40 Years in Indonesia Part 1 by Alain Compost | After a career as photographer and cameraman spanning 40 years, mostly in Indonesia. I am returning to places I have visited that now represent the last strongholds for Indonesia’s biodiversity.
I want to witness the changes that have taken place during all these years. My goal is to communicate with the local communities, to motivate them to start – and in many inspiring cases to continue – their struggle, preserve their environment, the natural world on which we all depend.
With the support from National Geographic Explorers Program Asia, I could purchase an electric ZERO motorbike, which carries its own message about the importance eco-sustainability. It also presents challenges due to limited range and the difficulty of recharging batteries in remote locations far off the national electrical grid.
I started in Medan, where I had first set foot on Indonesian soil in 1975. Medan is located in the northern region of the giant island of Sumatra. That area, which includes the province of Aceh, is where the last remaining populations of endangered Asian species such as rhinoceros, elephants, tigers, and orangutans find a precarious refuge.
Gunung Leuser National Park
My first stop was Bukit Lawang, a former orangutan rehabilitation station at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. Orangutan have a special place in my heart because they were my first contact with wildlife in Indonesia.
Fourty years ago, the forest around Bukit Lawang was still pristine; dense stands of trees lined both sides of the river. Besides the young orangutan being cared for at the rehabilitation station, I could glimpse adult orangutans in the wild by walking only a short distance into the forest.
Now, the place has become a tourist destination. The forest on the station side of the river has disappeared, replaced by hotels, restaurants, and shops. Both the orangutan, and the forest itself, have become mass-tourism commodities.
One disturbing aspect is that the animals living near the station are now used to human presence. Some usually shy animals like the Argus pheasant can be approached from just a few meters.
Orangutans wait for food from guides and visitors, as though in a zoo. This behavior is not good. In time, the animals will lose their survival instincts and become more vulnerable to predators and disease.