Plight of the pig-deer

Biologist Dr Lynn Clayton has dedicated her life to saving the babirusa and its tropical forest habitat

Lisa Genasci

The attraction of the babirusa pig-deer is not obvious. Thick-set and sporting two sets of dangerous-looking tusks that grow from its upper and lower face, it is also unusual for its odd up-on-hind-leg, boxing ritual between competing males.

Dr Lynn Clayton loves them though. Tall, yet soft-spoken, she is an Oxford-educated biologist who has spent the last 20 years working to protect 500sq km of virgin rainforest in North Sulawesi, an area that is one of the last redoubts of the endangered babirusa.

Clayton was raised in the same English village in Sussex where Darwin’s contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace wrote his journal of scientific discovery, The Malay Archipelago. Following extensive expeditions across Indonesia, Wallace had written of Sulawesi, “It is yet extraordinary rich in peculiar forms . . . in some cases absolutely unique upon the globe”.

A century later, in 1986, Clayton took the opportunity to see these ‘peculiar forms’ for herself, ending up in the Nantu forest reserve four hours from Gorontalo by van and boat. Nantu is one of Sulawesi’s remaining intact forest ecosystems and is today considered of international significance.

Once there, she sat in tree platforms from dawn to dusk waiting for sightings of the babirusa, which became first the topic of her PhD thesis and then her life’s work. With just a small team of dedicated rangers, Clayton has since beaten back gold miners and rattan collectors, politicians, poachers and loggers to defend a forest vital to local communities as well as its endemic species.
Among Nantu’s other extraordinary, endangered wildlife are the anoa, a forest buffalo; a locally endemic species of macaque; and the spectral tarsier, a tiny mammal with huge eyes.

“Many species in Nantu are unsurveyed because we just haven’t had the resources,” Clayton says. “I believe there is opportunity for unique scientific discovery in the Nantu forest.”

The babirusa are not particularly adaptable and have been depleted to their present threatened state in part because their forests have disappeared amid heavy logging. Still, Clayton has made a dent in the trade in the animals, which are protected under Indonesian law. Before she arrived in Sulawesi, there was a brisk market for babirusa meat, which tastes much like regular pig. Since then, the number of babirusa sold in the local wild meat market in Langowan has fallen from 15 a week to just two a week today.

Another challenge to the babirusa and their habitat are rattan collectors. Most recently, in early 2009, a local politician needing funds to support his campaign sent dozens of them into Nantu. They purged several hectares of 16,000 canes, trampling surrounding vegetation in the process.

Clayton’s team was threatened with knives and at one point surrounded by 70 angry men. She managed to prevail following a PR and political offensive in Jakarta and after working at the provincial level to educate local people and officials about Nantu’s conservation value.

Most recently, gold miners using mercury to purify their finds have set up deep inside the area, establishing an encampment and even opening a small café. The concern is that they will damage the forest, pollute its waterways with mercury and encourage others to do the same.

To combat these influences, Clayton has worked hard with the local communities to help educate children about the importance of Nantu and provide alternative sources of income to hunting and logging.

It is to her credit that despite these conflicts over forest resources, last year Clayton was chosen as ‘Gorontalo’s Best Public Figure’. The honour is bestowed on a local individual who advocates on behalf of local populations. She is even godmother to the child of a former poacher turned conservationist caught trapping babirusa years ago.

“Lynn Clayton is a totally remarkable person,” wildlife biologist and World Bank Senior Biodiversity Specialist for East Asia and Pacific Region, Tony Whitten, said recently.  “For nigh on 20 years she has been committed to the conservation of an absurd pig that only its mother would love – the babirusa – and to the social welfare of the people who live around one of its final refuges – Nantu Nature Reserve.”

“Lynn has been featured on Indonesian TV documentaries and by the local government as an exceptional asset to local conservation of international significance,” he said.

That Clayton has managed to keep Nantu largely intact over two decades is no small achievement in Indonesia. Despite the tens of millions of dollars spent there on conservation over the past two decades, at least 3,500 hectares of forest are cut daily, according to the 2008 Eliasch Review, an independent report to the UK government on climate change and forests. Nearly a third of the country’s forest cover has been lost in the last 20 years. Many estimates of forest loss are even higher.

Forests play a vital role in regulating the earth’s climate, forming a cooling band around the equator, generating much of our rainfall and acting as a thermostat.

They also remove CO2 from the atmosphere as the trees grow and store the carbon above and below ground. According to the Eliasch Review, forests cover 30% of our land surface yet hold 77% of all carbon stored in vegetation and 39% of carbon stored in soil.
Cutting trees down at the current rate is thought to contribute as much as 20% to global carbon emissions – about as much as transportation of all kinds does. Thanks largely to this deforestation, Indonesia ranks third worldwide in the amount of carbon emitted annually, behind only the United States and China.

Logging can also dramatically reduce biodiversity and alter watersheds which are often crucial to local livelihoods. In protecting forests therefore, local communities play a key role.

The Nantu forest is extremely important in terms of the environmental services it provides: a community of approximately 30,000 lives within the wider watershed and is completely dependent upon the Nantu and Paguyaman Rivers, fed by rain the forest helps to trap.
“Development cannot progress without water from forest catchments such as Nantu,” Clayton said. “Pristine rainforests with unique wildlife such as Nantu have potential for sustainable revenue generation.”

She has spent much of her time working with and educating communities living in and around the Nantu reserve about the benefits of preserving their forests. She has also helped them find alternatives to poaching and cutting trees, helping them to plant cocoa as a revenue generator.

The perception locally is often that cutting forests leads to jobs and better lives for people, but just the opposite is true, Clayton said. “In areas where complete destruction of Sulawesi’s forest has occurred, ordinary people’s livelihoods are not noticeably improved. Support for livelihoods that do not destroy the forest is vital.”

The problem is how to meet the enormous costs of protecting forests, which have traditionally been worth much more harvested for short-term profit than left standing to provide a lower but more sustained rate of return.

Recently, there has been movement internationally toward including forestry conservation in a UN-backed carbon trading scheme known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

This seeks to provide incentives for developing countries to protect forests rather than harvest their timber, with projects earning tradeable credits for the CO2 locked away by the trees. The trades are potentially worth billions of US dollars a year.

Under REDD, local communities would share in the credit sales, with funds used to develop alternative livelihoods as an incentive to protect the forests. But it is up to nations to determine their own regulations around REDD and to create a framework within which to operate. These are a long time coming and it is unclear just how communities will share in the profits in nations such as Indonesia that are rife with corruption.

Also, at the global level, carbon markets need to recover from the swift declines suffered as a result of inaction at the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference and uncertainty over what will happen once the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.
For now, Clayton is working to set up an endowment fund that would protect the forest in perpetuity. Potentially, local business revenues from eco tourism, forest products and carbon would add to philanthropic dollars.

Meeting the costs of conservation remains a daunting, day-to-day challenge for Clayton who, in hard times, has to go without a salary. But it’s a sacrifice she is prepared to make in order to save one of Indonesia’s great forests and its peculiar endemic pig-deer.


When to go
Northern Sulawesi stays hot and humid all-year-round with the driest months being July-October. December-February see the worst of the rains.

How to get there
Gorontalo has the nearest airport and also the only accommodation nearby.

Dr Lynn Clayton, There is a Facebook page, Global Friends of Nantu Forest or contact ADM Capital in Hong Kong who support the Nantu project.

Further information
There is no park headquarters and foreigners must get clearance from the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to visit Nantu.