It’s Been Ten Years Since I Lived in Bukit Lawang

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My first visit to Bukit Lawang was prompted by a quick plan to follow two American biologists who were intrigued by the orange-furred great apes’ inability to jump and instead swinging from one tree to another by holding all the strong, flexible branches.

It was my birthday trip on November 29, 2010, 12 years ago, exactly 2 years before I started moving and living in Bukit Lawang on November 29, 2012. Wanting to see an orangutan was not my main goal in Bukit Lawang because I had seen one almost every day from a pet belonging to a neighbor inside the military housing complex. Orangutan conservation in the 90s could never be the same as nowadays.

Bukit Lawang was in my mind 12 years ago as a sketch of a village close to the jungle and its clean river, but on Sunday, November 2, 2003, the village was swept by a big flash flood, and 177 people were killed.

Dark and heavy rain got my clothes fully wet to sit on the bus at Aceh bus station. It was a 10-hour trip from Aceh to get to Binjai, the closest small town before getting to Bukit Lawang, in North Sumatra province; Bukit Lawang is two hours from there.

We kept ourselves busy on a piece of paper, writing a few lists of species we expected to see. We started the track two days after arriving in our small bungalows in Bukit Lawang. An unforgettable morning had begun due to the loud singing of white-handed gibbons across the river in front of our bungalows, heading up to the hill inside Gunung Leuser National Park. The noise was just about 200–300 meters from the old balcony where we were hanging on hammocks.

manouria emys

We took our time to see around villages by becak (tuk-tuk), the two American biologists suddenly yelling on me over two Asian forest tortoises (Manouria emys), which were caged alongside three chickens in front of a small shop, 30 minutes from Bukit Lawang.

This species was listed in our paper as the animals we wanted to see. We were trying to convince the captors, but one of them insisted on selling, and we left it with an unhappy feeling. It piques my interest; there must be many more animals enthralled out there.

orangutan mum and baby
On the way back to Bukit Lawang by becak (tuk-tuk), the noise from its smoky exhaust wasn’t getting me distracted from looking at all the house terraces in the villages, and I realized songbirds from Chloropsis were most favored here.

thomas leaf monkey on the stick
Our trekking finally started, we had to walk passing many houses in the village that was suddenly stopped for a while by an endemic species of Thomas’s langur (Presbytis thomasi), sitting on the pole. We thought it would take days to see this endemic species inside the park, but no, it wasn’t! Our two listed species have been found outside the park.

During the trek, 20 minutes after the entrance gate of Gunung Leuser National Park, two orangutans were spotted hanging from the trees; they were seen as a mother and her infant. Dave was busy with his Nikon and pointed to them.

I began to consider that Bukit Lawang might be my ideal place to live; the animals here are incredible to see on a daily basis.

Sumatran Orangutan in Bukit Lawang.

My direct encounter with a Sumatran orangutan in the wild had been fulfilled, and my brain began to work to gather more information to serve as the reason and motivation for finding a way to live here—or is it worth it to make such a hasty decision?

orangutan bukit lawang baby 1
After we finished our trek and had seen everything we wanted to see, our guide brought us to the point where rafting piqued our interest because we wanted to feel how it felt, it’s traditional rafting. We left the campsite by traditional rafting boat made of giant inner tubes, following the river downstream to the village of Bukit Lawang, and were directly dropped in front of our hotel. We decided to only do a day trek because the guide told us on the second day that we don’t walk to spot animals anymore; that’s mostly how the trek is organized, except you talked and discussed it with the guide in advance.

great argus bukit lawang

My attention and the two biologists were more focused on important things, after two years of learning about the behavior of nature inside and outside of Gunung Leuser National Park, I conducted my own study on the natural reactions and their impacts. The damage to the ecosystem outside the park has changed the behavior of nature. This could be seen from how the water of the river outside Gunung Leuser National Park, which is close to the palm oil plantation, is getting dry during the long summer. While my previous research within Gunung Leuser National Park has led me to a clear understanding that the rainforest ecosystem in Gunung Leuser National Park has its own roles to maintain the balance of the ecosystem for a larger area than the park size, trees located on the hillside to the edge of the river have more interdependent roles to stabilize soils from landslides during the rainy season due to massive degradation at the borders outside the Gunung Leuser National Park.

We spent our five days in Bukit Lawang gathering more photos and information about the animals that are likely to play important roles in the maintenance of the Leuser ecosystem: primates, raptors (birds of prey), and reptiles, the majority of which are native to this park. We also spent the last two days looking for as many pollination workers as we could find. They are the most important factors in ensuring that Gunung Leuser National Park continues to provide food for all fruit and seed eaters.

The biodiversity of Gunung Leuser National Park has been a strong reason to stay and even convinced me of all the opportunities that I could survive here. Bukit Lawang tourism in 2010 was not the same as today; it was conducted with a big disregard for the biodiversity of Gunung Leuser National Park, which has been providing income to many of us.

Opportunities for the ecotourism business and conservation in Bukit Lawang have become something that I have been preparing for since 12 years ago. Gunung Leuser National Park bordering village, Bukit Lawang, could be a great strategic area to conduct conservation efforts for its biodiversity preservation. Uncountable species call Leuser home. Their numbers outnumbered the scientists observing and doing research for them. 4,000 identified plant species, 382 species of birds, 52 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 102 species of mammals are just too much.

November 29, 2022, written by Bobi Handoko, Bukit Lawang.

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