Eco-tourism and a Stunning Sumatra Rainforest

Eco-tourism and a Stunning Sumatra Rainforest

Saving forest from the oil palm plantations

Perched on a steep rainforested hillside in the mountains near Lake Toba, Sumatra is a cluster of wooden bungalows with a majestic view across a misty tropical valley of an even higher mountain range, also clothed in jungle.

From both sides of the valley the hooting of Siamang gibbons mixes with the mournful wailing of Lar gibbons, creating a bizarre ape cacophony. Add to this the growling and cackling of at least five species of hornbills, including the strangely beautiful Rhinoceros hornbill and Wreathed hornbill, spirit messengers from Heaven.

And add one more rarity—the echoing calls of Argus pheasant traveling over the canopy from a half dozen directions—and you’d be forgiven for mistaking that you’d been teleported to the Garden before the Fall.  It is the kind of place that eco-tourists would travel half the world to experience, an earthly paradise.

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The problem is that none have, at least not yet.  The Labura district government of North Sumatra Province would very much like to see an alternative to the endless rows of palm oil plantations that characterize most of the area. Fortunately, the local government is not on their own; they have the invaluable assistance of a local Batak named Haray Sam Munthe who has founded the Sumatran Tiger Rangers in an attempt to curb the tiger poaching crisis that has engulfed Sumatra.  I met the local governor in July and he was adamant about preserving the ecoculture, and I even had the pleasure of participating in my first press conference about the topic.

Everyone in attendance in this overlooked region of Sumatra was supportive. What’s the plan? They wanted to know. How can we do this? How would it play out? What’s the potential? I told them I envisioned village homestays in the ethnic Batak villages with local cultural events, followed by extensive nature hikes and contacts with local grassroots conservation groups.

They liked this answer, and so did I. I still do. But I begin to feel a bit shaky when I try to envision just how much revenue can be generated for this place by ecotourism. There are several problems. First, ecotourism in the tropics is a largely seasonal thing, which means tourists might come during the dry season, but most will stay away during the monsoon, which means that those who rely on or at least hope to benefit from ecotourism can only do so for probably less than half of the year. Whether it’s Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, or Myanmar, the seasonal weather will affect the ecotourism business in a big way.

The next issue is Sumatra itself. Compared to its neighbors like Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, Sumatra—apart from the cool surfers who make it out to the island’s west coast to find their wave and apart from the orangutan-lovers who travel to Gunung Leuser National Park to see our fuzzy orange relatives—very few international tourists seem to land there.

But best of all, there is also a 90 -minute boat trip that goes up the Bilah River to Lobu Tayas village. This river trip is truly epic, with rapids, a fast moving, high-volume current gushing through marble-like canyon walls where you can spot Thomas Leaf Monkeys, Siamang gibbons, Crag-eating macaques, monitor lizards, hornbills, kingfishers, eagles, and much more. The Biliah River trip is a reason in itself to visit Sumatra.

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It’s an interesting and gritty assortment for travelers who seek out Sumatra’s beauty spots, and since Sumatra has so many gorgeous locales, these travelers, small in number already, are spread thin. It shouldn’t be this way. The fact that it is a testimony that we live in an age of a lack of curiosity about the natural world, but that’s another story.      

When we arrived in Nampo par Village, the launching point for the trek up to the bungalows in the Hadabuan Hills, the entire village came out to greet us, dressed in their best. Dancing and singing commenced, along with live gong music, rituals, and performances. This is the kind of host we are, the residents wanted to say. Visitors to Napompar are in for a real treat.

Of course, the smart phones came out, selfie sticks were thrust into the air, and by the time we got to the bungalows I had 18 new Facebook friend requests from the villagers (and yes, you can get an Internet signal from up there –bonus!)

The combination of unique village life experience, bungalows and trekking the jungle mountains with the opportunity for rare wildlife viewing and boat rides make an unbeatable experience not only for the naturalist but for anyone with an adventurous spirit? But are there enough people out there today with adventurous souls who would be willing to make this trip? That’s the big question for Hare Sam Munthe and also for the Labura district government which has thrown its support behind him.

My fear is that the goodwill shown by the government and the local people in setting aside the Hadabuan Hills as a locally-recognized conservation area (it is not a national park, a wildlife sanctuary, or anything else, just an unmanaged commons that happens to contain some of the rarest wildlife in the world), will wear thin if, within say a year, at least a trickle of tourists don’t begin showing up.

Sumatra has been off the tourism radar since the 1997 Asian Fiscal Crisis, and Hadabuan Hills is off the radar within Sumatra. Hadabuan Hills also has to compete with the gargantuan and magical Gunung Leuser National Park, which is more accessible from Medan. Hadabuan Hills odds might not look so hot.

But the product is fantastic and one could even combine a visit to Hadabuan Hills with a trip to nearby Lake Toba, the volcanoes of Beristagi, and a foodie trip to tasty Medan. Munthe and his team can even arrange for you to have some tuak or palm wine as you sit on your bungalow balcony watching bats flit against the stars.

Gunung Leuser National Park gets enough tourists, Malaysia’s Taman Negara and Mount Kinabalu get plenty of tourists, perhaps too many, ditto for Thailand’s Khao Sok and Khao Yai national parks, and many others in the region. If some nature buffs and trailblazers don’t find their way down to Hadabuan Hills soon, I fear the government may hold up their hands and say we tried, we put our best foot forward, we wanted to believe you, Mr. Greg, about ecotourism, but you see…nada…!

And then the palm oil plantations will expand and expand until there is nothing left and wildlife has nowhere left to run. Time will tell, but time, I fear, is running out.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.

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