Can a Park the Size of New York City Save Sumatran Rhinos and Tigers?

The Rainforest Trust hopes to create and fund an 185,000-acre private reserve in Indonesia’s last great wilderness.
(Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)
Apr 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The only habitat capable of supporting five of Sumatra’s most critically endangered species could soon become a massive private reserve.

The Rainforest Trust has started the process of buying nearly 185,000 acres of land—about the size of New York City—in the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra. The area, which is owned by Sumatran individuals and families, has so far avoided the worst effects of deforestation that plague the rest of the island because of its remote, rugged terrain. It is also home to thousands of unique species.

The initiative is projected to cost $1.8 million, which boils down to less than $10 an acre. The Rainforest Trust says it is fair market value for the land.

The organization, which is collecting donations to fund the reserve, hopes to raise the first $250,000 by Earth Day, April 22. That would allow its local partner—a Sumatran organization the Rainforest Trust declined to name because of what it called the “sensitive nature” of the project—to acquire the first 25,000 acres of what will be called the Kluet Wildlife Reserve.

Among the wildlife that would be protected by this new reserve are a bird called the helmeted hornbill and four animals named after their island home: the Sumatran rhino, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Sumatran elephant.

Those species are mostly unprotected by nearby Gunung Leuser National Park, which spans 2 million acres but sits on mountainous habitat unsuitable for big animals such as orangutans, tigers, or elephants. The new reserve would help to resolve that conservation gap.

“As often happens in conservation, the steep, uninhabitable places are left for nature, but then the flat places, where people like to establish plantations tend not to be included as protected areas,” said Bert Harris, the Rainforest Trust’s director of biodiversity conservation.

According to the organization, the Kluet watershed holds about five tigers, 15 to 20 elephants, at least 120 orangutans, and an unknown number of rhinos, as well as dozens of bird species. “You’re not just saving the rhino,” Harris said. “You’re saving a functioning ecosystem.”

Richard Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach, praised the plan to establish the private reserve. “There’s so little forest left on Sumatra that every bit counts,” he said. He added that this could not only help the orangutans living in the wild, but provide a safe place for the relocation of apes that have been rescued after their old habitats were chopped down.

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The area is home to at least one village and surrounding farms, encompassing about 1,000 acres. Harris said there are plans to offer to buy the villagers’ land and encourage them to resettle outside the forest.

The villagers are described as recent settlers to the area, which means they may be willing to take the offer and translocate, said Sophie Grig of the indigenous rights group Survival International. That isn’t always the case. “We really commonly see tribal peoples living in areas that become declared as nature reserves get evicted and then find themselves under quite a lot of pressure,” she said. She just returned from southern Sumatra, where she saw the effects of these forced relocations.

Harris said the Kluet reserve fits into the Rainforest Trust’s focus on buying important conservation habitats and helping local governments set up protected areas. One of its recent projects was in Madagascar, where the organization helped establish a network of seven reserves covering nearly 75,000 acres. The areas now protect several native species, including one of the island’s largest primates: the critically endangered Indri lemur.

As an ornithologist, Harris said he is most excited by the Kluet reserve’s potential to save the helmeted hornbill, a beautiful bird with vocalizations similar to human laughter. The birds’ large bills, which can be carved like ivory, have become a valuable commodity for poachers in recent years. “It really is one of the most amazing birds in Asia,” Harris said. “They’re being targeted and are declining really fast.” The helmeted hornbill, which had been considered near threatened, was declared critically endangered last year.

In addition to setting aside the area for conservation, the trust and its local partner will also conduct ongoing scientific research and monitoring of the reserve’s wildlife, as well as patrol the area to keep it safe from poachers and illegal loggers. Harris said the plan is to hire approximately 30 rangers. “It’s not as many as you’d think,” he said. “As long as they have wide-ranging patrols that are done randomly, you don’t need to have a man every square mile.”

Fund-raising to establish the Kluet Wildlife Reserve will be ongoing, but any donations received through April 22 will be doubled by the Partnership for International Birding and individual philanthropists.