• Mr. Franck Viault (Head of Cooperation), Ms. Marja Daffern (Deputy Head of Finance, Contracts and Audit) and Mr. Giovanni Serritella (Programme Manager for Environment, Climate change and FLEGT-VPA) of the EU Delegation to Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and ASEAN visited the base camp of the Elephant Patrol Unit (EPU), which is managed  and operated by LIF, at Aras Napal on Thursday, 16 April 2015. More

  • Seven of the world's rarest rhinoceroses have been found in a national park in Indonesia. This is the first time the creatures have been seen in 26 years. Deforestation is still pushing the Sumatran toward extinction.

    Hidden cameras buried deep in an Indonesian national park have snapped images of seven critically endangered Sumatran rhinos. The rhinos haven't been seen in more than a quarter of a century and conservationists had feared the Sumatran was extinct. But, six females and one male rhino are now known to live in the Mount Leuser National Park, which is on the northern tip of Sumatra. More

  • The Leuser Management Unit (LMU), while implementing the Leuser Development Programme (funded jointly by the EU and GoI), officially launched the Elephant Patrol Unit (EPU) in Aras Napal on 9 May 2000 and this was the first of its kind in Indonesia. More

  • The Conservation Response Unit (CRU) will mitigate human-elephant conflicts. This Unit has four trained elephants under the supervision of a mahout provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA). The project will support the initial cost for the infrastructure development of the CRU and also support its operational costs until 2016. The elephants will be supported and the local community will participate in monitoring wildlife conflicts and illegal forestry activities. More

  • Dr. Jamal Gawi, MES, Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Leuser International Foundation, participated in a discussion on Tigers (Wildlife Protection Series) at @america Pacific Place in Jakarta on Wednesday, 1 October 2014. More


The Battle for The Bengkung

pic5Few areas in Sumatra have the biological richness that the Bengkung river system had in the early 1980s. Few people had even been there, but those who managed to do so returned with stories of an unspoiled tropical forest paradise. The rivers teamed with fish and one could rest on a branch overhanging a deep pool in the Bengkung river and see layer upon layer of hundreds of large fish circling lazily in the shaded waters below. At night when the fish moved out to feed, gurgling sounds would emanate from the stony shallows as shoals of 10 kg Jurung fish nudged the boulders in search of shrimp and crustaceans that hid below. The forests held healthy populations of the already rare Sumatran Rhino, as well as all other forms of charismatic wildlife such as tiger, orangutan, clouded leopard, golden cat, elephant, serow, sunbear, and all the hornbills representative of northern Sumatra. Being clothed in lowland forest the Bengkung harbored numerous species of wild varieties of domestic fruit - six types of durian, four species of citrus, at least eight varieties of mango, two varieties of rambutan - the delicious fruit encased in a hairy skin that gives the fruit its local name. There were also species of edible and delicious fruit and nuts that have yet to be cultivated and may still have (if they indeed still exist) real commercial value. The bird life was prolific. And surveys carried by de Wilde in 1979 and later by Jan Wind in the early 1980s near the mouth of the Bengkung River revealed it to have extraordinarily high biodiversity. Though low in altitude the climate was fresh and for the traveler one thing that was most appealing was the absence of mosquitoes. A paradise indeed



