For almost a decade, the Kukang Program has been working on the protection of slow lorises (nocturnal prosimians) on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 islands, and each one is specific in its own way. Even nature conservation is a little different in every part of Indonesia, but the basis is always the cooperation with local residents. This is exactly what the Program focuses on. The surroundings of areas valuable in terms of biodiversity are almost always inhabited by people. This is also the case with the protected Leuser ecosystem in North Sumatra. Cooperation with the locals is thus the key to the effective conservation of local species, including slow lorises. For this reason, the Kukang Program team has built a “base” here and formed a well-functioning conservation team consisting of local people, including ex-poachers. The team is even capable of initiating new conservation activities. “We first started installing camera traps near our partner village to find out what animals share the same environment with slow lorises and how often they are there. After some time, however, we received a message that there is a place deeper in the forest by the river where a large number of animals congregate to drink water and lick the naturally occurring minerals. The installation of camera traps at this location was therefore clearly recommended,” says Lucie Čižmářová, head of monitoring activities of the Kukang Program.
So, Lucie, with a guide and her team of four Indonesian collaborators, set out on a journey to the mentioned location. According to a local guide who supposedly knows the area, the trip there and back was supposed to take two days with one overnight stay in the forest. The local roads are completely impassable for ordinary cars and it would take too long to walk. Therefore, the team was transported by off-road jeep as close as possible to the forest and then had to go on their own. However, one member of the team, field coordinator Jhon Kartasima Gurusinga, had to return to the base after a few hours due to sudden stomach pains. So, five people continued their journey fully loaded with tents, food, camera traps and other equipment needed for survival. The journey went on very slowly, due to the large amount of ubiquitous thorny rattan. Moreover, after a few hours, the guide didn’t look as convincing as before that he knew where the shortest path led, and it was eventually clear that the team had no chance of reaching the destination that day. The question remained if they were even going the right way and if they would ever reach their destination, or if they were lost in the depths of the forest without any possibility of connection with the world. High humidity and considerable exhaustion did not add to the mood either. At that moment there were two options - either give up and return the same way, or continue on with a vague idea of when or if they will reach their destination at all. But the Kukang team was not going to give up so easily and decided to continue. However, it was already late, so it was necessary to find a suitable place to camp, cook rice and a canned food and continue the march the next day.
The second day started cheerfully, but the journey turned into a nightmare again, because after heavy rain, the local roads, or rather non-roads, turned into slippery mud. “One thought to himself that if he were to fall now and maybe break his leg or, God forbid, be bitten by a poisonous snake, what are the chances of being saved, especially in an area where there is absolutely zero telephone signal,” recalls Lucie. Although the Indonesian team was composed of experienced ex-poachers, they also began to panic. But persistence paid off in the end! That day, the team reached their destination, albeit with complete physical and mental exhaustion. They camped on the bank of a large river and continued with camera traps about 1.5 km upstream of a smaller river to where animals congregate. Along the way, the team was entertained by a group of white-handed gibbons (Hylobates lar), and three female and one male Malayan sambars (Rusa unicolor equina) were also present at the camera trap site, licking minerals by the river. There were many traces of wildlife, even large carnivores, to be seen in the vicinity. “That early evening we installed three camera traps in different places in the area, but in the morning, we went to check the settings to be sure, which was our luck because we were probably so tired the day before that most of the camera traps were pointing somewhere in the air,” explained Lucie. Of course, the team had to walk all the way back. Thanks to the GPS that Lucie used on the way there, the team helped themselves and shortened some sections considerably. “Let’s say that it was an extremely important step, because it was impossible to last long in those smelly things and completely wet shoes that tear the skin off your feet with every movement,” admitted Lucie.
But the great expectation was to come with the inspection of the camera traps. And that was another challenge for the whole team. A GSM camera trap with a SIM card was installed at the site, but due to the absence of a signal, it was not able to send photos to email. It was therefore necessary to return to the forest and check the camera traps manually. The Kukang team succeeded in this two months after the initial installation. A new guide who knew the route well was chosen to head the expedition. So, the team managed to reach the destination on the first day before dark. Unfortunately, only two of the three camera traps remained, as one was stolen despite being secured with a lock, including the external battery buried underground. “It is likely that the camera trap was stolen by some poachers, as it was placed deep in the forest, where ordinary people do not go. They were probably afraid of being exposed in the pictures. Fortunately, they didn’t find the other two camera traps,” explains coordinator Jhon. So, the team preferred to take the remaining two camera traps back to the base. Inside, however, a wonderful surprise and satisfaction for all the sorrows of their journey awaited them. In addition to a group of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii), including a female with a baby, and a large group of Thomas’s langurs (Presbytis thomasi), a very rare Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) also walked in front of the camera trap. In one of the videos, it even hunts a deer. “It’s great to see a tiger on video as these animals are highly endangered due to hunting and habitat loss. But it was a little scary to realize that we were camping not far from the camera trap. But it is a tiger’s environment and is not owned be us, humans. The tiger is the king of the jungle here, so we should treat it with respect,” reflects Kaban, a former hunter, now an animal conservationist and employee of the Kukang Program.
The Sumatran tiger is the smallest living tiger subspecies (Panthera tigris sumatrae). It is critically endangered in its homeland, and the number of individuals living in the territory of Sumatra is estimated at around 400. Not only the destruction of their habitat but also intensive hunting brought the tiger to the very brink of extinction. Tiger bones and other parts of the tiger's body are highly valued “medicine” in traditional Chinese medicine. Tigers also often die in traps set for other animals, especially wild pigs, or are targeted for killing as animals potentially dangerous to humans.