Science is not a safari

Joining an expedition into the Sumatran rainforest as a conservation volunteer is no holiday – and that’s the point

Story by Steve White
Photos by Biosphere Expeditions and Steve White

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We’d had a shit day. At least, that was the story I agreed with Manuela, ahead of that evening’s debrief back at base. It had been our longest day-hike into the reserve, along an ochre dirt road under unstinting tropical sun. Our tiredness was real enough, so to trudge back to the field station and announce we’d had a ‘shit day’ sounded perfectly plausible.

We were both volunteers, accompanying two researchers from Indonesian WWF on a field survey looking for tigers in Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve in Riau Province, Sumatra. Along with four other volunteers, we had paid for the privilege of joining this project, run by WWF in conjunction with Biosphere Expeditions, a voluntourism outfit.

Started by German former paratrooper and self-confessed control freak, Matthias Hammer, Biosphere Expeditions run wildlife conservation projects around the world, many of them aimed at research on big cats. This particular project was new, and Manuela and I were part of the pioneer group, filling the first of 2015’s six two-week slots. Besides Manuela there were three other Germans – journalists Andreas and Franz, and an architect also called Matthias – plus Michael, a geared-up Australian survivalist.

Within 40 minutes of the city of Pekanbaru on the drive in, we already had a sense of the challenges the hard-pressed forests of Sumatra face. First we’d passed a van full of hunting dogs, uncommonly sleek and healthy in a country with little interest in pet canines. Then a trike with more dogs and a roadtrain of trucks piled with palm oil fruit. Other trucks ferried logs and coal. It was clear that Sumatra’s extractive industries were in good health but it didn’t augur well for the jungle or the tigers that supposedly inhabit it.

From road’s end at the village of Tanjung Belit, a brief boat ride delivered us to our home for the next two weeks: a handsome two-storey field station. There we assembled for an introductory session. Asked about our expectations for the trip, several mentioned the hope of seeing a tiger, though the Expedition Dossier we had received beforehand had clearly stated the likelihood of seeing them was low.

Hammer quickly jumped in: “Be very excited if you see some tiger shit,” he said.

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In that event, we were directed to take samples. For while discovery fired our hope, diligence would fill our days. We were to survey the kilometre-by-kilometre cells marked on a map of the park on the wall upstairs. Each cell had to be assessed for the species present: possible prey as well as sexy big predators.

Introductions over, our briefing began with an announcement about punctuality: “We are now on German time,” said expedition leader, Ronald Siepold, pointedly. He then walked us, with Teutonic thoroughness, through camp procedures, jungle hazards (this took a while, especially the sections on snakes and leeches) and the survey techniques and equipment we would be using. We practised using the maps, compasses and GPSs – essential kit at all times – and were made familiar with the contents and use of the first-aid kit and venom extractor. Then there were our surveying tools: forms and pencils, binoculars, a scat collection kit.

It boiled down to appreciating what the expedition should offer, what Siepold called the ‘three Ss’: Safety, Science and Satisfaction – in that order.

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He then introduced Febri Widodo of WWF Indonesia. Quietly spoken, he was immediately undermined by a chainsaw opening up in the background. While he talked us through the animal life we might see and how we might recognise their tracks and droppings, we were being reminded that the forests of this populous developing country are being logged, burnt or stripped of their most valuable resources, even in supposedly protected areas such as this one.

Febri also introduced the Indonesian staff who would support him and look after us. The boat drivers, cooks and general helpers were all from the immediate area. Then there were several bright youngsters from Pekanbaru, hoping for careers in tourism: Beno, also with WWF; Sugi, our translator; and the effervescent Noori, our cook.

That first night, we went to bed with heads buzzing with expectation, only heightened by the noise once the generator that ran for a few hours each evening, went off. The jungle noises crowded in, seething, chirping, croaking, a wall of white noise that was soon accented by snores.

