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|Date: 28 September 2009|
|Indonesia walks a fine line when it comes to conservation and ecotourism.|
|Dexter is four months old and weighs nearly 130 kilograms, he’s got eyelashes as thick as paint brushes and if you feed him sugar cane by hand he’ll be your best friend. Tika, who handles both Dexter and his mother, waves you closer to the four-meter-tall matron and her playful calf. Dexter swings his trunk and paws the ground like a bull. But he’s shy, he hides behind those lashes and the hanging belly of his mother. Eventually he approaches you, sluggishly at first, as if he’s still getting used to his weight, and then bounding with uncontainable vigor. He makes a leap and Tika laughs loud enough to show there’s no reason to be scared.|
“It’s a baby,” he says, drawing out every syllable.
So the game begins and lasts until the sun sets. Dexter gives chase, his trunk swinging like a door off the hinge; you pat him on the head and step out of the way like a calm matador. Then he stops and comes closer to sniff. Standing next to such a beautiful creature can make you feel that you’ve crossed some kind of line. That’s the dilemma of a wildlife tourist: sometimes you feel you’re intruding, sometimes you’re disappointed you can’t get closer.
Way Kambas National Park in Lampung has both worlds. There’s the world of interaction where you can play with a four-month-old elephant while her mother watches at the Elephant Conservation Center. Then there’s the world at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, where strict park rangers deny your desperate pleas to go beyond the fence to glimpse the Sumatran rhinoceros in its natural habitat.
“Do I love what I saw? Yes,” says Erica Colmenares, a 26-year-old Venezuelan-American who teaches at an international school in Jakarta. “But it’s a personal struggle. I want to see this animal because it’s so cute, but you have to separate yourself from the situation. You have to look at it from a wider, humanistic view. Is it the best thing for this animal? Seeing a baby elephant with a chain tied around it’s neck near the clothesline surrounded by a bunch of people just didn’t seem natural to me. When you contrast that with the rhino sanctuary, [the rhino sanctuary] seems more genuine.”
So why do we indulge if we are either concerned about the ethics when we can see the animals, or frustrated if we can’t? Because we’re tourists, we live in the city and we’re on vacation. And deep down inside we want to be part of the answer. What’s ecotourism without the tourists, after all?
Way Kambas is 53,000 hectares of secondary forest set aside to promote and protect Sumatra’s endangered wildlife. There are tigers, sun bears, rhinos, elephants, gibbons, crocodiles, slow loris and tapir living inside the vast national park. Home to 320 species of birds, including the white-winged duck and Bonaparte’s nightjar, Way Kambas also provides some of the best bird-watching in the country.
But you get to see only about a third of the different animals — which is good. Because what’s the point of the Indonesian government setting aside huge tracts of land if all you want to do is take a picture of a rhino in a cage?
“It’s a huge dilemma, something that Indonesia will have to grapple with,” Colmenares says. “I’m grateful to see the rhino at the sanctuary. Although I couldn’t get too close, all the restrictions and protections help create awareness for this endangered animal. I feel like seeing the rhino had a more powerful effect on me. And I think it’s the only way to [increase the rhino population].”
The closest accommodation to Way Kambas is Eco Lodge. Run by an Australian-based company with branches in Kalimantan, Komodo and Bali, it appears to have a good grasp of how to balance ecology with tourism.
Tourists are well provided for with activities like night treks, river boat trips, elephant rides and day bike trips into the forest to see the gibbons in the canopy.
Eco Lodge’s user-friendly Web site, littered with dazzling photos and easy-to-understand information, gives an accurate impression of what to expect. At Lampung airport you are met by friendly, professional English-speaking staff.
On the drive to the village of Way Kanan they’re quick to answer questions about the park and surrounding area, and are more than willing to offer advice on the dozen or so activities the lodge provides. Everything from a day trip to Krakatau to the night safari where Sugeng, a veteran guide from the lodge, takes you into the forest and parks in the tall swamp grass for a glimpse of wild elephants.
But if you don’t feel quite so adventurous, Harry, the lodge’s driver, will sit down after dinner and take you on in a friendly game of chess.
The rhinoceros reserve inside Way Kambas is a 100-hectare research breeding complex. It contains three adult females, one adult male and the first calf born in captivity in 112 years.
