The race to protect the forests and wildlife of Sumatra's Thirty Hills

To reach one of the last great swaths of lowland rain forest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, you must drive for hours through land that has already been cleared and developed.

First, taking the busy Trans-Sumatra Highway out of Jambi City, you pass only small-scale stuff: rice paddies and plots of dragon fruit trees between brightly painted houses. As the houses thin, you start to see rubber plantations: rows on rows of pale, spindly trunks with buckets tied beneath the notches carved into their bark. Then the rubber trees begin alternating with oil palms. Phalanxes of the latter—squat trunks with spiky, pompom-like eruptions of leaves from their tops—cover the hillsides, and bunches of oil palm fruit appear in heaps along the road.

You also start passing trucks laden with timber and acacia logs, because you’re driving into the heart of Indonesia’s pulp and paper industry. And you might glimpse occasional chunks of coal along the roadside, each one a dark hint that mining is in vogue. After six hours, turning onto an old, unpaved logging road, you’ll climb steep slopes past more rubber and oil palm plantations—terraced into the hillsides now—and a coal mine gouged into the orange dirt like a wound.

Finally, if you have permission, you’ll pass through a guarded gate into one of the most biologically rich forests on Earth. Sumatran elephant tracks punctuate the muddy road and gibbon howls ricochet through the treetops. The buzzing of insects waxes louder than any of the industrial farm equipment you’ve passed. And everywhere you look, you’ll see green on green on green. Green to the nth degree.

This is Thirty Hills, or Bukit Tigapuluh in Indonesian. It’s one of the only remaining landscapes where elephants, tigers, and orangutans coexist. If its biodiversity is a wonder, so is its survival. The sole thing standing between this emerald island and the sea of extractive companies surrounding it is another company. A new company. A company laboring to prove that in Sumatra, it’s possible to profit from protecting these forests rather than cutting them down.

Against all odds

If Thirty Hills’ situation sounds dramatic, that’s because it is. There’s no subtlety in Sumatra’s deforestation crisis. There hasn’t been since 1985, when the production of palm oil—used in an astounding array of food and personal care items, from ice cream to lipstick—began rapidly spreading across the island.

Logging for pulp and paper production soon followed; coal mining picked up in the early 2000s. Since the ’80s, migrants from other islands have also flocked to Sumatra to clear land for small-scale farms. Between 1985 and 2014, the island’s forest cover plunged from 58% to 26%. And while Indonesia’s laws include punishments for illegal deforestation, law enforcement is still weak on the ground.

Those circumstances have made Sumatra an immensely difficult place for conservation. As deforestation became an existential threat to Sumatra’s rain forests, WWF-Indonesia and other conservation groups started lobbying the government to establish a national park to protect Thirty Hills. “They finally created Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in 1995, but they only put the hilliest area in it,” says Jan Vertefeuille, senior director of advocacy for WWF-US. “Loggers don’t want those hills. But neither do elephants or orangutans.”

Then, in the mid-to-late aughts, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP)—a major deforestation culprit in Sumatra—applied for a license to clear-cut the lowland forests around the park and replace them with pulpwood plantations. “We wanted to stop them,” says Aditya Bayunanda, WWF-Indonesia’s policy director for sustainability transformation. “But the only way was to apply for an ecosystem restoration concession on the same chunk of land.”

Thirty Hills

Thirty Hills is the last large block of intact lowland forest standing in central Sumatra. Around 120 elephants, 170 orangutans, and 30 Sumatran tigers—all of them critically endangered—roam its dense woods. “Those are just some of the incredibly charismatic animals in this amazing landscape,” says Suhandri, Sumatra program director for WWF-Indonesia. “Securing the ecosystem restoration concession is a huge step forward for protecting them.”