Next morning that German clock was ticking. We rose promptly, ate and packed personal and team kits against a checklist. There was a palpable sense of pride in being prepared for the day ahead. Then it was down to the boats that were to be our usual mode of access to the forest.

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As Febri had warned us, it was quickly clear that Rimbang Baling was no pristine habitat. He had told us to expect rubber cultivation near the villages, but that with the price of rubber down, there was also now illegal logging for hardwoods and aromatics.

From day one we saw evidence of both. We quickly learnt to seek out rubber tappers’ trails to help penetrate the forest, often meeting workers who looked bemused at our presence. Few of these tracks led far from the nearest settlement and a 50-m climb usually put signs of silviculture behind us.

As for the logging, besides the whine of distant chainsaws, there were rafts of logs openly being transported on the river. The sites themselves though were often remote, the appalling impact of clear-cutting too obvious to be within sight of passing park authorities. Getting the logs out to the river or nearest road was achieved using steep streams as a kind of sluice. Dams were built and then, with enough water backed up, were released, to pull logs quickly down the hillside. Where this was unworkable, an ingenious rudimentary ‘railway’ was built, with the logs piled on a sort of sled. The enormous efforts expended were a clear sign of the timber’s value.

Animal sightings were rare, other than of macaques and the semi-wild buffalo. We heard the gibber of gibbons and the booming siamang though, and wild pig tracks were everywhere, giving us plenty of practice at recognising them. Their presence, and that of smaller populations of deer was key, and went down on our data sheets, indicating a healthy prey base for any predators that might be around.

By day five, our projections of what was possible to cover in a day had been dramatically recalibrated. A single cell could take hours to cross without a clear trail. Streambeds were our most common route and that meant hours of clambering over rocks and wading deeper stretches. Only the most committed teams set out to cover more than one cell a day.

Being in or close to water meant leeches. Lots of them. Checking for them became almost reflexive – each time we halted to look for tracks or sun bear scratches down trees, our gazes would drop to our legs and feet, scanning for the inchworm progress of a thread-like empty leech looking to refuel. Flicking them off while they were on the move was easy. But once under our clothes they’d get a hold painlessly and we’d know of it only after they’d drunk their fill. Then the wound would bleed freely, spreading impressive stains on our clothes. Teams returning after a day in the field looked like extras from a war movie.

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Once we had a feel for the area, we would choose the cell or cells that suited us out of the alternatives presented by the expedition leaders each evening.

The most ambitious survey came near the end of our slot when Michael, Manuela and I took two boats as far up a tributary as possible and overnighted in the forest.

After a half day’s battle up the shallow stream, we pitched our tents on the flat of the bank, several metres above the river. Michael set up his hammock while the boat crews chose the sandbar on which we had alighted.

Setting out again, we crossed the river to survey a fresh cell where we ran into two rubber workers who talked of tigers in the vicinity. It was electrifying news which fired us up for a further foray the following morning.

But lying awake that night we heard the leaf-pelting onrush of a rainstorm and soon the tent was shaking under the bombardment.

In the morning the sandbar was gone, the boat crews having hastily relocated onto the bank during the night. Crossing to our intended cell was now beyond us: the narrow boats would be unable to manoeuvre in the racing stream. We opted instead to use the current to get  quickly down to a lower cell.

The next hour was a wild ride as we shot down rapids where we’d had to get out and haul the boats up the day before. In the tightest spots, our boatmen had to fend us off rocks with sturdy poles that bent with the effort. We had no option but to sit tight and trust to their skill.

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It underlined how much the project depends on local people. Even more than their know-how though, ultimate success depends on earning the villagers’ trust: that helping the WWF-Biosphere tiger survey won’t negatively impact their livelihood. We’d met teachers another day and through them hoped to set up school visits to start educating the kids too.

