by Jeannette Aldridge, OURF Field Volunteer

Over the last couple of years, thanks to Greenpeace and the Auckland Zoo, there has been quite a lot of publicity in New Zealand about deforestation in Indonesia through illegal logging and the conversion of forests to plantations, and the many consequences to humans, other apes, and the general ecology of a place that has been rainforest. It is one of those issues that many people are aware of in the background of our lives, and some people make purchasing choices because of it, such as avoiding products containing palm oil. Still, I was shocked to realize that 50% of the forest had gone in the last 35 years, and that in another ten years, unless something changes to stop it, the habitat for orangutan will be completely gone.


I had arranged time off work to fulfill a lifelong intention of going to Africa to see elephants who are still free. The escalation of the ivory trade driven by the new wealth in China gave me a sense of urgency as I realised that it is quite possible because of human ignorance and greed, the world that I wanted to see may not exist for very much longer. Realizing that orangutan are in that same brief window of time as elephants, where it could all disappear while most of us are not looking, I decided to offer some of my time to the people in Indonesia (the only place where orangutan still exist) who are fighting to try to change the patterns of human behaviour that are driving this magnificent species, who are more human than humans, to extinction.


I read about the approach of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation and the Education Initiative in Northern Sumatra where people are working in rural villages to up skill farmers to improve their livelihoods while also educating them about the need to protect what remains of the orangutan habitat. This seemed an important arm to the total effort to protect orangutan from harm, and also one which I could possibly help with.


I had never been to Indonesia before, and knew almost nothing about Sumatra, so I arrived without any expectations, just hoping that I could be of some use, and also hoping that I might also be able to go to the forest and maybe even see orangutan there. I had only ever seen them in the zoo, and I found that disturbing because they are obviously intelligent beings who don’t like confinement anymore than we do.


I was very fortunate to have a month available, and I didn’t have a prefigured plan of how my time would be used.  I was met at the Medan airport by a few of the people from Club Peduli Orangutan Indonesia-Sumatra Utara (CPOI-Sumut), or the Orangutan Caring Club. After stopping for some food, I was taken to their office to meet the rest of the team who facilitate the Mobile Education and Conservation Unit (MECU), and they explained their activities to me in more detail, and I told them what my skills were and how I might be able to help them.


The month I spent with these people touched me deeply. They are a mostly young group of men and women who, between working in various occupations or studying, run the programmes of the Orangutan Caring Club and the Mobile Education and Conservation Unit.


I spent time at the CPOI office helping set up some administration systems and learning more about their other programmes such as the tree-planting Wedding Ceremony they had introduced in Medan, the Adopt-A-Tree programme that contributes to replanting areas of the national forests that have been degraded, and the preparation underway for an eco-tourism business that will contribute funds to their voluntary activities. To learn more about the potential of this, I was treated to first-hand experience of some of what Northern Sumatra has to offer, which is like an open secret, a blend of cultural tourism and eco-tourism in an almost naïve or undeveloped state.


Medan is one of those cities that straddles two worlds – traditional and almost third-world, and modern middle-class. I got to visit some impressive cultural architecture including the Istana Maimoon – “The Palace” of Italian architecture built by the Sultan Mahmud Al-Rashid of Deli in 1888; the largest Buddhist Temple in South East Asia, based on traditional Chinese Temple architecture and adorned inside and out with massive images of the various forms of the Buddha and beautiful carvings of traditional Chinese imagery set in water-gardens; the largest Catholic Church in Indonesia - Santa Maria Annai Valangkanni – impressive but also unusual for a Catholic Church because it is Indo-Mogul architecture; and Mesjid Raya – The Grand Mosque – commissioned by the Sultan in 1906. This was the first Mosque I had ever been in and it began my introduction to Muslim culture. All but one of the current members of CPOI-Sumut is Muslim. None of my life experiences to date had brought me into direct and intimate contact with practicing Muslims and I found this to be incredibly rewarding feature of my time here.


