(C) GREENPEACE / Dean Baigent-Mercer
I've just returned from Indonesia where I've been working with Greenpeace towards protecting Indonesian rainforests and habitats of orang-utan and Sumatran tigers.
I was hoping to stay in the habitat of endangered Sumatran tigers recently during my work with Greenpeace in Indonesia. Unfortunately this wasn't possible but a group of volunteers who do conservation research and education work invited me to join them in Gede Pangrango national park only a few hours from Indonesia's bustling capital, Jakarta.
The islands of New Zealand have very few poisonous or dangerous animals where all the large animals are already extinct. The difference between the plants and animals in tropical Asia and temperate New Zealand is so vastly different, it is like visiting another planet.
Have you seen the film Avatar? My experience was like that.
We arrived late at night on the lower slopes of a volcano. It had been raining and we could hear distant thunderstorms. The full moon was lighting our way. Dancing fireflies greeted us, there were strange calls all around. I couldn't tell if it came from amphibians, reptiles, mammals, bugs or birds. Using your sense of sound is a good way to understand that you are moving though territories and neighborhoods of forest creatures. When one sound fades another takes its place. Someone pointed out a brown frog on the path that was camouflaged like a leaf. I was warned to watch out for snakes.
The largest predators in this rainforest is the Javan Leopard and the black panther. Actually they are both the same species but a recessive gene means sometimes the cat is black.
I suddenly heard loud crashing in the treetops. I froze and my heart pounded. A Javan leopard's territory is about 10km square - could it be that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Igud, a conservation worker, later told me he was both 'scared and excited' when he had accidently disturbed a resting leopard on the same track we were walking on one night. It had immediately ran off into the rainforest. Conservation researchers are using night cameras activated by movement to study the nightlife in Gede Pangrango National Park. Images from these 'camera traps' show Javan leopard, mouse-deer (a bouncing deer about 30 cm high!) and forest pigs.
“It’s good there’s lots of forest pigs here so the panthers don’t start searching in the village for food”, Igud said and I had to agree. But the opposite is happening in Sumatra where tiger habitat is being destroyed for palm oil and paper pushing a dangerous mix of tigers and humans closer together.
Elan, a volunteer with conservation group Eagle (named after the Javan Eagle), wants local people to get to know the rainforest in their own backyard. His group brings in community groups for education and adventure. “Lots of people don’t know how important forests are”, he says. “We hope after they come here they don’t support the cutting of the forest anymore”.
Locally there is pressure to take wood to burn for cooking and making things, so the volunteers encourage people to take small branches from around the edge of the park and not the big trees.
Finally we made it to a hut in the forest where we would quickly fall asleep.
The morning sun woke me and I looked out the window to a view of rainforest. Trees with huge leaves, vines, ferns, spiky palms and more new sounds, a ‘twack-twack-twack’ of a bird and a horrible screaming rattle of a cicada. Being quiet and slow was the best way to get amongst it all and see poisonous fanned fungi and monkeys leaping between trees.
But the highllght of the day for me was walking across a high bridge built across a valley so you could be in the rainforest canopy. Here we saw a family of endangered Javan Silvery gibbons - apes, like us, that have no tail [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Javan_gibbon ]. They use their very long powerful arms to move around the tree tops. Unfortunately only 2% of these gibbon's habitat remains and they are poached for pets. Igud told me that both parents are often killed to capture a baby gibbon for the pet trade. Because they are closely related to humans they can catch hepatitis and tuberculosis from us. Disease and sometimes severe behavioural issues need to be tackled by those at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre for ex-pets to be given a second chance in the wild.
Experiencing this rainforest made me wonder about the diversity of life on this planet - our shared biodiversity - and the urgency to protect the last remaining rainforests for our climate and for life itself. To paraphrase a New Zealand conservationist, imagine the ancient forests of the world were an apple. We're now down to the last bite. Do we bite this in half? And with what remains, do we bite that in half again?
The situation is urgent. Deals negotiated between countries to keep these lungs of the Earth alive and local national and international efforts to replant natural forests are our main hope at this point of the century. Reducing consumption and avoiding products that are part of the chain in rainforest destruction is something we can all do. It all counts. Act local, think global there is no planet B for the Javan leopard, Sumatran tiger, orang-utan, Javan gibbon and us.