Indonesia 2012 – Part 1 – Banda Aceh

Outline of plan

Actual sighting of reptile wildlife is unlikely so in brief the plan on the reptile front is as follows.

Use opportunity to build links with team and document the work carried in both office and field using photography for profile awareness in Europe. Launch the following research to establish if specific reptile conservation and study work can follow at later stage:

  • Local community survey on sightings of common and less common reptiles using laminated images.
  • Collection, identification and logging of reptile photographs taken by organisations and amateur conservationists to date.
  • Initial survey of food markets, pet shops, tourist zoos, hotel animals, animal exporters and animal farming centers.
  • Establish and Collate interested parties or potentially useful local contacts, organisation individuals and amateur conservationists.
  • Pilot test, GPS and photography logging of wildlife sightings, with view to then leave equipment for long term data collection.

Any information which can be gathered on reptiles will be of interest to organisations am working with. However for obvious reasons Tortoises and Turtles are the main interest and source of initial funding due to established contacts in the UK.

1st June 2012

After a few days in Medan I met with Mike Griff of BPKEL ( who manage the whole of the Leuser Ecosystem. Force for the Forest comes under this umbrella. We spoke of my plans while sitting in the cafe part of Ronna’s hostel right on the road, was hard to hear each other speak!

Next day we flew to Banda Aceh where the BPKEL headquarters are and here I outlined what I hoped to achieve while in this country and together we drew up an action plan of targets. I am to spend a few days at the office before heading to the south of the Leuser area in order to spend time at Suaq Balimbing research station.


  • Helping force for the forest
  • Recording chelonia
  • Recording my own thoughts/photos
  • Helping BPKEL

At the BPKEL office

I was privileged to sit in on a meeting between BPKEL and WWF, it is a shame I did not understand a word. Talking to the staff at BPKEL we swap tortoise and turtle pictures and general conservation notes. I was due to do a powerpoint presentation on chelonia but so far not enough staff were able to come together all at once! Still, early days! BPKEL office GPS co-ordinates: N5 33.190 E95 17.741

8th June 2012 – and so to the jungle!

It has been an interesting time in Banda Aceh, one hardly sees any European tourists, even staying in a hotel. It is interesting to see how the city was rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami. Often there are reminders of that time. Before the tsunami Indonesia, particurlarly Aceh was being torn appart by political unrest and a Lonely Planet 1997 at the station said that for the forseeable future you should not visit. It seems the tsunami was the catalyst for unrest to stop. The locals were the victims in those days, a more friendly bunch you couldn’t hope to meet.

Permits in my hand I wait for the bus for my journey in the direction of Suaq Balimbing research station south of the Leuser area. Expecting to be offline for sometime as there will be no internet there. I wait at BPKEL until 8pm and my bus arrives. Not what I expected. As usual with me I was worrying about the details constantly and had visions of getting off the bus at the wrong stop. I also had far to much luggage and finally narrowed it down to one bag. I am only to be at the research station for a week. I am unused to being with an organisation and was thinking of a tourist bus. The staff then say to me ‘mini-bus’ what actually arrives is a people carrier! I had bugged the staff and Mike by email with silly questions before then. There were other passengers on the bus but most departed before Leuser and the remaining passenger was a BPKEL employee. The night passes on some nightmarish roads and sleeping was an issue, also there was a distinct lack of room for my longish legs. But the bus takes me to the door of my contact! We arrive there at 7am.

I sit and have a cup of tea with Mahmuddin a BPKEL ranger then I take a nap for two hours. When I awake I meet his family and have breakfast (rice). His father was a BPKEL ranger also. I have little Indonesian to speak but find I understand their English very well. With Ilyas and the other staff at Banda Aceh I was learning a little and I sit with Mahmuddin for a bit going over key words, no-one I am told speaks English at the station. Though contrary to the dictionary he says that kura-kura is the name for turtle and baning the name for a tortoise, though kura-kura can mean both, i.e. American style. We then make our way to the speed boat at the mouth of the river, about twenty meters from his house. The boat heads inland and we stop shortly at the police station to show my papers and fill in forms

As we get further along the river there are many floating obstructions in the form of submerged trees and logs which slows our progress. I have visions in my head of the film Apocalypse Now! through the journey and expect to round the corner to see something nasty all the time. Indeed I do see nasty things in the form of clear cut, african palm and logging, though along the river it is on a small scale. (Later I look at the pictures again and can’t beleive I missed the large extent of defroestation, african palm and banana trees!)

We arrive at the Suaq Balimbing research station after two hours on the river. I saw a lot of wildlife but the best for me was a Hornbill. At the station I talk with Mahmuddin about my objectives here and he passes the info onto my new colleagues. I have a phrase book to learn to speak to them though their English is better than I was led to believe, no excuse though!

