By: Gregory McCann

The turbid yellow-brown waters of the Strait of Malacca lap up against the mudflats of the east coast of Sumatra in a blur of earth and sea, with the two almost indistinguishable from the vantage point of our small hired boat. Beyond the shore, mangrove forests stretch up and down the coast for as far as our eyes can see, though not far behind the mangroves, are the oil palm plantations.

The east coast of Sumatra is, in fact, a massive ecosystem running over 2,000 kilometers from north to south, and yet, apart from a couple of national parks in the south, it seems to get very little attention from the international conservation community. The coastline is a critical habitat for migratory shorebirds and its extensive mangrove forests are vital carbon sinks. As such, they are an important buffer against climate change.

Healthy mangrove forest. Photo: Greg McCann

Typhoons, for example, tend to do less damage when mangrove forests are left intact, a lesson learned in India and elsewhere,  while on Sumatra’s northwest coast in Aceh, the removal of mangrove forests is thought to have allowed the 2004 tsunami to slam into and flood the coast at a greater magnitude than it otherwise would have to disperse it and slow it down. Mangroves have since been replanted in Aceh in the hopes that they can serve as a “forest shield” should another tsunami strike. In other words, humans need mangrove forests and intact coastlines as much as wildlife does.  

Indonesian biologist and wildlife activist Chairunas Adha Putra and I hired a boat at Percut harbor on the Saetwon River in Deli Serdang district, not far from the Medan’s Kualanamu airport, so that we could look for endangered shorebirds among the mudflats and mangroves. Shorebirds, also called waterbirds, are in steep decline worldwide and many face extinction thanks to anthropogenic changes in their aquatic ecosystem habitats as well as to the effects of climate change. Shorebirds forage for food among the mudflats, and at high tide they fly into the mangroves to roost.

However, when mangroves and other wetlands are cleared for aquaculture farms, for palm oil plantations, or industrial projects, the birds simply have nowhere to go. Another problem is hunting pressure. Mist nets are set up to snare the birds in mid-air, and many are simply left to die and rot for days. The ones that are collected alive are sold to restaurants in the Deli Serdang area, despite the fact that of most of the 69 shorebirds species found in Indonesia are protected by law. Disturbingly, some brazen poachers simply show up on the coast with rifles and blow away giants like the milky stork and lesser adjutant for the sheer fun of it.

We were fortunate to see swarms of shorebirds burst up from the mudflats like confetti fired out of a cannon. Huge flocks put on dazzling displays as they twisted and turned in formation in their hundreds and sometimes thousands like some kind of animate cloud. We also saw milky storks, lesser adjutants, egrets, sandpipers, whiskered terns, cormorants, kingfishers, giant mudskippers, monitor lizards, long-tailed macaques, and several families of silvery lutung as our boat weaved in and out of the mangrove channels. But for how much longer will this threatened ecosystem and its fauna and continue to exist?

Putra, his wife, and his associates have put together an educational video called “Nchay Looking for Haven” to address this issue. They are trying to have the section of the coast around Deli Serdang district designated as a Ramsar site in the hopes that official designation would spur the government to enforce better protection measures against illegal land clearing, land sales, and poaching. The Indonesian government’s track record on conservation enforcement has been dismal, but that hasn’t stopped Putra and his team.

The area is also home to the ethnic Melayu people, who were described to me as a kind Malayan sea gypsy people. They are staunch Muslims and they often fly their own yellow and black ethnic flag when they set sail. Several Melayu fishermen who we encountered had painted their faces bright yellow for protection against the sun, making for a strange site out among the tidal waters, mud flats, and mangrove forests. No doubt, in addition to having potential as a conservation site, the mangroves and mudflats and seafaring Melayu people of Deli Serdang could also be a great ecotourism draw for the region, if only the Indonesian government has the backbone to protect it.

If not, the endangered migratory shorebirds will lose a vital wintering habitat, and Indonesia will lose a buffer against climate change and natural disasters as well as potential ecotourism revenue. In short, a fascinating, important ecosystem that few people are even aware of could disappear into the Sumatran haze as if it had never existed.

Gregory McCann is the project coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. Photos are also by Greg McCann