Tarsier

Healing Habitats: A Doctor’s Conservation Mission

The Togian islands are probably best known for serene white sand beaches and dive resorts. However, not as many people know of the rich terrestrial biodiversity these islands are home to. A medical doctor, also a conservationist at heart, decided to move to Malenge to design a children’s programme promoting the conservation of the island’s native primates.

Dr. Ating Solihin may not be your typical doctor. His Chinese ethnicity often prompts the question, “What’s your business?” to which he answers, “I don’t have one.” Actually, being a medical doctor was not his first-choice career.

“I got accepted in ITB (Bandung Institute of Technology) to become an environmentalist,” recalled Dr. Ating, who received top marks in high school. “But my parents wanted a doctor in the family. To please my parents I took the placement test and got an offer to study medicine in the University of Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta. If I didn’t attend, my parents would cut financial support, so I obeyed. But then I thought, doctors can work in remote rural areas too. My parents had hoped I would become a specialist and make a lot of money in the big city. Instead, I left for the jungles of Papua for 12 years.”

Dr Ating and his wife and dogs

That was in 1989, straight out of university. He worked with the Asmat people for two years then pursued his masters in the US majoring in environmental health on scholarship from the SOS Clinic in Tembagapura. The scholarship required him to work in the Freeport area till 1995, but his work with the indigenous Papuans was frowned upon. After that he left for Wamena to serve as a voluntary missionary doctor, and later took up a medical research job in Jayapura where he did malaria mapping.

Since then Dr. Ating has moved to various parts of Indonesia: Flores, Bali, Wakatobi and Central Sulawesi for projects that combine conservation and his expertise in medicine and public health. His current home of Malenge Island is the heavily forested habitat of endemic tarsier primates and the black macaque monkey. “Legend has it that a pair of black macaques were introduced to this island by a foreign ship. Then to avoid a thunderstorm, the ship left in a rush, forgetting the creatures behind. That’s why Malenge is the only island in the Togians to have primates, or so the local people believe,” said Dr. Ating.

Whilst living in Bali, the Dr. Ating Foundation was established in 2011 on the initiative of a Green School parent. The Swedish family’s children did not speak any English when they first arrived, and often visited Dr. Ating who was the Balinese school’s in-house physician. Seeing Dr. Ating’s modest lifestyle, the parents asked what his dreams were that he currently could not afford to pursue.

“I said I wanted to work in nature, conserving animals and the forest. But I do not have the educational background nor the funds,” said Dr. Ating. “So they went back to Sweden and established this foundation. They didn’t even tell me until they already published it on the Internet. It was legally established in Sweden, but I told them we need it in Indonesia as well.

Initially, the Foundation’s work started in 2012 in Lore Lindu National Park in mainland Central Sulawesi, a biodiversity hotspot in the Wallacea region. In order to sustain the project, Dr. Ating expanded to the Togian islands where ecotourism is a rising industry. “Lore Lindu and Togian can be reached in a day, and ecotourism is a potential alternative source of funding.”

Finding funding has been a challenge and Dr. Ating has resorted to selling t-shirts. “Donors live far away in Europe or America, and ones in Indonesia are likely to be in the big cities. If the rainforests disappear or a species goes extinct, it does not affect them.” So far the foundation is the sole work of Dr. Ating, as he is not yet in a position to pay employees.

The best form of conservation is community-based conservation.

“But in practice this has been difficult when the locals do not understand the importance of conservation or have the initiative to make it happen,” said Dr. Ating. “In my case I’ve found what works is to buy and protect. But that takes a lot of money. My dream is to buy land where animals are likely to come and create a buffer zone of fruit trees – I can protect that land.”

Dr. Ating finds that community-based conservation can only be successful if it directly benefits the community in financial terms. He currently focuses his efforts on conservation education, collaborating with international and local schools. He intends to adopt the model of Operation Wallacea in Wakatobi, where international high school and university students live with locals for a small fee, opening up job opportunities for research assistants, trekking guides and catering staff.

Children’s book by primary students at Dyatmika School, Bali

“Unfortunately this only happens two months in a year during the summer school break,” said Dr. Ating. “Due to my lack of credentials, I am also unable to give the visiting students academic credit for the work they do here.”

Because of this, Dr. Ating shifted his focus to primary school students, where international students from big cities visit local primary schools in the Togians and learn conservation skills and knowledge.

“That way internationals get to learn the importance of tropical issues, and locals become more aware of what is happening in their backyard [sic]. Many local people here do not know about the tarsier primate. They catch the animal, feed it fruits, and it dies. They don’t know that tarsiers only eat insects and are active at night,” said Dr. Ating.

In 2013, Dr. Ating published a children’s book about tarsiers written and illustrated by third and fourth year students at Dyatmika School in Bali. He says he hopes such projects inspire children to do their own research in conservation and interact with their local and international counterparts in doing their part for the planet. “There’s more hope for children than there is for adults,” he said.

Dr. Ating does not buy into the idea that local communities are naturally guardians of their environment. “That’s a myth. In the jungles of Papua, indigenous peoples who do not have much outside contact kill any animal they meet. Now they have access to rifles and would shoot down any bird, regardless of whether it’s edible or not,” said Dr. Ating. In the Togians, coral bombing and animal poaching by locals are still common. “I believe animals have the right to live on this earth too, regardless of whether they are of direct use to humans.”

Since late 2014, Dr. Ating and his wife Meidy and two dogs live near Sera beach in a low-cost house made from old coconut wood and other local natural materials. They get freshwater by digging wells in their backyard, electricity through a private generator and process their own waste disposal. This is the first home they have actually owned, though they do not own the land.

To learn more about the Dr Ating Foundation, visit www.dratingfoundation.org. When not in Malenge, Dr. Ating can be contacted at atingsolihin@gmail.com

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Grace Susetyo is a Jakarta-based freelance journalist currently working on a trilogy of Indonesian travel memoirs, Di Antara Nusa-Nusa. Having recently completed a Master of Development Studies, Grace's research focused on indigenous identity and social capital in West Papua.