Eastern half of ecosystem restoration concession
Western half of ecosystem restoration concession

At the time, Indonesia’s government had just created ecosystem restoration concessions, or ERCs, as a tool to combat deforestation. Anyone who operates one is required to reforest degraded lands within it. But there are steep barriers to entry: For example, ERCs can only be owned by for-profit companies—and those companies must pay 60 years’ worth of land taxes up front to secure the 60-year license.

To clear those hurdles, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation helped WWF, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and The Orangutan Project raise initial funds for startup costs. WWF-Indonesia and partners also created a commercial company called PT Alam Bukit Tigapuluh (ABT). ABT then applied for an ERC, and for years competed neck and neck with Asia Pulp & Paper for Thirty Hills’ lush forests.

“Eventually we launched a public campaign about what APP was doing,” says Bayunanda. “So they withdrew their application, and in 2015 we got the land.”

ABT had secured 94,000 acres of lowland rain forest around the park. But now, they had to prove that their brand-new business could protect those forests for the long haul.

Earning local trust

Guara, the Talang Mamak word for a honey harvester, literally means “champion.” Isong has been scaling honey trees for more than 20 years, ever since his dad taught him. “I’ve never fallen or felt afraid,” he says.

On a sweltering evening in October 2017, in the deepening dark, Isong (who, like many Indonesians, does not use a last name) grasps a bamboo-pole ladder and starts to climb. Against the tree trunk he looks tiny, squirrel-sized. This is no ordinary tree. It’s a sialang—a colossal dipterocarp named for the beehives hanging from its branches—and tonight Isong and two other climbers are ascending it in search of honey.

“At the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, we have an obligation to not only drive funding to the ecosystems around the world that are most in need of protection, but also tell the stories of those ecosystems. And the story of Thirty Hills grabbed us viscerally. It’s experiencing so many pressures from so many sides. The progress that WWF and their partners have made there has already been impressive because they’re up against so much.”

Justin Winters
Executive Director, The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation

The climbers belong to a community of indigenous people, the Talang Mamak. While their village now lies within ABT’s ecosystem restoration concession, the Talang Mamak have been in central Sumatra for centuries, living off the forest’s honey, native fruits, bearded pigs, and abundant medicinal plants. However, those resources have dwindled in recent years due to deforestation, and the Talang Mamak lack legal ownership of their lands. The Orang Rimba, another indigenous people in the area, face a similar dilemma.

ABT aims to help both groups prosper by involving them in its business model. Combining conservation and private-sector expertise, the company is crafting sustainable production plans for a variety of local products—everything from sialang honey to traditional handicrafts to furniture made from rattan. Those activities are expected to provide new jobs and increased income for the local communities, who will eventually be invited to become company shareholders.

The company also plans to connect those products to international markets, where prices tend to be much higher than those in Sumatra. A partnership with a high-end food company is under way to market Thirty Hills honey. But Pak Arus Mujijat, ABT’s CEO, says it will take a few years before ABT can funnel bulk orders to foreign buyers.

“Right now, we have to focus on developing the plans and building trust with the indigenous communities and other local people,” says Arus, a soft-spoken man with more than two decades of forestry experience.

The latter task is a delicate one. Indonesia’s indigenous groups have little power or land tenure rights, and agricultural and mining companies are often given government licenses to develop their ancestral lands. Fahmi—a slight, articulate man who recently became the Talang Mamak village’s leader—says ABT’s mission sounds appealing. In September, he made a soft commitment to work with the company, but he emphasizes the “soft” part.

“It’s critical for ABT to show their commitment through concrete action,” says Fahmi. “We’re interested in working with them, but we need to see more proof that they keep their word and don’t take our land.”

Keeping watch

thirtyhills weaver fall2018

A Talang Mamak woman weaves a mat from rattan strands in her village in Thirty Hills. In addition to helping the Talang Mamak find international buyers for their handicrafts, ABT plans to offer them training on making furniture from rattan.

Pak Arus has plenty on his plate just transforming ABT into a profitable business that can deliver that proof to Fahmi. But the company’s responsibilities don’t stop there. A big part of its bottom line is simply protecting the forests from people who want to illegally clear them.