I had outlined my objectives to Mike, the BKEL staff, the rangers and the research people. I had also been offered the opportunity to go on a orangutan search. Ilyas said that he hopes to join me at Suaq in a few days, it was him who supplied the tortoise pictures and he seems interested in chelonia. I shall also fill my camera with images for the Force for the Forest project. Station GPS co-ordinates: N3 02.866 E97 24.999

Sun 10th June 2012 – Jungle Trip 1

After a night of the mosquitoes making mince meat of me (in fact they do so in the daytime as well!) we are off on a jungle trip or ‘searching’ as the rangers call it. Many of the trees are similar to Ecuador and it is like seeing old friends again. For a kilometer the track is not a muddy path but a raised wooden platform. The floor underneath is very boggy. We see and hear a lot of monkeys. Also an empty Orangutan nest in the trees. There is a lot of bird and insect life, and unlike Ecuador a lot of leeches. After the raised walkway the path becomes a muddy track, though not as muddy as the often used Ecuador tracks, though I do end up with a stick to walk with again. When I get back I have two leeches trying to bite me through my socks, as unlike the rangers I don’t have waterproof leggings. They tell me mosquito spray gets rid of them, which is good as I had covered myself in it. After the trip the others either sleep in the afternoon or some go fishing. I sit and write the blog with the sound of jungle and chainsaws in the distance. Later a hornbill sits close calling, by the time I have run inside, fitted my 300mm lens and back he is calling… some distance away.

Mon 11th June 2012 – Jungle Trip 2

With my new Gandalf staff I head off with the rangers again for more searching. Finding a kura-kura in this would be like finding a tortoise in a forest. This time it is heavy going as the planking finished way back and I redefine sweating once more, the jungle seems hotter than the Ecuador version. Again I fight with leeches and mud. I take it back that the mud is not as deep as Ecuador, it is deeper. Even though to me it looks like a rainforest, they all call it a swamp. We see and hear plenty of wildlife with hornbills calling quite often. At first I thought the rangers were lazy spending as much time resting as moving but to move constantly would finish you off. I learnt on the BTO course about ‘arsing and legging’ i.e. sitting waiting for the wildlife or going to find it. Always I look at the undergrowth and think of the tortoise runs back at Tortoise Welfare UK and how a grown tortoise can hide in a relatively small run. I also wonder how the tortoise poachers find so many.

Back at base I take off a shirt that feels like I took a shower with it on. Again I write this to the sound of the jungle around the station and chainsaws and falling trees in the distance. Although today some are quite close. Note to self: next time bring two travel plug adapters or a solar panel. I have to plan what to charge of an evening: GPS batteries, laptop, camera or phone. On every trip I use the GPS.

Tue 12th June 2012 – The Horror, The Horror & Jungle Trip 3

Last night I was idly wondering where the meat came from and what it was. In my naive way I thought of it coming on the boat. This morning two of the rangers run up first thing calling “Justin, Justin.” They come into view with a fishing basket and I clock instantly that there is a softshell turtle sticking out the top. Again foolishly I sort of think they have done this for me. They take it out and sit it there and I take pictures, there is a hook in its mouth that I want to take out, though I don’t say. I do say, trying to be a conservationist: “Do you have a tape measure?” The ranger replies, not understanding: “No: fishing,” and gives a sheepish grin. So I think to myself, how can I not eat it? Then I realise I have been eating softshelled turtle since I have been here. Then I feel guilty to think of this lovely creature as dinner: I ask you, me a failed vegetarian who eats cute cows, pigs, sheep etc. They proceed to make a hole in its shell and tether it to a post, poor thing I think, knowing it will be in my tummy later. I console myself with the fact that it would not be a problem if the Chinese weren’t having more than their fare share. This turtle was the same sepecies as the one I saw in India, Leith’s softshell turtle (Nilssonia leithii), though this poor kid won’t have the chance to grow as big as his cousin.

The start of this third jungle trip has a theme: my ‘assistant’ and I split from the others for a bit to look for ‘baning’. The problem is that I have Apocalypse Now! and the cow slaughter scene fully in my head, and I keep thinking that if we find a tortoise it will end up in the cooking pot later. Our search is unsuccessful: the forest is huge. I then think that if we wanted them for food a method of capture would soon arrive, or be preconceived. There is a problem as in the local word for turtle and tortoise is swaped from the national words, and even more confusing turtle now becomes ‘labi-labi’. Though I stick with ‘baning’ for tortoise now and we all know what that means.

The rest of the jungle trip is very hard going and I find even more new levels of sweating, ‘Aint Half Hot Mum’ comes into my head a lot. The mud is so very deep and I nearly loose a boot at one point. Those films where people are stuck in the sinking mud fill my head. We see and hear a lot of gibbons and there is the booming sound of orangutan in the distance, which we attempt to head for. Today the bees have it in for me. They are little black bees and they seem attracted to my insect repellant, like to try and get in my ear holes and like to go for my open mosquito bites. At the end of the trip I see on my GPS that seven kilometers takes seven hours! Today I felt very old for all this.

Wed 13th June 2012

The boat takes me back to Mahmuddin’s house in the village and this time I notice a lot of palm oil plantations as we get closer to civilisation. I love the forest and I want it to not be chopped down, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Getting back I sit on a comfy sofa and I feel very English not enjoying the hard seating back at the station.