“People don’t understand. The rhino sanctuary doesn’t need the money from the tourists,” said Chandra, the manager at Eco Lodge’s Satwa Lodge, about 500 yards from the gates of the park. “They have funding, that’s from charging a $50 mandatory donation. Sometimes they simply don’t let tourists in the sanctuary. They are trying to breed the rhinos, not show them off.”
Four quaint bungalows house a total of eight rooms. At the lodge there’s no need for shoes, the area is immaculately kept, the grass is soft and the only thing to step on are the mangoes or star fruit that fall to rest near the koi pond. The lodge is surrounded by a tall brick wall to keep curious elephants from going after the bounty of more than 50 pineapple plants lining the south wall.
“We make pineapple jam,” Chandra says. “The pineapple plants used to be on the other side with the sugar cane but we had to move them in here.”
Inside your room you’ll find a clean bed, fresh sheets, towels, a hot shower and a directory of services that gives details of the available activities and prices, along with a bird identification list.
At the rhino sanctuary, no matter how much you beg there’s no entry beyond the feeding pens where you see the rhinos enjoying breakfast in the early morning. After they have eaten a few kilos of fruit or vegetables like pumpkin and bananas, it’s off to the middle of the park.
This is where your inner conflict begins. You have paid $60 — $50 to the park and $10 per person for the ride, so you expect to see more than a rhino munching on pumpkins while you stand on the other side of an electric fence. But what your tourist mind easily forgets is that these rhinos are here to breed (there hasn’t been a baby born on the premises yet). But you want to see them play. But as big as they are, they’re skittish, elusive creatures, and you approaching them as they are out wallowing is as unsettling to them as it would be for you to try to have a conversation with a date while your parents are sitting and talking about you on the other side of the restaurant.
So you sulk. And the ranger can see it. He apologizes over the howling gibbons, tells you once more than even he can’t go to the other side of the fence. That only the keepers, the two men assigned to each rhino, are allowed inside. The keepers work in long shifts, three days on and two days off. Their focus on the rhinos, the living fossils, leaves little space to care about visitors’ prying eyes.
But Way Kambas does play to both sides. The elephants, as you arrive at the conservation center, line the horizon. When they return to the park to eat and sleep at sunset, 60 of them gather in an area the size of a football pitch. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the trip, and right in front of your eyes. They eat, chase off fiendish wild pigs racing across the fields rummaging for whatever bananas they can find as a mother turns to rein in her calf by wrapping her trunk around the calf’s tail.
The best part of Way Kambas is the baby elephants — there were three there as of last week. Two less than one-year-old and one orphan, Pepe, taken in when a herding of wild elephants went wrong and a mother abandoned her baby. They’re as playful as 100-kilogram puppies and just as fascinated by you as you are by them.
The elephant handlers are more than willing to let you go out into the field to interact with the calves. You’re led out to the middle of the feeding area and are met by curious baby elephants sniffing the air with their trunks before coming closer until at last playfully charging you, before running back underneath the belly of their mother who stands in constant surveillance eating her last meal of the day.
As the sun sets and you reluctantly make for the car, Dexter, the most playful of the calves is quick to follow you out of the area begging for just a little more playtime.
The handlers — there is one for each elephant, and they can pick out their charge from 100 meters — are friendly and talkative. They are more than willing to watch from the side of the artificial lake as you ride into the water on an elephant’s back and give him a bath before he heads off to be chained up for the night. Their knowledge is matched only by their sense of humor.
Elephant rides are Rp 350,000 for the day. The lodge pays everything for you up front; you never have to lug along cash or haggle over prices. You are given an itemized bill at the end of your stay, which includes the park entrance fee, camera fee and authorized letter. It’s comfortable: you spend your days at Way Kambas cruising around in a comfortable car with air-conditioning. It’s also an adrenalin rush — when is the last time you gave an elephant a bath?
More Than a Feeling
No matter how you feel about the conservation efforts of Way Kambas, it’s impossible to say that you don’t walk away from the experience a better person for seeing both sides of the country’s efforts.
You leave Way Kambas excited at the progress Indonesia is making in its efforts to save protected and endangered animals. You’re glad to fork over $50 to enter a rhino sanctuary, happy to contribute to the efforts. But when you’re told you can’t see the rhino up close, that you can’t snap a picture of yourself patting a rhino to post on Facebook, your heart sinks a little.
But you shouldn’t be able to get up close to the rhinos. There are only 275 Sumatran rhinoceroses left in the world and your bacteria-riddled hands could drop the population to 274. (Jakarta Globe)