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BBSNP: More Than Just Conservation

Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBSNP) has extraordinary biodiversity and natural beauty. Magnificent dipterocarp trees, lovely bird songs, beautiful and charming hornbills, and various other amazing flora and fauna. Rarely-known to the public, the BBSNP also has exceptional and tough resources: the conservationists. The animal handlers (also locally known as mahouts), forest ecosystem controllers, forest rangers, ranger’s partner communities, patrol teams, research station guards, all of whom have contributed a lot in preserving our forest biodiversity. They not only sacrifice time and enjoyment, but also risk their lives. This article perceives national parks beyond biodiversity conservation point of view, by using a humanitarian perspective.

by Hasna Afifah*

Research Station Way Cangguk (Photo: Hasna Afah)

21 July 2020, 22.10 PM At Pemerihan Resort, South Bukit Barisan National Park (BBSNP)

I still can imagine that most beautiful afternoon in my life, walking under the towering green trees that reach more than 50 meters in height, with sunbeams through canopies to the forest floor. Along with the sound of birds singing nature's music, a group of Southern Pig-tailed Macaques (Macaca nemestrina) passed in front of me holding nuts they had gotten from out of nowhere. How serene.

That night, with a cup of coffee that I brewed, the memories of this afternoon entered my memory and brought me peace. Being in the natural forest is the best meditation.

Suddenly, BANG. BANG. A loud bang broke my thoughts.

“What happened?” I asked a member of the Forest Ranger’s Partner Community (FRPC).

“The mahouts are dispelling wild elephants that enter the residents' gardens using firecrackers." he answered.

“At this time of night?”

"It's not even night yet. They usually leave at 11 or 12 o'clock. People sometimes call on sleep time because the elephants come. Wild elephants are nocturnals.”

I was surprised.

Curious, I visited the mahout post for further information, which is not far from Pemerihan Resort. This post is a stilt house made entirely of wood. In the courtyard, five tamed elephants were taking shelter. These elephants were used to help mahouts in mitigating conflicts with wild elephants, sometimes also used as patrol companions.

I asked a mahout, “Mas (brother) Supri, could you tell me about last night’s incident?”

Very friendly, Mas Supri invited me to walk the elephant while telling stories. Of course, I was very happy. For the first time in my life, I rode an elephant!

"Elephants normally conflict with residents, up to 10 times a month. That is why we have 10 mahouts to help. We live here 24 days, only have six days to come home to see our families. Sometimes, we have to herd the elephants back to the forests, taking up to a week or more. We have all of our time monitoring them,” Mas Supri explained.

"Aren't you getting bored? Is your family okay being left for a long time?"

“It’s part of our job, we have to live the ups and downs. We often miss our families, but we work for them. Elephants are difficult to handle. It is up to us to do the task.”

Apparently, apart from being available 24 hours, being a mahout in a national park also has to be sacrificed a lot. Family time and enjoyment, for example. But according to most of them, it doesn't matter because the tamed elephants are considered their own children.

Agam and Renol, tamed elephants, are being cared in Pemerihan Resort, BBSNP (Photo: Medi)

After accompanying the elephant to bathe in the river and eat in the forest, I returned to Pemerihan Resort. I saw five men lying tired on the resort’s court, with six shabby carriers beside them. Their bodies were dirty, skin covered with the soil, sweaty, and to be honest, the smell was a bit bothering my nose. Seeing my arrival, one of them immediately got up and introduced himself.

“I’m Doni, just arrived from patrolling. Sorry for bothering, we’ll clean ourselves later,” he said, as if could read my mind.

“What kind of patrol?” I asked.

“An eight days forest patrol,” he replied.

Mas Doni and his friends were part of the SMART Patrol Team, which twice a month conducted on the conservation forest area. The patrols were led by a forest ranger and carried out for eight to fourteen days. The aim was to see the condition of the forest, look for findings of animals or former illegal hunting crimes, and take camera traps that were installed in various corners of the forest for further processing at the National Park Office. Furthermore, the goal was to maintain the forest biodiversity of BBSNP.

“How do you sleep and eat on patrols? Have you ever had an encounter with savage animals?”

