No Flight of fancy with Mr Wildlife

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sumatran_tiger_scbdJust an hour’s flight south of Singapore lies a place that feels like the very end of the earth. Swathed in thick jungle and with nothing but the ocean lying between it and Antarctica, this remote coastal forest on the south-western tip of Sumatra, Indonesia, might at first glimpse appear untended and undistinguished.

But descend towards the sandy shore and a wide airstrip reveal itslef-a pale green band slicing thorugh the dark forest. Later, as one encounters uniformed guards on horseback and officers on paraplane patrols, it becomes clear that this forest is no ordinary one.

The Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation reserve is the private ecological endeavour of one of Indonesia’s richest men, businessman Tomy Winata.

The 54-year-old head of the Artha Graha conglomerate has 35,000 employees, and oversees operations ranging from banking and mining to the real estate. In 2011, Globe Asia ranked him as the coutry’s 46th richest man, with a net worth of US$570 million (S$ 707 million ).

The reserve might well represent the next frontier of coservationin Indonesia, a country whose rich forests remain threatened by extensve logging and mining interests.

Singapore has extended green fingers to aid Mr Winata-researchers from the Singapore Botanic Gardens visited Tambling in January to advise him and his team regarding forest restoration, as part of the Gardens’ efforts to share its wealth of knowledge throughout the region.

Tambling, despite appearances, is hardly pristine. It still bears the scars of illegal logging and mining, which took place before Mr Winata secured the 45,000ha from the Indonesian government in 1996.

More than half size of Singapore, it was once part of the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park.

Eight years were spent tackling pollution and setting up ranger patrols and guard post to deters loggers and poachers. Mr Winata has spent US$25 million of his own money on the reserve, which remains closed to the public for now, though eco-tourism is on his mind.

Busy as he is, he is not running the reserve by proxy from Jakarta. Once a month, he sheds his business suits and leaves the capital behind, heading for his little slice of paradise to personally direct the progress there. He spends up to a week there each time, clad in baggy polo tees, wrinkled shorts and slippers. Staff update him as he saunters through the cluster of lodges in the home base.

Occasionally, accompanied by rangers, he drives a golf cart into the reseve’s fringes to inspect camera traps and try to spot unrecorded animal species.

The tycoon, who grew to love nature as a young man while working as a military contractor in Kalimantan and Irian Jaya, says Tambling is a place where he acan breathe.

His love affair with the area and conservation began with a moment of disquiet. In 1995, he went to Tambling with friends to hunt deer. “I didn’t feel good,” he says. “i kept quiet. But deep in my heart, i knew i would come back.”

He returned the next year. Now, 17 years on, Tambling has drwan curiosity, praise and scpeticism from many quarters-at the root of which Mr Winata’s unconventional approach to conservation.

One source of controversy has been his re-introduction of “conflict” tigers into the reserve.

These captured Sumatran tigers attacked or killed humans in the past. Convential wisdom holds that they should be kept under lock and key. However, with fewer than 400 of there critically endangered tigers left in the wild, Mr Winata is determined to save them, and is convinced they can rehabiitated and released into the jungle safety.

In the reserve, the attempt is being made primarily by keeping the animals in isolation at a tiger rescue centre and minimising their contact with humans. In addition, the 150 villagers living in the reserve are told not to venture deep nto the forest and not to cut down trees on which tigers have left scratch marks to mark their territory.

Five tigers have been released and have joined the estimated 15 already living in the reserve. So far, no villagers have been attacked.

Populations of elephants, rhinos, wild buffalo, tapir and sambar deer are flourishing as well.

And the Tambling forest is slowly regenerating, in stark contrast to the surrounding national park where, as Mr Winata points out in an aerial photograph, illegal llogging and mining persist.

His single-mindedness in protecting the reserve appears to be succeeding where government efforts have faltered. He is determined to go it alone, convinced his way is the best way to conserve Tambling’s rich flora and fauna – red tape be damned.

Little surprise then that his favourite karaoke song – one he can often be heard crooning at night in the main lodge while hosting guests –  is Frank Sinatra’s hit, My Way.

Given how things have turned out, Mr Winata feels vindicated.

“People think, 10 hours from Jakarta, you still find illegal logging. How is it possible that, one hour from Jakarta, you conserve?” he says.He laughs off criticism from groups that question his intentions, given that rich supplies of gold and iron ore lie within the reserve-  he chooses to be judge by Tambling itself. “They can not like me, but the cannot like my reserve.”

Explaining his project’s Singapore connection, he says Tambling does not yet have a resident ecologist. “I need Singapore’s science and biology. They tell us which species are important –  if not, we wouldn’t know. I’m trying to make Tambing as it was originally.”

In January, reserachers from the Botanic Gardens brought precious cargo from its own collection of plant specimens : about 150kg of seeds from hardwoods such as the Belian and Meranti –  species once endemic to Sumatra but since lost to timber logging.

While in Tambling, the researchers trained the reserve’s staff in basic ecological techniques, such as how to propagate seeds and nurture saplings. They also identifieed important species to preserve, including a variety of saline-resistant Syzygium grande that forms a tree buffer along the coast, protecting inland trees from salty winds.

In addition, a team from Tambling has visited Singapore to train at the Botanic Gardens. Eventually, the tree seeds ccould be planted in the reserve, setting it on a path back to the way it once was.

Mr Winata says he appreciates how much Singapore reserchers value what they see in Tambling – an attitude he rarely sees in his own country. “Maybe because Singapore does not have much forest, so we don’t care.”

He has plans to protect a similar forest reserve in Sulawesi, and start a botanic garden in Bali. He says he aims to spend 60 per cent of his business profits on conservation and social causes, and hopes more people like him will follow suit.

“We have 28 million hecatares ( of forest ) in Indonesia. There’s lot of room for businessmen to show they care,”he says.

 

Source : thesundaytimes Marh 31, 2013 by David ee