When I stepped out of the battered minivan in Bukit Lawang in northern Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island, I had a huge grin on my face, and not just because I had survived a hair-raising drive.
Word had it that the village was actually illegal, situated as it was inside the supposedly protected Gunung Leuser National Park. The idea of an illegal village appealed to the closet Indiana Jones in me — hence the grin.
That wasn’t the only reason I was there, however. The lush jungle that surrounds Bukit Lawang is one of the last places on the planet where wild orangutans are to be found.
I had come to Bukit Lawang in 2002 in hopes of seeing these red-haired “men of the forest” living free while I still could. Some scientists calculate orangutans will survive in the wild for another decade at most, after which our close genetic cousins will exist only in zoos. The village also offered lodging, food and even Internet access for orangutan seekers unwilling or unable to make the trek to Borneo. The inherent conflict between man and nature was never so clear.
Last Sunday, that conflict played out in tragic terms.
Bukit Lawang essentially was wiped from the face of the earth by a flash flood, a disaster now attributed to illegal logging in the park. Logging strips the land’s ability to retain the heavy monsoon rains, and some have speculated that the illegally harvested logs themselves may have blocked the Bohorok River above the village, causing the flood when the river burst through. With some estimates of the dead and missing surpassing 200, the impact of Bukit Lawang on the forest seems a trivial afterthought, but to me the dark side of even the best-intentioned development embodies the complex nature of the threat to the world’s remaining wild spaces.
Journey into the jungle
The village, which when I visited had about 2,500 residents, lies only a few hours from the city of Medan, the regional capital, but the contrast couldn’t be greater. Medan is a sprawling maze of concrete, where most buildings seem to be either under construction, abandoned or a combination of both. The air pollution is such that at times it is difficult to see across its wider streets. Medan is sustained economically by the massive palm oil plantations covering the northern half of the island of Sumatra. The endless uniform rows of squat palms occupy what was once some of the most vibrant jungle on earth — a jungle of which the 9,500-square-kilometer Gunung Leuser is the only remaining vestige.
In the battered minivan that took me to Bukit Lawang I met Sara, an elfin English girl. We were in for a white-knuckle ride, the usual mode of travel in Indonesia. Guns N’ Roses blasted from the stereo as we careened around an epic series of blind corners, usually in the passing, which is to say oncoming, lane due to lumbering palm-oil tankers. I began to relax only when we reached the park entrance.
A village lost
Bukit Lawang lies well inside the wilderness preserve. Locals later explained it was an offshoot from the larger village of Bohorok just outside the park. Bukit Lawang had become a gloriously ramshackle haven for backpackers who, though attracted by the unspoiled wilderness beyond, still found a cool Bintang beer and a chance to check e-mail hard to pass up. The generator-powered garland of guesthouses and cafes was strung along the steep banks of the roaring Bohorok River, and the existence the village had wrested from the glowering jungle seemed tenuous at best.
Just how tenuous was revealed on Sunday. An eyewitness told the BBC that “there simply is no village now.” Another described piles of logs and debris, estimated to be more than 90 feet high, along the river.
The thin band of development snaked up a valley too steep for vehicles or even wheelbarrows. The main trail, mostly towering steps or precipitous ramps, led past the village to the only officially sanctioned structure in the park, the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Sick, injured, or captive-born orangutans are housed there to be prepared for release into the wild. Tourists mainly came for the animals’ feeding sessions, but local entrepreneurs enticed travelers with other attractions like multi-day jungle treks and whitewater inner-tube rides. The guesthouses farthest up the river offered another amenity: the chance that wild orangutans, as opposed to the civilized denizens of the center, might appear to drink and bathe in the river.
In short, if you didn’t look too hard, Bukit Lawang was a benign presence, especially compared to the plunder of the park that continues. Based out of remote camps, illegal logging is rapidly consuming Gunung Leuser – some experts say that up to 20 percent of the park has been deforested. Cabals of logging companies threaten or bribe local officials to obtain illegitimate concessions, and these unsupervised depredations often cause disastrous fires and floods. Sadly, Sunday’s disaster is only unique for its scale.
The amount of timber cut legally in Indonesia makes it the world’s fifth-largest timber producer, but the Environmental Investigation Agency, a UK-based watchdog group, estimates the illegal timber harvest to be up to five times larger than what is legally cut. The rainforest under assault is the only remaining home of the orangutan, not to mention irreplaceable habitat for endangered tigers, rhinoceros and elephants.