One of the things that keep Northern Sumatra an open secret for tourists is the condition of many of the roads.  One day we set out for a place called Tangkahan on the edge of the national forest. There is a herd of elephants there who have been rescued and rehabilitated from forestry service, and they are now part of the tourist attraction in Tangkahan where they are well cared for. They are taken to the river to bath twice a day which gave us the opportunity to be close to them for a time. After they left, we swam in the beautiful river on the edge of the forest watching monkeys of all shapes and sizes playing in the trees above, and drinking at the river’s edge.


Getting to Tangkahan was an adventure in itself, negotiating some of the most deeply rutted roads I had ever seen and traversing bridges that had to be inspected closely to be sure had sufficient structure to carry the vehicle, occasionally deciding it was safer to fiord the stream than risk the bridge – and all of that was in darkness because we had left Medan later than intended (the loose concept of time was another amusing cultural feature). But it was fun as we crawled along at 5km an hour through pot-holes like small lakes flanked with palm plantations accompanied by a cacophony of singing frogs.


I also was treated another wonderful mix of cultural and eco-tourism with a 2 day trip to Lake Toba, a four hour drive from Medan.  It is an immense volcanic lake covering an area of 1707 sq km (1,000 sq km bigger than Singapore) with an island in the center. Formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption some 70,000 years ago, it is probably the largest resurgent caldera on Earth. The island in the middle - Pulau Samosir - is the cultural centre of Batak tribe who have a unique form of architecture. It is steeped in cultural history which is still very evident amidst the stunning scenery, the fields being tilled by hand, and the water buffalo and goats being tended by children on the side of the road.



During that month, while offering what assistance I could to helping with their administration, I was privileged to go with the MECU team to visit several schools in Bukit Lawang where they conveyed their message to the young students through puppet shows and quizzes and films. These schools are very under-resourced compared to schools in New Zealand, and they are staffed by a few dedicated teachers who have not much more than a huge heart and a blackboard with which to teach these children. The children themselves were so open, so delightful and eager to participate, and there was so much gentleness and love communicated between the MECU team and the children, I felt truly honored to be witnessing it. When I introduced myself to the children and told them I had come from New Zealand to Sumatra because we don’t have orangutan in New Zealand forests, my English was translated for them into Bahasa and their bright little faces beamed at me with complete attention.  After each classroom session, we went outside with them and planted trees at their school which they loved doing.


There were so many “highlights” to my month with CPOI-Sumut, that I don’t know what to call the trip to “the feeding site” in Gunung Leuser National Park for the possibility of seeing Orangutan that live in the area. “Highlight” is far too weak.


I had polio as a child and have walked on crutches since I was three years old. In recent years I have spent more and more time using a wheelchair and so I knew the trek to the “feeding site” would be challenging, but I had come this far to see free orangutan, I intended to at least try to get there. People said that they thought it would be too difficult as it was steep and quite a long walk. For something so important to me, “difficult” and “steep” sounded improbable, but not impossible, so decided I would make an attempt.



What I didn’t know was that the “steep” part was actually 250 steps of various shapes and depths, and those are confronted after a walk of about 1 km which is further than I had attempted to walk for over a decade. Had I known about the steps, I wouldn’t have tried it because I knew I couldn’t do it, and in the end, I couldn’t.




motherbaby1It is a whole other story to describe the journey to the feeding site, and the personal experience of being in the presence of a mother and baby orangutan who are free beings in the forest. For most people who get to visit “the feeding site”, it is a once in a life time experience. It is both a vision and a feeling that is etched in my heart and mind. It is a precious experience for anyone, but for me it was all the more so because I wouldn’t have made it there at all, except that after I had utterly exhausted every possible effort of my own, the members of CPOI-Sumut - Adji, Paqu, Heni and Tiwi literally picked me up and carried me the final distance (still a significant number of steps). That is not the kind of eco-tourism you can pay for – but it is the kind of heart-breaking spirit you find in CPOI-Sumut.



I came to Northern Sumatra to volunteer because I wanted to give something – but I received much more than I could give. I know that my experience here was unique and very personal, but I also know that it will be a unique and personal experience for anyone who wants an authentic cultural and eco-tourism experience and who also wants to do something to help change the plight of orangutan. One day the world will find out about it, the roads will be improved, more westernized facilities will be built, and it will change in the way that tourism has changed, for better and for worse, other once-precious places. I would highly recommend coming as a volunteer, or a tourist, or both, before all that happens!