Deforestation in Sumatra is reaching dramatic levels, with more that 45% of the tropical rainforest cleared in the last 20 years. Only a few areas remain, resisting bulldozers, chainsaws and fires. The Batang Toru forest, in North Sumatra, is an extraordinary biodiversity hotspot where tigers, orangutans and other natural wonders still survive.
During the seven-hour drive from Medan to Tarutung, in North Sumatra, the repetition of the same pattern of perfectly-lined palm or rubber trees is hypnotic. Millions of hectares of forest have been cleared in the last 20 years to accommodate the world’s demand for palm oil, paper and rubber products. Many experts agree that if this trend isn’t stopped, in less than 20 years, there won’t be any natural forests left in Sumatra. Close to Tarutung, there lays one of the last untouched areas of primary forest – the ‘Harangan Tapanuli’, or Batang Toru Forest.
In the most remote area of the Batang Toru Forest, some of the few remaining Sumatran tigers still live. Tigers are classified as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). They’re not alone on this list; even the Sumatran orangutan and the Malayan pangolin – both of them critically endangered – are present in this forest. Orangutans and tigers suffer due to deforestation, and the pangolins are an easy target for poachers as their meat is sold at a very high price. 15 species found in the forests are also classed as either endangered or vulnerable, like siamangs (a tailless, arboreal, black-furred gibbon), agile gibbons, tapirs and sun bears.
In many extraordinary places in the world, there are a few extraordinary people working hard to preserve them. One of them is Matthew Novak, a primate expert with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), working to save the few orangutans left in the wild from the extinction.
How did you end up working in Indonesia, and why Batang Toru?
In 2006, I was studying white-handed gibbons in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand, focusing on how they move through their environment and acquire food resources. I had always been interested in how ape species coexist with other primate competitors, especially other apes. This type of situation is not very common, and it is only seen in a few countries in Africa and Asia.
While in Thailand, I had come to learn about the Batang Toru Forest and the important conservation work that SOCP is doing there. I quickly became very interested to work in the area, as it is one of the only places in the world where three ape species can be found living together in one location (the agile gibbon, the siamang, and the southernmost population of Sumatran orangutans). In fact, the occurrence of three ape species living in the same area only occurs in Aceh and North Sumatra Provinces. I was given the opportunity to come and do my PhD research at SOCP’s Batang Toru monitoring station, and in 2010 I came to Sumatra to start my research on the apes of the Batang Toru Forest Complex.
The Batang Toru Forest is one of the few unspoiled areas left in North Sumatra. What do you think is the main reason for that? What are the treasures that this forest still protects?
I am happy to announce that the majority of the Batang Toru Forest Complex has officially just become Hutan Lindung (protected forest) recently, both in the Provincial Spatial Plan and in the most recent Forest Allocation map of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. This is a tremendous conservation achievement for all those involved and is a key step in the protection of this unique forested area, especially since only 25% of the estimated 134,000 hectares of the Batang Toru Forest Complex had historically been allocated as Hutan Lindung.
The Batang Toru Forest Complex is a unique mosaic of forest types that range in elevation from 150-1,800 metres above sea level, and is the home of numerous tropical plant and animal species, many of these rare and living only in this region. For instance, the long-term work of SOCP has identified more than 200 plant species, about 50 species of mammals, more than 250 species of birds, and at least 130 species of amphibians and reptiles. Notable mammal species include the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, Sumatran tiger, and the Sumatran tapir. It is actually the only forest in Sumatra where these three species coexist!
Despite the fact that the Batang Toru Forest Complex has only recently received protected forest status, the rugged terrain and high elevation of much of the remaining forest have made it relatively inaccessible and unprofitable for both small-scale and large-scale extractive efforts. This is in stark contrast to the majority of Sumatra’s lowland forests, which have seen a tremendous amount of deforestation, degradation, and fragmentation over the past few decades. As such, the Batang Toru Forest Complex is one of the few remaining primary old growth forests left in North Sumatra.
Primary threats to local flora and fauna come from illegal encroachment, logging (legal and illegal), mining (both small-scale and large-scale), hunting/poaching, and poor land use planning. As the forest status has just been changed to protected, it is still unclear how these threats will affect the future integrity of the Batang Toru Forest Complex; however, it is clear that their continued impact could ultimately devastate this unique tropical forest refuge.
We know that at least 130,000 people live along the edges of the Batang Toru Forest Complex and that many more benefit from its environmental services (e.g., fresh water, climate regulation, landslide/flooding prevention, and in some cases sustainable extraction of non-timber products). The change to Hutan Lindung is a very important development, as it will allow for collaborative local management and protection of the forest complex. At the same time, Hutan Lindung status is not as restrictive as a Taman Nasional (or National Park) status, and locals can continue to benefit from the sustainable use of the forested area.
What is your dream for the Batang Toru forest?
I would be extremely happy to see the Batang Toru Forest Complex high on the agenda of all three Tapanuli districts, the North Sumatra Province and the Indonesian government, with a supportive local constituency protecting this highly important water catchment area, not just for the ecosystem services it provides to the communities and industries surrounding the forest, but also being highly proud and protective of its unique biodiversity.
How to help:
Get the word out about this unique forest area, help in creating a conservation constituency at the local level in North Sumatra, and donate to SOCP’s ongoing conservation efforts.