The day after the sialang climb, in a rubber plantation bordering ABT’s concession, two men unpack a plane-shaped drone from its case. One switches on the remote control; the other lifts the aircraft, activates its propeller, and launches it buzzing into the skies over Thirty Hills.

These men are undercover investigators for Eyes on the Forest, the deforestation watchdog group that WWF helped establish in 2004 with two local NGOs, Jikalahari and Walhi Riau. The group has become renowned for its investigations, using intensive fieldwork and satellite data to reveal widespread and often illegal deforestation for palm oil and pulpwood plantations in Sumatra.

“We’re now one of the most respected sources of deforestation information in Indonesia,” says Nursamsu, the group’s founder and director.

In 2016, after ABT secured the concession license, Eyes on the Forest partnered with a new member organization—KKI Warsi—to launch a branch of operations in Thirty Hills. Their investigators explored its forests and villages in a variety of disguises and surveyed the land by drone.

What they found was significant illegal encroachment in the westernmost half of the concession. “While we were waiting for the concession license, nobody was protecting the land, so a lot of the forests got clear-cut,” Vertefeuille says. The biggest discovery was a 3,200-acre palm oil plantation that had reportedly been developed by a powerful individual in Jakarta. The person who illegally sold them the land, the investigators believe, was a village leader hostile to ABT.

ABT has filed a police complaint against the plantation owner. The company is also organizing dialogues with the village head and other encroachers to reach an agreement over the land. “My dream is to restore all of that forest with the support of the local communities,” Pak Arus says.

Meanwhile, ABT has launched its own protection units in Thirty Hills: two patrol teams that comb the concession for encroachers, and a squad of firefighters on call around the clock to respond to forest fires. The former routinely find poaching traps and signs of other illegal activities in the concession’s dense woods. The latter has already responded to multiple fires, at least one of which was arson.

Orangutan rehab

It’s easy to get caught up in the human complexities of the concession and ABT’s plans there. Easy, that is, unless you’re a veterinarian for more than 100 Sumatran orangutans also living in Thirty Hills. That’s Andhani Widya Hartanti’s job. Hartanti—a slight, cheerful 24-year-old from the island of Java—works for the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s (FZS) orangutan rehabilitation center, which rescues illegally captured orangutans and prepares them for release in Thirty Hills.

Suro was kept illegally as a pet before being rescued and brought to the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s orangutan rehabilitation center in Thirty Hills. She now spends most of her time in the forest canopy.

Early one morning at one of the center’s camps, Hartanti dons a raincoat over her hijab and hikes into the forest to check on several of the apes. After 20 minutes, she abruptly stops and points upward. It’s not hard to find the orangutan she’s spotted; the whole tree is swaying under its weight.

“That’s Alda. She’s about 22 years old,” Hartanti says, as the orangutan languidly shifts her long limbs and blinks down at us.

Alda spent her first 20 years of life as an illegal pet. Now, after being rescued, she’s one of the center’s dozens of orangutans learning to climb trees, build nests to sleep in, and live off wild fruits and plants.

Only between 6,000 and 10,000 wild orangutans remain in Sumatra, and most live in the island’s north. FZS aims to reestablish a new population in Thirty Hills. (The organization believes the apes used to live there—they appear in local stories—but they’ve long been absent.) So far, they’ve successfully released 170 rehabilitated orangutans; the goal is to reach 350, the minimum requirement for a healthy population, in the next 20 years.

“Orangutans need a relatively large habitat, ideally lowland rain forest,” says Peter Pratje, the director of FZS’s Bukit Tigapuluh Program. “That’s why they’re competing with humans for space. It’s also the best land for agriculture.”

Pratje launched the rehabilitation program for FZS in 2001. When he was looking for a place to establish it, Thirty Hills caught his eye for its size—which, he says, is exceptional given how much deforestation Sumatra has already seen. The government had also committed to protecting the landscape, if only partially, by creating the national park at its core. Now, through the ecosystem restoration concession, Thirty Hills’ orangutans could have the room they need to survive long term.