Our most memorable data came on that long, hot day’s walk along the dirt road. Returning to base that night, Manuela and I were poker-faced as we told of our trudge. Later, in the nightly debrief, we were gratified to cause a stir with our news that our ‘shit’ day was down to finding animal scat, several  centimetres long, with pointed ends.

That last detail was important. We knew that meant it was felid, from a cat, rather than being scat from a canine, which has rounded ends. While the size suggested it was no adult tiger, any further speculation was likely a waste of time: our Biosphere Field Manual informed us that ‘very few people in the world can identify scats on sight’.

Still, interpreting shit – in both the general and the specific sense –is what field work is all about and we were excited to be learning even just a few basics. Knowing something about the shape of animal faeces, or recognising pig tracks, gave us inordinate pride. We’d found that third ‘S’, satisfaction, through the application of the second, science.

The scat needed to go off to a lab for DNA analysis so we had stood and watched Febri very carefully take samples – we’d been warned how common it was for samples to be contaminated with human DNA during collection.

A little later we had reached the highest point on the road, a natural break in the vegetation that afforded a view across ridge after ridge of forest. It was a rare view deeper into the park, where the project’s subsequent groups would, in time, have to go. We had done all we could.

In the 2015 film ‘Racing Extinction’, Louis Psihoyos, cofounder of the Oceanic Preservation Society, calls the human-induced mass extinction of species, “the biggest story in the world”. Sumatran tigers are not far off becoming a chapter of that story.

“My hope,” says Psihoyos, “is that if you can show people the beauty of these animals there is a chance to save them.”

Matthias Hammer would agree, with the corollary that even showing them some shit might be enough to get started. AA

Does voluntourism work?

The idea is very appealing: to ‘give back’ by paying to work, but voluntourism has come in for a fair amount of criticism. An article in The Independent called it: “a waste of time and money”; another on Huffington Post accused it of “doing more harm than good”.

Matthias Hammer, who founded Biosphere Expeditions
(www.biosphere-expeditions.org) to work expressly on conservation issues, says the field is, “full of charlatans . . . about five years we started this campaign of ‘top ten tips’ because for the punters it’s really hard – anyone can have a nice website.”

He ticks off some of the questions a prospective client should ask: “Are they a non-profit, do they publish their results, is the website full of people cuddling animals which you shouldn’t do? Are they transparent, do they show where the money goes? Do they have achievements to show? A lot of them don’t, it’s just pretence sadly.”

Asked what Biosphere have achieved, Hammer says: “None of it is just our achievements, it’s always collaborative. But we’ve had a hand in creating protected areas on four continents – those are stories that take years or a decade to develop.”

It makes sense that projects such as the conservation-related survey work that Biosphere does, require a long-term commitment, but the issue of time is crucial also to individuals signing up on a given programme and expecting to really make a difference.

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Wayne McCallum (shown above) is Executive Director of the Song Saa Foundation (http://songsaafoundation.org/) which takes volunteers on its Tropical Marine Conservation Programme: “Voluntourism faces a dilemma when it comes to quality of experience versus what the volunteer is willing to pay, is able to contribute and what time they have at their disposal.

“To get a meaningful volunteer experience where you learn as much as you give, you need to look at something that is at least a month in duration and with activities that marry up to your abilities. In the end, your contribution will be a function of the skills you are able to contribute and your ability (and the capacity) to translate these to others, more so than good intentions.

“Our programme reflects this – people need to be qualified divers while, for the first week, they spend time in lectures, boning up on skills to complete reef surveys. These lectures go on, although in decreased intensity, in the the weeks that follow.”

Biosphere too, work on volunteers’ field skills and Hammer is considering a programme for repeat volunteers for the Sumatra survey featured here, given the scale and challenges of the work in hand.

Not being in-situ like Song Saa means Biosphere have to rely on the willingness of others to take things on when the project is over.

“We do research so that bigger people than us can target their efforts more effectively,” says Hammer. “We are the ambulance, until the doctors decide to heal the patient.”