JUNGLE PATROLLERS

“It’s a high-risk job,” whispers Ibrahim Saleh, weariness etching his voice.

He draws deeply on his cigarette, eyes glazed and distant, focusing on something invisible to me. After years of patrolling the jungles for poachers and illegal logging, his body language shows the strain.

I’m in Indonesia to accompany patrollers deep into the jungles of Sumatra to witness first-hand the complicated and often dangerous battle between the protectors and the destroyers of the forest. It’s a fight that Ibrahim and the patrollers are proud to wage.

“It’s our duty to protect this place.”

Spreading from the Indian Ocean to the Malacca Strait is a vast stretch of untouched jungle, one of the largest tropical rainforest reserves in the world. At nearly 2.6 million hectares—roughly the size of Belgium—the Leuser Ecosystem is the only place on Earth where rhinoceros, elephant, orangutan and tiger live together in one place. It encompasses habitats from high alpine to low-lying swamp, and holds more than 25,000 specimens of the world’s flora and fauna, many of them endangered. It is considered one of the most significant biodiversity “hot spots” on the planet. Four million Indonesians depend on it for fresh water and flood protection. Today this vital ecological reserve is under threat.

The patrollers are often confronted by armed and aggressive loggers, but one sight of the “natural armoured personnel carriers,” (otherwise known as elephants) generally has the desired effect. “They usually surrender because they feel overwhelmed,” explains Siregar, the head of the UPG unit. “They’re afraid of the elephants, not of us.”

On our first morning break, I notice a member of the unit putting together an apparatus that looks disturbingly like a bomb. He holds two sticks of something that could be dynamite, and is attaching wires to the end of it. My curiosity’s piqued. Is it a booby trap or something for the units’ protection?

“A homemade cellphone battery charger,” a patroller tells me. Interestingly, the fellow making the charger is an ex-guerrilla fighter; in fact, an explosives expert. He spent 10 years living in the jungle during the war and his nickname, Ucil (the young one), suggests his youthful age when he joined the guerrillas. Pange (dark commander), is the other ex-GAM fighter in our group.

“They spent many years fighting for our people,” explains a member. “We are very fortunate to have them with us.”

It seems such a frustrating battle but the patrollers are proud of what they do. A group of villagers recently headed into the reserve with the intent of clearing a known swamp region for rice cultivation. What they didn’t know was that the area is a vital habitat for the rhino. “They had a head start but I was able to catch them after two days,” explains Saleh. “After much talking I was able to persuade them to come back.” It would seem he single-handedly saved one of the last remaining Sumatran rhino populations left in existence. It all feels so incredibly tenuous to me.

It seems such a frustrating battle but the patrollers are proud of what they do. A group of villagers recently headed into the reserve with the intent of clearing a known swamp region for rice cultivation. What they didn’t know was that the area is a vital habitat for the rhino. “They had a head start but I was able to catch them after two days,” explains Saleh. “After much talking I was able to persuade them to come back.” It would seem he single-handedly saved one of the last remaining Sumatran rhino populations left in existence. It all feels so incredibly tenuous to me.

On day three, we say goodbye to our new friends and head back out. We’re accompanied by Win, who also needs to make a speedy exit. He is planning to lead a bold nighttime raid on an armed logging encampment in a couple nights. We’re moving quickly down the mountainside when Win stops. He notices a small trail leading into the bush and we follow it. A short distance in, we discover a newly erected lean-to with bedding rolled up and clothes on the line. A fire’s still going and there’s hot coffee in cups.

“Where is everyone?” I ask innocently.

“They’re all around us,” Win replies. “They’re watching us now.” He takes out his GPS and quickly locates our spot. And then we’re out of there. “A larger team will come back to destroy this operation before it gets started,” he explains. “Now we go.”

The Leuser Ecosystem, like all tropical rainforests, is a huge carbon sponge, storing around 500 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare. This carbon-storing capacity might be its best hope for survival. And not just for the forest’s survival, but for everyone’s. The protection of jungle ecosystems must soon become a component of future climate legislation. When it does, the job of the jungle patroller will become that much easier.

We finish our tea and quietly slip out of the village. The jungle-clad mountains of the Leuser Ecosystem surround us, its vastness creating the illusion of permanence. But like many of the giants that inhabit it, it’s often the mightiest of things that are truly the most fragile.