This morning as dawn broke I woke to the sounds of gibbons 'singing'. For me it's one of the most evocative sounds I've ever heard. They were in one of the taller 100+ ft trees a few hundred yards south of the Harapan camp. When close by the sound is almost deafening but being wary creatures they generally don't get too close to the camp. The dawn serenade was even more welcome as it was mercifully cool with no mosquitos. Yippee!
Just after breakfast, some shouting alerted us to another wildlife encounter - a nine foot young reticulated python crossing the track between the buildings. These beautiful, intricately marked snakes are relatively common forest dwellers but are hunted for food or the pet trade. What caused this one to leave the safety of cover and cross the road between the offices and the bunk house in the day was not clear. It may have been disturbed from its usual activity last night as many staff stayed up til 4:30 am to watch the Spain-Portugal shoot out. Football, it seems, has its supporters even in the midst of the rainforest.
Aided by the Chief Executive of BirdLife, who it turns out is as passionate about snakes as he is about birds, this amazing creature was grabbed by the tail and prevented from seeking refuge under the buildings. It turned back on its captors opening its extendable mouth and baring formidable fangs. A large plastic drum was swiftly placed on its side in front of the python, and the snake instinctively sought cover inside. The drum was lifted up and it was caught. The patrol team then took the drum off into the forest to release the now rather angry python somewhere a little less busy.
Rainforests such as Harapan team with wildlife. Collectively they hold about 75% of all land-based animals and plants (that's around 6 million species!) and two thirds of the world's threatened birds. They are home to more plants and wildlife than any other habitat. Yet they're greatly threatened, with large swathes destroyed every minute. It's tragic.
But it's not just the wildlife that loses out if rainforests are destroyed - it's people too. Many rainforests are home to groups of people who have lived in them for generations. Again Harapan is no exception - the forest-dependent people who live here are the Batin Sembilan. They live in, and from, the forest and don't destroy it. Our camera traps occasionally reveal the traditional lone hunter, armed with a spear, deep in the forest. For the Batin Sembilan, logging, agriculture plantations and encroachment all threaten their way of life and their livelihood. For them it's important that the forest survives and that's why we've been working with them to try and protect this amazing place.
One of the undoubted enormous privileges of my job is that I do get to see some of the fantastic work that the RSPB does with its partners around the world.
I’m currently in Harapan Rainforest, in southern Sumatra, Indonesia, and standing in the midst of perhaps around a fifth of the last remaining area of this particular type of forest. It’s hot (around 35 degrees in the shade today), humid (feels like 100%!) and windless. At 1000km squared, Harapan is large and very impressive. It's not pure primary forest - it was partially logged before the RSPB, BirdLife International and our Indonesian partners, Burung Indonesia, persuaded the Indonesian Government to change its logging policy and allow us to manage the area under an ecosystem restoration licence. Ours were the first two granted and we’ve set a trend, with more in the pipeline.
But why Harapan and why is it special? Harapan is technically a lowland dipterocarp forest - in plain English, it's some of the most diverse, tallest, spectacular and now threatened rainforest on the planet. This type of rainforest was felled so quickly that most of lowland Sumatra has been entirely cleared of original rainforest in the last fifty years. To see these giant tress fallen is enough to bring you to tears. Thankfully, we have secured some of what remains, but the battle is not over yet - more on this soon.
It may be a rare habitat, but it's still full of amazing wildlife. So far, the bird list has reached over 300 species - easily more than the number breeding in the whole of the UK. Some of these birds are just incredible and the hornbills are my personal favourite, especially the rhinoceros hornbill. When it flies overhead, it sounds like a mute swan at home, its wings wishing in the air, and it’s almost as big.
Rhinocerous hornbills (Tim Laman)
The list of mammals that call Harapan home is perhaps even more impressive - over 55 species. Pride of place is the Sumatran tiger. Very few people ever see a Sumatran tiger - the forest is so thick and the tigers so canny that a glimpse of one is the event of a lifetime. One of our brilliant team on the ground, a lady by the name of Elva, is one such lucky person. Travelling back to camp one evening by motorbike in the dark, a male tiger walked across the road in front of her. Who was more surprised is difficult to judge from her account - the tiger stopped, stared intently, and then walked off to disappear into the night. She’ll treasure the memory for years.
We have at least 16 tigers in the forest. We know this because Elva and her team have set up a network of camera traps - strategically placed digital cameras with infrared sensors that photograph movement within their range 24 hours a day. Elva can identify the different tigerss by the stripes alone, but you have to make sure you compare the right with the right or the left with the left side, as the stripes are not identical on both sides of a tiger! One of the most exciting shots captured so far? A female and two cubs.
Along with other cats - clouded leopard and leopard cat - we've spotteed tapirs, deer, rodents and even pheasants with these spy-cameras. There’s one animal who doesn’t like this prying - the Asian elephant. They're rare in Harapan, but we've managed to capture them on camere. Click here to check out our post from a couple of weeks ago to find out what happened when we did!
Last week at Rio+20, everyone from Prime Ministers to Amazonian Indians spoke of the importance of protecting tropical rainforests. The UK even announced a new initiative, aimed at capacity building in rainforest restoration.
By an unusual coincidence (and unfortunate as far as my body clock is concerned!) I now find myself heading from a conference talking about protecting rainforests to a project that's actually doing it, as it's time for my bi-annual visit to see how things are progressing in Harapan Rainforest in Sumatra. This forest, around two thirds the size of Greater London, is one of the last five chunks of Sumatran dry lowland forest in the world. We've been working there with Burung Indonesia and BirdLife International, as well as local communities and the forest dwelling people, the Batin Sembilan, to protect the forest that's left and restore the bits that had previously been lost.
The flight to Sumatra travels down the Malay peninsular. As we get lower on our descent into Singapore, we fly over endless miles of the tell tale star-like pattern of oil palm plantations. In recent decades across south east Asia the demand for palm oil (mainly from the west) has led to huge swathes of rainforest being first felled for timber and then burnt to leave the area exposed, ready to plant oil palm. As we take off again we look down on the east coast of Sumatra, and then western Java, and the same distinctive pattern is clear from thousands of feet up.
Palm oil is widely used and it's found in everything from biscuits to shampoo. It's a mega industry, worth mega bucks, and that's why many forests are cleared for this single species.
But there are pockets of rainforest left, where the richness of the plant, animal and insect life has not been squandered, and it's to one of those we will travel tomorrow - Harapan, forest of hope.