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Slump hits Indonesia ecotourism

Slump hits Indonesia ecotourism

Projects such as orangutan rescue at Sumatra national park, as well as other sites, feel brunt of economic crisis, with fewer funds for protecting rare animals and threatened habitats

Photo by:

George Mcleod

An orangutan accepts a bunch of bananas at the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Every morning at dawn, Darma grabs a bucket of milk and a sack of bananas and crosses into the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia. He makes his way up a thin mountain pass to a platform, where he is greeted by a group of hungry orangutans - most rescued from homes and private zoos across Asia.

Over the years, possibly thousands of tourists have made the short mountain trek with Darma under a project to save  the endangered primates and their jungle home. But with the economic crisis and lingering fears of terrorism, Darma's jungle trips have been lonelier.

"I used to bring dozens of tourists to the platform to watch the orangutans feeding. Now, it is rarely more than two," said Darma, who like many Indonesians has only one name.

As he speaks, a giant 77 kilogram (170 pound) orangutan appears from overhead to accept the offering of fruit and tries to make off with a tourist's camera before vanishing into the trees.

Sumatra's Gunung Leuser National Park hosts some of the last of the world's great apes, but tourists - who provide much-needed funds for the orangutan rehabilitation program - are becoming as rare as the primates themselves as the economic crisis hits.

The troubles started with the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 and cut tourism by almost half, leaving the community and the park starved for funds.

"I would estimate that 60 percent of the guides are jobless," said Rambe, a local guide.  

Now, the economic crisis has dealt another blow to Indonesia's struggling ecotourism industry.

Figures say 6.4 million tourists visited the republic in 2008, far below the eight million targeted by the government. Tourism earnings in Southeast Asia's biggest economy are expected to fall next year to US$6.5 billion, from an estimated $7.57 billion in 2008, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

The village of Bukit Lawang - tourist gateway to the 950,000-hectare Gunung Leuser - was once a busy village filled with backpackers and tour groups.  It was hailed as an ecotourism success story after a European Union-funded project in 1995 enlisted the community in forest protection.

But the small settlement on the banks of a gushing river now resembles a ghost town. The jungle has reclaimed many of the guesthouses, and monkeys have taken up residence in empty bedrooms.

Local guides say hundreds of villagers were encouraged to attend training courses where they learned conservation, sustainable development and survival skills.

Many were certified as guides and earned a living showing visitors the park and the orangutans - giving them a stake in fending off poaching and illegal logging.  

Fewer ecotourist dollars

But without tourists, locals have less incentive to protect the forest and its primates. 

"People can earn thousands of dollars from selling an illegally poached orangutan," said one former guide. "These days, most of us don't earn that much in a year, so you can see why poaching is such a problem." And declining tourism is not the only threat to the gentle apes.

Increasing palm oil demand has caused hundreds of miles of protected forest to be cut down for plantations.

Ashley Leiman of the UK-based Orangutan Foundation said demand for bio-diesel, which is made from palm oil, is a major contributor to deforestation.

"Everyone is concerned about carbon emissions, but deforestation is the number two cause of carbon dioxide," she said.

A 2008 report by the global conservation group WWF said that 65 percent of Sumatra's rainforests have been cut in the past 25 years, releasing more carbon dioxide than the Netherlands.

At current rates, orangutans will have no viable habitat by 2022. But according to a UK-based tourism expert, the economic downturn's effect on eco-destinations will depend more on the ability of governments to protect flora and fauna. 

"The biggest threat [to eco-tourist destinations] isn't the decline in tourism, but the decline of the state ... that could mean fewer resources for patrols of sensitive areas ... or tourism operators having less money to offer backhanders to the government to fend off illegal logging."

Even before the crisis, local rangers say their government paychecks were irregular.

"It is not abnormal for us to go for months without pay," said one ranger. "There are only 1,000 rangers to patrol one of the biggest parks in 


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