Paradise defiled

pic6In the late 1970's a few hunters managed to penetrate into the headwaters of the Bengkung. They were ashtonished by the ubiquitous sign of rhino and numerous salt springs. Near one of the biggest of these salt seepages, the tracks of the large animals that had come to sip the mineral rich water over millennia had worn meter-deep trenches in the ground. They were also amazed by the density of fish in the rivers - almost impossible for most people to imagine if they have not seen such unspoiled rivers. So few remain. They used several methods to harvest this bounty. One was to construct conical traps out of bamboo or rattan and place them in strategic bottlenecks in the river. Another was to dry out small sections of stream by diverting the water around a series of damns. Still another was to use the poisonous extract from the roots of certain plants and to stun the fish in dammed pools. Most of these techniques have been used for a long time though not in the Bengkung. It was only when the poisoning technique was modified to use modern pesticides that the real problems began. Fishermen, in the late 1980s, adopted these virulent poisons to boost the "harvest" to supply smoked fish for the commercial market. Although they concentrated their efforts in the lower reaches of the Bengkung, the carnage was astonishing and in a matter of five years they had decimated fish populations and caused the extinction of entire components of the aquatic fauna. However, in the mid 1980's most of the Bengkung was still intact and much of the area had barely felt the footprint of man. Around this time, Mike Griffiths was commissioned by Mobil Oil to produce a book on Aceh's wildlife. He and a local forest expert, Alamsyah, chose the Bengkung basin as the best area left to photograph wildlife and many of the photographs taken during the course of these expeditions were later incorporated in a large book called Indonesian Eden, which exposed the secret wonders of Leuser's forests. During the last year of this work however two major events began to unravel the delicate balance structure of the forests of the Bengkung. The first was the issuance of logging licences over most of the southern half of the Bengkung river system.

pic7It is difficult for people to appreciate the delicacy of the forest ecology. When the logging began the effects of these activities were noticed as far as 15 kilometers inside the still virgin forest. The sounds of base camp generators could be heard from ten kilometers away on a still night. The natural movement of animals became upset as parts of the traditional range were destroyed. Pheasants and primates moving away from the destruction created temporary waves of unusually high densities of these animals before some vanished completely.

Much of the area given over to logging was included in the designated National Park. This did not deter the logging companies. Although some gave up when told it was National Park one company persevered and somehow convinced people to ignore the conservation status. A director from this company even stated, at a formal reception of logging concessionaires, that the only really good timber stands left in Aceh were in the designated Gunung Leuser national park. The second event and related to the first, was the discovery by outsiders of vast amounts of commercial grade rattan (Calamus manna).

People learned of the presence of these copious stands of rattan through the logging surveys that preceded the actual logging efforts. And the roads that were built to facilitate the extraction of timber provided access for the hordes of rattan collectors. Over a period of two years, hundreds of parties trekked into the Bengkung to extract this valuable commodity. By 1991 there was not a stem of this high-grade rattan left in an area of over 70,000 hectares. Where the rattan collectors went - rhinos and several other sensitive species were never seen again. This was really the low point for the Bengkung. It had been emptied of rattan and damar resin, was suffering the impact of ruinous fishing practices and was now about to be logged - selectively logged, in theory, but plans had already been drawn up for converting the area to oil palm plantations.

The tide begins to turn

pic9In the dark days of 1990 a visit was made by a World Bank team including Dr Yan Wind, Dr Herman Rijksen, Prof Herbert Prins, to the Bengkung. Although the area had lost much of its former glory there were some areas that were still in good condition and had not yet been logged. The trip was a revelation to the visitors and Dr Rijksen, entranced by the majestic beauty of the forests swore to fight for as long as necessary to win protection and recognition for this natural heritage. For the next two years he worked to get the EC interested in funding a conservation study in the Leuser area with a particular focus on the Bengkung basin. The result of this effort was a one million Euro contribution from the EC, for a two-year project called the ICDP for Lowland Rainforests in Aceh. During the course of this project several important developments occurred. The first was the appointment of Djamaludin Suryohadikusomo as the Minister of Forestry. He understood the forestry business in great depth and had the vision and integrity to undo many of the excesses of the past. In particular he put his full weight behind the conservation of the Leuser Ecosystem and reopened discussion on the logging concessions in the Bengkung Basin. Several years later he decreed, in effect, to close down the most contentious logging concession and to restrict the activities of the others to outside the Leuser Ecosystem including the Bengkung Basin. The second important development was the founding of the Leuser International Foundation (LIF) in 1994. The founding members of the LIF immediately set to work to lobby against further abuses to the Bengkung Basin. Plans to develop a vast cattle ranch were stopped, as were some plans to convert the forest to oil palm estates. But even then plans were secretly being drawn up to develop a government sponsored settlement project in the heart of the Bengkung basin. A third development, and this happened toward the end of the ICDP, was the commitment by the Indonesian Government and the European Commission to fund a major effort - the Leuser Development Programme (LDP) to conserve the whole of the Leuser Ecosystem. This was strengthened by a decree issued by the Minister of Forestry, Pak Djamaludin, to give a major role to the LIF in the management of the Leuser Ecosystem. At last there was sufficient legal basis, funds and political backing to seriously address the problems facing the Bengkung and the whole of the Leuser Ecosystem.


