hear animals stir in the undergrowth all night and each morning we are woken by gibbons calling in the trees. A curious long-tailed macaque looked down at us from a branch as we were sitting on the station veranda and large wild pigs are roaming the grounds, so there is no lack of wildlife activity.

Yesterday morning we did our first real survey, revisiting a cell that was surveyed during the first slot. We retrieved the camera that was placed three weeks ago by team one and we completed a full survey of the cell. Repetition is important to strengthen the data that we collect. In the afternoon we went into Tanjung Belit village to conduct interviews. This part of the work is imperative as it helps WWF to better understand people’s perception and allows WWF to mobilise outreach teams to educate people about tiger conservation and the role they play in the ecosystem.

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

I am back in Pekanbaru after a short break and getting ready for the start of the second slot of our Sumatran tiger expedition. This next group will continue the surveys in the rainforest of the Rimbang Bailing nature reserve and we will also be retrieving the camera traps that the last group placed. It is always exciting to see what they have captured – in the past we have captured a variety of wildlife including clouded leopard, leopard cat, sun bear, mouse deer and cheeky long-tailed macaque posing for selfies. I look forward to meeting you all tomorrow, Monday, at 08.00 in the lobby of the Red Planet hotel for our transfer to the Subayang Research station.

Learning to set camera traps

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The first slot of the expedition is now completed and we have arrived back in Pekanbaru after 13 days in the rain forest. The last few days were spent completing the surveys and placing the last camera traps, as well as with a school visit.

We visited the school in Murabio village and Febri gave a talk about the animals in the region and the importance of conserving the environment and wildlife. After the presentation, we spent time playing games with the children, much to their delight. Education and community involvement is one of the most important aspects of the work that WWF carries out in the region and it felt good to be part of that process.

Everyone was sad to say goodbye and Martyn from Australia reflected on his experience, “My favorite was the overnight trip. I have never slept in the jungle before. Or rather I didn’t sleep, there were so many wonderful sounds to listen to I couldn’t sleep.” Pam from the USA really enjoyed the comradery of the team “I am really grateful that everyone helped me generously when I was tired, encouraging me and being patient.” While Neil from Italy said his favorite part of the expedition was doing something useful for the planet.

Slot 1 during its time in Rimbang Baling Reserve placed eleven camera traps and surveyed the same number of cells for signs of tiger prey species and illegal logging and poaching. We also conducted nine interviews with local people about their perception of tigers. Thank you to everyone who helped to make this slot a success!

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

A second group set out for an overnight trip, sampling two cells further upriver. The first day was very steep and we set a camera trap on an animal trail high up on a ridge. Along the trail we also found a barking deer trap set by poachers and cut hard wood trees, a sad reminder that illegal poaching and logging is commonplace in the reserve. We pushed on higher and higher and eventually popped out of the forest on to a clear summit with views of the rainforest in every direction and Subayang River far below, a nice treat for our efforts.

Logging

We spent the night camping on the riverbank, watching the stars and listening to the monkeys fighting in the trees. Najib, one of the local placements from the city of Pekanbaru, was awestruck by the beauty of nature “In Pekanbaru you can never see the stars. I want to come back and camp here again – it is amazing!”

The second survey day went smoothly and the group that stayed behind also successfully sampled two survey grid cells and placed camera traps. The camera traps will be collected by the team arriving in the second slot, hopefully lots of animals will be captured to further our knowledge of the abundance and distribution of animals in the reserve.

Camera trap

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The research is now in full swing and we have already surveyed five 2×2 km cells in the buffer zone of the Rimbang Bailing Nature Reserve. We have been placing camera traps and looking for tiger prey species as well as signs of illegal logging and poaching. Half of the team went for an overnight trip, going for three hours by boat upriver, spending the night camping on the riverbank and surveying two cells. They came back with tales of steep hills and a great night out.

The team that stayed at base also surveyed one cell per day and visited two villages to conduct interviews with locals to help better understand the perception of tigers in the region. There seems to be a “not in my backyard” attitude with everyone believing tigers are good for Indonesia and the ecosystem, but fear is strong and as such they don’t want tigers close to where they live. In Tanjung Belit village we also visited the recycle shop, where women are turning used plastic packaging into beautiful bags. This is an initiative spearheaded by WWF, our local partner organisation.

A group of school children from a nearby village came to visit the research station. Gia from WWF explained to the children and us about the Rimbang Baling Reserve and its ecosystem, highlighting the importance of the Subayang River system. Afterwards we got the opportunity to answer questions from the curious children and play games in honour of Global Tiger Day, which was on 29 July. Global Tiger Day was coined in 2010 in St Petersburgh, Russia, during a tiger summit there in an attempt to highlight dwindling tiger numbers worldwide. Peter from Austria summed the it up well: “It is so important for the children to know about their natural heritage and it is delightful to interact with them.”

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From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The first group has arrived on site and we spent the first couple of days with training in the scientific methodology and use of equipment.

On Wednesday, armed with our new knowledge, we went into the jungle. First for a practice run getting used to the lay of the land and in the afternoon a few of us completed the first survey. Our intrepid team of four placed the expedition’s first camera trap and were frightened half to death by a two meter long monitor lizard that ran out right in front of us. We also spotted barking deer tracks along a creek. Barking deer is preferred prey species by the Sumatran tiger, but also by the local population who like to eat game meat. By surveying for the presence of tiger prey species, we get a good idea of the capacity for tigers in the reserve. Seeing tracks of barking deer is a good sign, indicating there is still prey for tigers in the area, despite competition from humans.

“This is so fantastic, we have already seen so many things! It is so beautiful here,” says Karen from Germany.

Tomorrow a team of six will go deeper into the woods for our first overnight trip surveying some of the more remote areas, while the rest of us will focus on survey sites closer to base.

From our Sumatran tiger conservation volunteering holiday in Indonesia

The past couple of days we have been busy preparing the Subayang Research Station for your arrival, and it is ready! We managed to get all 12 boxes of equipment to site and get it orgainsed, the research plan is finalised and the station is spick and spam. The station also has a brand new freshwater laboratory and education center, and next Saturday we will host a school group from Tanjung Bilet (a nearby village) at the education centre teaching them about the importance of tigers and the habitat they live in. I will finish up the preparations tomorrow and I really look forward to your arrival on Sunday. See you soon!

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