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The Green Heart of Sumatra

The Leuser International Foundation's Mike Griffiths, in the field. "When you walk through the forest, there are certain features I like to look for — if by some chance I see the footprints of rhinos, then I know the forest is as intact as it can be."
The Leuser International Foundation's Mike Griffiths, in the field. "When you walk through the forest, there are certain features I like to look for — if by some chance I see the footprints of rhinos, then I know the forest is as intact as it can be."
The best way to survey the Leuser Ecosystem is from the air. Here, plantations pop up at the edge of a clearing.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR /
The best way to survey the Leuser Ecosystem is from the air. Here, plantations pop up at the edge of a clearing.
Rangers, like the one above at Aras Napal, patrol the Leuser Ecosystem on the backs of elephants. The elephant patrol team is a project run by the Leuser International Foundation.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR /
Rangers, like the one above at Aras Napal, patrol the Leuser Ecosystem on the backs of elephants. The elephant patrol team is a project run by the Leuser International Foundation.
Recently picked palm oil fruits from a plantation fill a truck, to be taken to a processing center. Developement of the  Leuser Ecosystem threatens many endangered species.
Jessica Goldstein, NPR /
Recently picked palm oil fruits from a plantation fill a truck, to be taken to a processing center. Developement of the Leuser Ecosystem threatens many endangered species.

Indonesia has had more than its fair share of natural disasters recently. The 2004 tsunami devastated many parts of Aceh, at the northern tip of the Island of Sumatra. It was followed by deadly earthquakes a few months later, and in July yet another tsunami hit the island of Java, killing hundreds more.

Conservationists are hoping to sidestep another threat — this time, a threat largely man-made, but no less real. The Leuser Ecosystem, one of the world's richest yet least-known forest systems, is increasingly threatened by logging and encroachment by a burgeoning population.

Mike Griffiths, a former oil company executive turned conservationist, heads Leuser International Foundation. He sees the Leuser as his second home, and he's hoping to save the integrity of the incredibly rich ecosystem where great apes coexist with tigers and rhinos.

Griffiths was one of the first to take to the air after the 2004 tsunami to capture videos that helped rally global support for aid. That humanitarian disaster, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Indian Ocean, has a silver lining for conservationists.

Many donors, who together pledged more than $5 billion for reconstruction and relief efforts, insisted that some of that money be set aside for preserving the environment. The money helps fund several conservation projects in the Leuser.

Griffiths says the conservation efforts are critical for both the wildlife within the Leuser and the humans along its edges. "If you lose the Leuser ecosystem, you don't only lose the last real chance for the tiger, for the orangutan, for the elephant and for the rhino," he says. "You lose the basic foundations for the welfare for four million people — that is how many rely on this place for water, flood protection and erosion protection."

Efforts to keep the forest healthy may be complicated, Griffiths says, by a new peace agreement between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government that brought an end to decades of bloody conflict. Fear of encountering the enemy kept both sides out of the forest for a decade.

With peace, the pressure on the forest is likely to increase, and the biggest threat — even more than logging of valuable tropical hardwoods and oil palm plantations — is roads. Most species, Griffiths says, won't cross a road. Just a few roads are enough to fragment some animal populations, sending them crashing toward extinction.

In what Griffiths cheerfully calls a war to save the forest, the Leuser Foundation used some unconventional weapons. Instead of building roads, the foundation built an airport to bring tourists deep into the forest.

"Call it a bribe, call it a creative solution — but it worked," he says. "Now they are not doing much illegal logging there, they are not pushing for that road. And Leuser is just a little bit safer, and the people are better off."

This two-part series of reports was produced by NPR's Jessica Goldstein.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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