“The orangutan carrying capacity in the park was about 700,” Pratje says. “With the concession, it’s nearly a thousand.”

Students in a village near Thirty Hills peruse books from WWF-Indonesia’s mobile education unit (MEU). The MEU uses books, games, and lesson plans to teach local communities how to protect vulnerable wildlife.

Partnering for a pathway

Sumatra’s tigers and elephants roam even more widely than its orangutans. Despite all the protected land the concession has added to Thirty Hills National Park, that land lies within two disconnected blocks. To travel between them, both species must pass through a rubber plantation with little forest cover to hide them.

In 2010, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Rockefeller partnered with World Wildlife Fund to hold a fundraiser for Thirty Hills. They invited people they knew would take an interest in a project with steep challenges but huge potential. Here’s who’s joined the effort:

  • Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation
  • Laurance S. Rockefeller Fund
  • KfW Development Bank
  • Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation
  • Richard and Maureen Chilton
  • Marshall Field
  • The Moore Charitable Foundation
  • Eric and Rae Piesner
  • Anonymous Donors (3)

There’s a solution in the works, though: The plantation is jointly owned by Michelin, the international rubber giant, and an Indonesian petrochemical company named Barito Pacific. “Michelin is keen to work with us,” says Vertefeuille. “They’ve agreed to reforest some of the plantation to create a wildlife corridor between our two blocks of land.”

The company hasn’t yet begun that work; right now, the plantation is a patchwork of rubber trees, freshly cleared and terraced hillsides, and encroached areas planted with oil palms. But Michelin’s commitment is firm, and they’re working with WWF to create a reforestation plan.

Late one afternoon, a visit to the plantation drives home the need for that wildlife corridor. FZS runs an array of human-wildlife conflict prevention projects in addition to orangutan rehabilitation. As part of that work, they use GPS collars to track a number of Thirty Hills elephants—most of them matriarchs who lead herds.

Today, a herd is deep in the plantation, keeping to the shade offered by a large plot of rubber trees. The tree cover throws off every attempt to see them by drone. A small group of WWF staffers ventures closer to the GPS point in the hopes of glimpsing them through the trees.

There’s no sign of the elephants. The afternoon is so still you can hear leaves breaking from the trees and fluttering to the ground. Suddenly, 20 feet away, a cluster of trees bends wildly, and a deep, low grunt punctures the silence. The elephant itself remains invisible behind the trees, but there’s no mistaking its voice.

According to the GPS data, the elephant is a female named Majah. She’s one of 150 elephants roaming constantly across the Thirty Hills landscape—often chased from one spot to another by villagers and concession-holders with no interest in sheltering hungry pachyderms. In a way, she embodies both the hope and the challenges of ABT’s mission.

A risk worth taking

“Just getting this concession in the first place was a huge victory,” Vertefeuille explains on the drive out of Thirty Hills. She’s encouraged, she adds, by everything she sees happening in these early stages of ABT’s development: the relationship-building with the Talang Mamak, the business experience that Pak Arus brings to the table, the talks being held with illegal encroachers, the food company’s interest in buying sialang honey. She’s also constantly aware of how much work remains ahead for this model to succeed.

“It’s incredibly complicated to start a company and try to manage your own forest concession, but it’s probably our only chance of saving this forest,” Vertefeuille says. “And if you think about how Thirty Hills is home to some of the last critically endangered Sumatran tigers, critically endangered Sumatran orangutans, and critically endangered Sumatran elephants, along with these unique indigenous groups, how can we not take the risk and try something completely new?”

Muhammad Arifin, a biologist from Java, carries a female orangutan named Willy into the forest around the rehabilitation center. “They’re beautiful,” he says of the apes. “Each one is an individual with its own personality.”

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