Compared with the lumber camps, Bukit Lawang seemed positively eco-friendly. But while the unspoiled jungle was the main tourist attraction, out of necessity, most of the village’s building material and firewood were cut inside the park. What waste couldn’t be burned or tossed into the Bohorok River was dumped in the park. Young hiking guides would talk about “sustainable development” and then recount a hunting exploit in the forest. One ambitious European had started a recycling program, complete with motivational signs along the trail. When I arrived, the signs had outlasted the recycling.
A matter of perspective
Even so, the jungle surrounding the village remained spectacular. As I ate breakfast the day after I arrived, the mist rose in columns from the dense vegetation on the opposite bank of the river. The ubiquitous long-tailed monkeys performed spectacular aerial feats as I savored my coffee, and Sara emerged from her room to enjoy the scene. Suddenly a thrashing of branches signaled the arrival of a pair of Sumatran orangutans, swinging in graceful arcs down to the river.
I watched, awestruck, as one of them shambled down to a rocky shelf on the edge of the river, apparently oblivious to the gawkers on the opposite bank. After fighting the temptation to get closer for about a millisecond, I jumped into the river. I swam against the swift current and finally heaved myself out, panting and grinning, onto the rocks next to the orangutan, who pointedly ignored my presence as he cleaned his teeth with a reed.
My grin faded as I reflected that my hairy companion, roughly the size of a 12-year-old child, had the strength to bodily tear me in two and the agility to do it hanging from a vine by one foot. I was considering a tactical retreat when the orangutan abruptly turned toward me. Slowly, unbelievably, he gently placed his hand on mine, eyeing me quizzically. It was an incandescent moment.
I was struck by the human intelligence the orangutan’s gaze conveyed, an intelligence that was no mere illusion. Orangutans’ evolutionary path diverged from ours a scant 12 million years ago, and they are still 97 percent genetically identical to humans. As my new friend’s use of the reed demonstrated, his species’ tool use is among the most advanced in the animal world. Most evocatively, research has documented differentiated social behavior in separate orangutan populations — in a word, culture.
Some estimates put the wild orangutan population at less than 15,000, of which more than 2,000 die each year. The math is not difficult — the Sumatran orangutan was recently moved onto the “critically endangered” list. Reports from Bukit Lawang after the flood indicate most of the local population has survived, for now. The fate of those primates in cages at the devastated rehabilitation center is still unknown.
But that day I was exultant as I swam back across the river — my goal of seeing a wild orangutan had been met and then some. I urged a reluctant Sara to follow my lead. Eventually convinced, she scrambled upstream where the river was shallow enough to wade, then splashed across. Gingerly she approached the orangutan, a smile slowly emerging on her face. As if in response, the primate extended an impossibly long and muscular arm, his hand open and welcoming. Instinctively, Sara took it.
The instant their hands met, the orangutan’s grip tightened. He jerked the startled girl closer. His mouth closed around her arm. Stunned, Sara strained to pull away. Not a chance. The orangutan held her arm in his mouth, not breaking the skin, but his grip was like a vise. Sara panicked as I gaped like an idiot. Luckily, her screams alerted a nearby guide. He grabbed a stout branch and dove into the river. Retreating towards the trees, the orangutan took Sara, crying now, with him. The guide advanced, brandishing the stick and shouting, and finally the orangutan released his grip. Unhurriedly, he lifted himself off the ground and disappeared into the tangled growth.
What had begun as a magical moment had turned into an embarrassing fiasco for all parties involved, human and simian alike, and thrown into sharp relief the one fact that everyone in Bukit Lawang studiously overlooked — we really shouldn’t have been there.
The lessons of Bukit Lawang
Still, the village’s fate seems horribly unjust, as those ultimately responsible — corrupt officials and businessmen — escape unscathed even as others lose their lives and livelihoods. But what Bukit Lawang, the flood and even Sara’s frightening encounter represent is that uncontrolled development is bringing civilization and wilderness into ever-closer proximity, and the consequences can be disastrous in ways both big and small.
To prevent disasters like Sunday’s devastating flood, more resources need to be devoted globally to curbing the ever-increasing appetite of civilization. It’s that appetite, manifested in material comforts provided for travelers, that built Bukit Lawang, and it was that same appetite that, by consuming the forest, ultimately destroyed it.