By: Gregory McCann

Mile after mile of desert we drove through, hour upon hour, nothing but desert for as far as our eyes could see. And then, far in the distance, a cluster of mountains floated above the desert wastes, shimmering like a mirage.

But this wasn’t the American West or the Sahara but the island of Sumatra, Indonesia’s second-biggest, and it wasn’t sand dunes we were squinting at but endless rows of oil palm —plantations of which are considered the biological deserts of the tropics. The closer we approached the more we became convinced that they were real mountains covered in actual jungle, the swaying green trees that clothed those improbable crags shining from the polish they recently received by the heavy downpour.

Tropical deserts are green, and they’re neat and ordered, unlike their brownish, wild cousins in America and Africa. After six hours of driving through never-ending plantations, one could be forgiven for thinking there couldn’t possibly be any wildlife on this island, and that perhaps there never was. As we rounded a bend and dipped into a river valley the mountains vanished from view, and I worried that perhaps they had been but a dream, or a mirage. Blink and they’re gone.

Worries like these assailed me even though I had been here before and I knew the mountains existed, and that they were covered in rain forest. But in the tropics and especially in Sumatra, forest can be there one year and be gone the next. In fact, it can disappear much faster than that. Nothing is for sure, nothing is nailed down, nothing sacrosanct. And this is all the more the case in an ecosystem like the Hadabuan Hills that doesn’t carry title of national park or wildlife sanctuary; it’s a relic of the past, a leftover land of mountains and forest and wildlife, and some would say its days are numbered.

We were here this time to uncover more of the mountains’ secrets. My friend Haray Sam Munthe of the Sumatran Tiger Rangers had set up camera traps in the hills near a picturesque village by a fast-flowing river, and tigers, tapirs, and leaf monkeys had sprung those traps. That was exciting news. But what was lurking deep in the interior, way back up there in the beyond? Nobody else in the international conservation community aside from myself and Munthe seemed to be asking that question.

A sun bear poses for the camera

We found out, and there was a price to be paid for it. But sitting in a coffee shop in New York State, I can almost fondly look back on seeing 35 leeches, having eaten their way through my trekking pants and socks, squiggling off my legs and fiendishly slurping my blood. At one point when we emerged from a goat-like trail on the ledge of hill I was able to walk out onto the rocks of a beach on the Sippongang River and conduct an inspection. Using a rock to scrape them off, I flung the horrid pests in every direction.

After I had removed them all and as I stood there marveling at the multitude of bleeding sores now covering my legs and I feet, I noticed that they were coming back. Several dozen of the slimy worm-like creatures already filled with my blood were coming back for more, inching their way towards me in the slinky-like manner they have of moving. I picked up another, heavier stone and began to bash them on the rocks they slithered towards me, watching packets of my blood explode all over this section of the beach. It takes some time to be able to look back at something like that with a sense of fondness.

It was all worth it because we found our quarry: wild cats. Sumatran tigers on several camera traps, including one that decided to plop down, sprawl out, and yawn in right front of our camera; first record of Sunda clouded leopard for this ecosystem; first record of marbled cat; and other species such as banded civet, masked palm civet, yellow-throated marten, and others.

Sumatran tiger prowls the night

An endemic (and now Endangered) Sumatran Laughingthrush even dropped down to the forest floor (an uncharacteristic move for this species) and posed for in front of one of our cameras. Malayan tapirs and Asian golden cats put in appearances at another camera station a couple of ridge lines over.

What a leftover land this is! Sumatra—with the possible exception of Myanmar—is the only place remaining in Asia where a wildlife list like that could be produced from some unknown and unprotected cluster of hills that amount to little more than an unmanaged commons. Considering the grim state of global tiger conservation today, these findings should be considered very significant. There are conservation NGOs out there that are well-funded, yet the cavalry doesn’t seem to be coming over the hill.

Short of a Sumatran rhinoceros, a Sumatran orangutan (it is still possible that a relic population remains in this 70,000-hectare ecosystem, most of which has yet to be explored) or an Orang Pendek (the Sumatran Yeti), what else could attract the attention of the international conservation community?

Haray Sam Munthe and the local government in North Sumatra province are eager for ecotourists to visit this site. Poaching, logging, and agricultural encroachment remain serious threats to the ecosystem. Support is also needed so that Mr. Munthe and his team of Sumatran Tiger Rangers can conduct patrols to clear the forest of deadly indiscriminate snares that snag everything from pigs to deer to tigers and bears. And perhaps more than anything, the ever-spreading palm oil plantations need to be kept at bay and pushed back, otherwise, as real as it all is today, the Hadabuan Hills and its wildlife can disappear in almost the blink of an eye, becoming a memory, or something like a living mirage.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit. He has also started a crowdfunding page to support 2018 projects in Sumatran and CambodiaHe is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel on the environment