Montag, 30. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XVIII - Sulawesi: Behind the Green Wall


Finally I made it: I ventured into the jungle, quite specifically the Lore Lindu National Park. Now what did I see there? The answer is: not much. But I learned a lot about local culture and why wildlife conservation does not work. Despite that, it was still good fun, and a very scenic trek.

Ascent to the mountain

We (meaning the guide, the porter and me) started off in the Christian town of Tentena, next to the quite remarkable Lake Poso. Not too long ago, Muslims and Christians fought each other heavily in this area, the product of a youth brawl that escalated into full-scale war that cost over 1000 people their lives.

The Bada valley in all its glory

From here we made our way into the Bada Valley, a lovely stretch of pristine farmland, cut off from the rest of the world until the late eighties. Even now, there´s not much road between the potholes and often the jeep would not be able to continue without ad-hoc road repairs and lots of pushing. On the other side of the mountains, though, lies the most peaceful and quaint bucolic village you can imagine: pastel-coloured houses with picket fences are surrounded by lush, green fields in which buffalo graze and peasants plant their rice. Life is easy here. There are no seasons and crops can be planted all year round: rice, cocoa, corn, vanilla, coffee, papaya, whatever your farmer heart might wish for.

The humble buffalo is still the main agricultural tool here

Apart from offering some amazing hikes into the surrounding countryside, the area is known for its ancient megaliths, large stones sculptured into human likeness that are littered across the whole valley. No one knows where they came from or who crafted them, but scholars assume they were made by a small paleontholithic civilization of which no other trace remains.

A female megalith statue of unknown origin

We spent the night there and made for the national park the following morning.

Early morning view of the national park

From the village we went on a freshly made ranger path into the mountain jungle. During the three day journey we were to cover 60 kilometers spread across 2000 meters altitude. The path was barely recognizable, but the my guides knew where to go...and so did every else, unfortunately.
I was expecting an unending barrage of mysterious animal noises, like I heard so many times in countless documentaries and movies before. Instead, the jungle stayed eerily silent. Apart from the occassional bird call once every hour or so, only the persistent scratching of the cicadas filled my ears. No monkeys, no hornbills, not even geckos or frogs. 

Overnight stay is in shelters like these.
For a while I thought, the place was generally wild, but then I saw more and more paths branching out from our own, as frequent as three or four every twenty minutes. That's when a whole lot of explaining started that showed me why, despite protection, rangers and NGO funding nature reserves don't last long in Indonesia and, assumedly, in the rest of the world. 

Self-made kerosene lamps are the only lights
Basically, when a ranger makes a new path, for reasons of tending to the forest or ecotourism, it's the signal for the whole village to use it to exploit the forest. Some of these forms of exploitation is relatively harmless, like the gathering of Agatis sap, others, hunting, trapping, logging are not. For the majority of my trek I was never far from the sound of an illegal chainsaw, the chopping of machetes and the barking of dogs. Obviously, faced with the constant assault of noise and activity, no animal, from the rare anoa to the common monkey would stay anywhere close the trail, and those unfortunate ones who make their presence known quickly fall victim to poachers. While anoa and babi rusa are trapped for their meat (which sells for about 50000 rupiah a piece), monkeys and birds are captured as pets. 

Captured Hornbill

For an example of how extreme this persecution can get, hear the fate of the humble Toke, also known as gecko. When Chinese traders in Sulawesi announced they would pay good money for any dead gecko the locals could find (for use in Chinese medicine), the inhabitants of Sulawesi managed within only a few years to all but eradicate the gecko from the Island, where before it was abundant. As my guide told me, if anyone would hear the sound of its voice (the characteristic "Eck-awww") nearby, they would make straight for the tree to take it down. Well, that explains at least why I didn't hear any geckos. And while jungle life is elusive, I reckon that the two spring traps we destroyed on the way and the many dogs brought by Agatis collectors ( who claim they need the dogs to "protect" them from wild animals) have not helped much.

The ranger sharing supplies with the poachers. They're buddies after all.

The route, however, was stunning, with very diverse vegetation and microlife across the trek, from fern forest to rainforest and almost alpine looking yellow meadows.

View from the mountains on Doda village


Primary Forest

Fern Forests

Speaking of alpine vegetation: in an effort to fight errosion caused by logging and farmland creation, the government planted easily obtained european pine trees, which causes the affected areas to look exactly like Switzerland or Tyrol. Filled me with a sense of home. The government was unaware that the pine tree is a tough tree that would take over the local ecosystem, but the villagers love them, because the lower vegetation density makes shooting the remaining wildlife that ventures there easier. Mind you, please, that this is all information given freely by my guide.

The Alps? Canada? No, tropical Sulawesi...

At this time it dawned to me that nature reserve does not have to mean that an area is protected for it's great biodiversity, but simply because it is the only bloody forest left to protect. Within the national park are many small villages, grown to ten times their size due to higher life expectations and absence of family planning. Where before the forest could sustain the unrestrained reaping of its resources, now it won't, and I give this reserve another 20 years before it's gone the way of the Sulawesi gecko. It's not a often glorified way of living in harmony with nature that kept these communities sustainable for the forest, but rather their small size. The people themselves have no idea why protecting the environment or the extinction of a species would be of any importance. To quote a local hunter when asked: "Oh, when all animals are gone, I can live from logging. And if all the trees are gone, I can plant cocoa! No problem!"

Despite all this, I have learned a lot about jungle life; what plants to suck for water if no rivers are around, which herb cures rabies and how to always find some Agatis resin to get a fire started.

Agatis sap is harvested for candles and candy coating

I also learned that the most dangerous creature in the Sulawesi forest is the Anoa, or Pygmy Buffalo, which may only stand 80 centimeters tall, but is relentless and vicious in its attacks. For the more paranoid people among you: never be the second person in a trek line. Most wild animals never attack the first person passing, so the second usually gets pounced upon. I've braved river waters and swarms of wild bees, six different kinds of leeches and spiders the size of a dinner plate. Since I couldn't find any big things, I turned my attention to the smallest denizens of the rainforest, so there would be at least some pictures.

Moths the size of my hand...
...and spiders big enough to steal my soap.
This creature glues debris to its back to conceal itself.
Strange parasitic plants abound.
The locals call this bug "belanda" (holland) because of its nose
Even opening supplies can be potentially hurtful
A giant cicada
Nepentis plants attract insects that then fall into its digestive liquid
Looks like a forest, but is actually a microscopic moss

After the return is was amphetamine-fueled driving and cheesy Indonesian love songs all the way as usual. When remarked on his reckless driving on barely adequate roads through villages at night, the diver merely laughed and shouted: "Well, we're all good Christians, right?". The Muslims here have a similar sense of humor: when inquired to the safety of the airline I was supposed to fly with, the travel agent simply smiled at me and said "Inshallah". I just love travel in this country.

The next post will cover the Togean Islands, so if your work life can't bear pictures of tropical beaches, you might skip that one.

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