Loic Degen

Meet Loic Degen

Meet Loic; his love of the Aru Archipelago and the greater bird-of-paradise, Vanen, were transformed into the film Vanen, Plumes From Paradise. He continues to explore Indonesia’s wildlife through extensive travelling and photography.

Loic Degen

Loic Degen

When did you move to Indonesia? What brought you here?
The first time I set foot in Indonesia was in 1996, in Makassar. I visited Sulawesi from south to north. In 1997 I went again to North Sulawesi and to Maluku and fell in love with that part of the Archipelago. But I really moved to Indonesia in 2000 and since then, although I regularly come back to Switzerland, I managed to discover Indonesia literally from Sabang to Merauke.

Your travels around Indonesia have been extensive, travelling as far as the Aru Archipelago, which most people may never have even heard of. Where did your deep interest for this part of the world stem from?
Two things; the greater bird-of-paradise and the fact that Aru was off the beaten tracks. I always try to avoid touristic places, or to visit them in a different way, when possible. I was, and still am, truly fascinated by these birds and the challenge to take good pictures went before the thoughts of selling them. Then, I started to have true friends there and my biologist obsession was mixed with the pleasure of seeing these friends again and sharing unforgettable moments in the jungle.

Tell us some interesting and unforgettable experiences you had while filming your documentary. How long did it take you to make the film?
The shootings lasted 7 weeks. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of our friends from the village who accompanied us. We were doing a movie about their life, life they consider as basic and without interest. You can’t imagine how proud they are now that the movie is out and sold all over the world.

And there is one very interesting story regarding our repeated travelling there. One of the families of Wakua village placed a sasi on the Vanen of Badi Gaki forest where we did the movie. A sasi is a kind of customary law/taboo used in the whole Maluku concerning behaviour of inhabitants in village life and in natural resources management (The Ecology of Nusa Tenggara and Maluku, Monk et al, Periplus, 1997). If you break the sasi you can face death or severe diseases. Moluccans tend to respect it. The purpose was really to protect the birds. The result is an increase of the males displaying in Badi Gaki. The best part of it is we didn’t ask them to sasi the birds. It’s their own initiative.

In Indonesia, film makers often misunderstand the concept of less is more and travel with a whole entourage of crew. How many people do you work with on your documentary team? What roles do they play?
There were three of us. But as I was the main “actor”, basically 2 people did it; Miguel Garcia was the Director and someone assisted him for the sound and some shootings. So yes, less is more, I agree. Travelling light is definitely a plus when you go to places to tell such stories.

What advice would you give to any of our readers who have the desire to film documentaries in Indonesia? What should one do and definitely not do?
The usual way to do a movie is to gather the budget first and once you have it, you actually do the movie. We looked for money, obviously, but we did the shootings sometimes with nothing in our pocket or just enough to cover the travelling costs. Economically speaking it’s not viable, but it allows you to actually pursue your dream and follow your ideas. There are thousands of stories that are just waiting to be told, all around the world. Open your eyes, listen to your neighbours, approach and listen to people, try to feel what nature and men are telling you

How did you feel when you first witnessed a Cendrawasih’s mating ritual? Is this something you could ever forget?
Never. It’s still in my head. As is the Vanen’s cry, this wok-wak-wak-wak. When we finished the editing in early 2008, I was hearing it in my city, while walking in the snow! It’s in me forever.

Loic Degen - Extracting fibre from a sago tree - Courtesy of Manon Greub

Loic Degen – Extracting fibre from a sago tree – Courtesy of Manon Greub

What can you tell us about the tours that you do for your travel agency clients? What kind of experience can they expect?
The philosophy of KASOAR TRAVEL is to bring people to unknown/unvisited places, like Aru. Our guests will have an unforgettable adventure experience; living in the middle of the jungle, eating what hunters catch, climbing trees to see the birds displaying, trekking in incredible and unique sceneries. But at the end of the day, they go back to their chalet, enjoy a real shower –or bathe in the river – chill out in the hammock of the huge terrace of their bungalow with river view. It’s a pure jungle retreat with more luxury than you could ever imagine in such a place.

As a biologist, aren’t you afraid of disturbing some of the wildlife animals, like the bird of paradise, if you come there often with your guests?
No. We brief our guests and make them understand what they absolutely shouldn’t do when they are trying to watch the birds inside the canopy hide in which only two persons can be at the same time. We currently have two hides to watch the birds, the canopy one (~25m high), and a ground one. From this one, there is zero risk to disturb the birds. The greater bird-of-paradise is indeed a very peculiar bird and is easily frightened. But it can also learn that the leaf house in front of its display area isn’t a threat if year after year it is there without any consequences.

When is the best time to see the bird of paradise and other wildlife animals that are rarely seen?
The birds display from May to October but the best moment is end of July to mid October. It’s when we organise our tours actually. If you travel to Aru another time, you’ll still be able to see wildlife, but may face more rain and difficulties.

Are there any threats to the habitat in the areas you covered for your documentary?
Oh yes. We heard that an absurd sugar cane plantation project is planned for Aru. This is what can be considered as an ecological annihilation. If you know a little bit of Aru’s geographical and geological constraints, this project is total nonsense and its only purpose is to get as much timber as possible at very low cost, at least lower than in Papua. Locals as well as people outside of Indonesia are now fighting this but it’s a David-against-Goliath fight as agreement has been apparently signed and concessions given.

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Gabriella is Indonesia Expat's Editorial Assistant. She enjoys music and laughing. Do not take her to the aquarium! Contact her at gaby@indonesiaexpat.biz


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