pic10     pic11


The ill conceived transmigration project in the Bengkung valley. Since it's closure this area has recovered the extent

that it is difficult to see that project was ever develoved here


pic12By the beginning of the LDP the plans to open the Bengkung for transmigration had reached critical mass and construction had begun using a logging road as access. The logic behind such settlement projects had been well worked out. Build a transmigration site in a remote area of forest - project No 1. Then use that as a justification for building a new road - project No 2. Then use this road as access to take out the remaining valuable timber - income earner No 3. Finally, sell off rights for oil palm estates to be developed in the area - income earner No 4. The site selected for the transmigration could not have been worse. From the point of view of the potential settlers there was little reliable water, especially now that the forest had been cleared, and the location was 17 km from the Alas river and 30 km from the nearest market!! From the point of view of ecology and nature it was located in a major transit corridor for many large mammals, especially elephants. In the days when Mike Griffiths and Alamsyah worked there, the forest had been like a magnificent cathedral or mosque whose roof was held up by the great pillar-like Dipterocarp trees. In the small streams that could only exist if there was permanent forest cover, lived shoals of Rasbora fish - locally called Dawah. Orangutans were numerous, rhinos lived in the area, and tigers, deer, serow, and lesser cats were common. Viewed from the air, the transmigration site looked like a great square-shaped wound in the middle of the forest, linked to the outside world only by a long tenuous earth road that snaked its way to the Alas river almost twenty kilometers away. From there a settler would have to use a canoe to travel another thirteen kilometers downstream to the nearest village, at Gelombang. When photographs of this were shown to the Pak Djamaludin he was shocked, and immediately made efforts to resolve the problem. The solution was to stop all work on the transmigration site, and to use the main buildings as a research area and to stimulate the regeneration of the surrounding forests. These noble plans were accepted but the worsening security situation in Aceh meant that the research station, financed by the LDP/LIF had to close after 2 years of operation and it was left to roaming wild elephants to gradually level the buildings. Today a flight over the area provides only a hint of what happened more than ten years ago. The forest has reclaimed most of the area and the site is visible only as a slightly lighter shade of green than the surrounding forest. In time and left alone it will fully recover.

pic14With the logging concessions effectively stopped, the transmigration scheme reversed and other plans for forest conversion shelved, the Bengkung could slowly recover. For a while there was some illegal logging in the area but the civil war in Aceh made the security situation so dangerous that even this stopped. Few people even dare to go into the Benkgung basin anymore. But the LIF/LDP maintain regular patrols and the information coming from the field and from aerial surveys is encouraging. Not only is the forest canopy returning to something like its original condition but the hunting on the ground has stopped. The saltlicks had become overgrown with vegetation on account of not being regularly scraped by large animals have now recovered. Elephants move regularly along their traditional migration routes, orangutans are more common, as are tiger. Life is returning to the Bengkung once again after nearly 20 years. The efforts to conserve the Bengkung have been long and hard and only some of the highlights can be mentioned here. The long and tortuous meetings with Government officials, the development of a public support for the conservation efforts, the hard negotiations with business interests bent on opening up the Benkgung forests - all these, and much more, were also important steps in the long hard effort over ten years to secure for future generations one of the last remaining lowland forests of Indonesia.


What steps are being taken by the LIF to promote the conservation of Leuser?
How will the people of Aceh and North Sumatra directly benefit from the conservation of the Leuser Ecosystem ?
What actions were taken by LIF relating to the earthquake and tsunami disaster in NAD and North Sumatra?

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