“We walk all day around the conservation forest, with carriers on our backs. We sleep in shelters and bathe in the river. We bring food but often hunt in the river. Never encounter savage animals, just hear their sounds. We mostly get to find leeches, wasps and monkey fleas! That’s why our skins are mottled,” said Mas Doni, laughing.

Wow. Again, I was blown away by the work done by other figures in BBSNP. Hard work that always requires sacrifice.

In addition to the mahouts and the patrol teams, there is also a Forest Ecosystem Controller (PEH). They routinely conduct research and monitoring of forest areas. They will also accompany students to conduct research. They are very smart and hardworking, all to ensure forest biodiversity is maintained. During my ten days here, I talked a lot and tried their jobs. Those jobs were incredibly tiring!

With the mahouts of BBSNP (Photo: Hasna Afah)

31 July 2020

The day I've been waiting for has finally arrived. Mas Seti, the forest ranger, accompanied me to the Way Canguk Research Station (SPWC) which is located in the jungle zone of BBSNP. It’s very far from human civilization and there are no cell phone signals. Rumor has it that it’s a strongly magical place which makes whoever enters it refuse to go.

We walked through the natural primary forest full of wonders. I stepped on dry dipterocarpaceae leaves that could reach the size of an elephant's foot. At the same time, the sounds of the various birds merged into one with the sound of the branches swaying from the hoop's jumping. Along the way, my ears were filled with the melodious chirping of the birds, and my eyes were spoiled by the majestic big trees and various kinds of beautiful animals.

It took two hours to walk to arrive at SPWC. I'm amazed. This is an amazing place!

There were four forest guards: Mas Seti, Mas Gawi, Mas Jayus, Mas Amin, accompanied by two cooks: Mrs. Murni and Mrs. Sarmi. They are no less stunning than the place. Imagine being in an unsignalized place away from civilization for almost a whole month, isn't it amazing? A day without a cell phone is like being an ancient human. They’re enjoying their jobs. They said that in spite of being in the middle of this forest, they were not feeling lonely because unique animals always enliven the SPWC: hedgehogs, monitor lizards, squirrels, otters, various primates, geckos, frogs, deer, birds and a wide variety of other animals. In summary, this place is very rich both in biodiversity and because the hearts of the people here are as wide as the ocean.

In this SPWC I participated in a series of activities carried out by forest rangers. A ten kilometers walk in a day, keeping your head up to observe the tree phenology for hours on end, monitoring the hornbill nests, and visiting bat caves. I was weary and tired. Even so, the days here are always fun and I liked it except that my mottled skin from being hit so many times by leeches and attacked by monkey fleas.

The environmental hues of the primary natural forest of BBSNP (Photo: Hasna Afah)

7 August 2020

Unknowingly, my last day here had arrived. The rumours were true; the SPWC and TNBBS had managed to completely enchant me. Enchanted by the majesty of the place and all its natural beauty. Enchanted into the world of conservation, make friends with trees and rare animals. Enchanted by six humans who felt like my own family. This place was really awesome. I promised to come here again, someday.

Learn from conservationists

In addition to the existence of the majestic rafflesia, the gallant tiger, the beautiful and charming hornbill, and the soothing natural scenery, the BBSNP has something extraordinary and rarely known to the public, namely the conservationists that are exceptional and tough. The mahouts, forest ecosystem controllers, forest rangers, ranger’s partner communities, patrol teams, research station guards, all of whom have contributed a lot in preserving our forest biodiversity. They not only sacrifice time and enjoyment, but also risk their lives.

In other national parks, there must also be many extraordinary warriors like the ones I told you about. Therefore, as a connoisseur, our work is not as difficult; we just need to take care and protect our natural biodiversity. Because protecting biodiversity is not only about protecting the environment, but also the development and the economic and social aspects. Connect with nature and feel. Let's invite more people to care.

“Those who protect and save biodiversity lead the way in protecting and saving humanity and earth.”

– Anthony Douglas Williams

* The author is one of the main winners of the Youth Love National Park blog writing competition (AMCTN) supported by USAID BIJAK, Biodiversity Warriors of KEHATI Foundation, Birdlife Indonesia Association (Burung Indonesia), Tambora Muda, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), OnTrack Foundation Media Indonesia (OTMI) and Forest That Indonesia (HII).