Conservation news

Saving Sulawesi’s ‘pig-deer’, the babirusa

The babirusa of Sulawesi may be one of the world’s oddest looking—and acting—mammals. Literally meaning ‘pig-deer’ the babirusa, which includes four species, belongs to its own genus ‘Babyrousa’ in the pig family. Males are especially unique, sporting four tusks, two of which appear to come right out of the animal’s snout. To make it to the top of the babirusa hierarchy, males will combat each other in an activity dubbed ‘boxing’ where they will rear up on their hind legs and club at each other. Despite their many oddities, the babirusa were not formally studied until the late 1980s when Dr. Lynn Clayton spent four years in Sulawesi’s forest observing them.


The Nantu Forest Conservation Programme is a partnership between Yayasan Adudu Nantu International (YANI) and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. It is implemented in collaboration with a wide range of local institutions, including the State Ministry for Research and Technology, Sam Ratulangi University and Gorontalo State University. It is currently funded by ADM Capital Foundation, Hong Kong.

“Like [biologist Alfred Russsel] Wallace a century before I traveled by wooden boat, slept in remote palm huts and spent long hours ‘perched on platforms in trees’ awaiting a sighting of the elusive babirusa. Occasionally results were spectacular as when I observed 44 babirusa together on the Adudu salt-lick at Nantu,” Clayton told mongabay.com in a recent interview.

Her time in the Sulawesi forests, observing a charismatic mammal that few people had ever heard of, pushed Clayton to work toward saving the species—which was disappearing due to habitat loss and hunting—as its forest home.

“The illegal poaching and rain forest destruction I observed during this time led me and my team of local colleagues to implement anti-poaching checkpoints and to campaign for formal protection of the Nantu/Paguyaman forest,” she says. In the twenty years since, Clayton along with local field workers, have managed to successfully preserve 62,000 hectares of the Nantu rainforest ecosystem.


Babirusa. Photo courtesy of Clayton

“Nantu has been described as ‘one of the top five best sites for biodiversity in South-East Asia’ by visiting scientists,” she says. “More than a hundred species of birds have been recorded here, of which 35 species are endemic. These include two species of hornbill. Particularly unique about Nantu is a large natural salt-lick in the forest: this is the one place on earth where large congregations of babirusa gather and where their extraordinary ‘boxing’ behavior.”

In addition to the babirusa, the forest also contains populations of the threatened dwarf buffalo, the anoa; the tiny nocturnal primate, the spectral tarsier; and the crested macaque.

However, despite being under legal protection, the Nantu forest is still threatened. Clayton says that the biggest threat is illegal gold mining, which is “poisoning the watershed” used by 15,000 villagers downstream. In addition, illegal deforestation and poaching remain concerns.


Lynn Clayton with forest rangers. Photo courtesy of Clayton.

Since achieving legal protection of the Nantu forest Clayton and local collaborators have set up a number of innovative programs including planting tens of thousands of trees as a buffer zone between the forest and villages and creating a children’s book to highlight the babirusa.

Clayton says that the key to longterm protection of Nantu is “facilitating first hand experience of rainforest biodiversity by local school-children, students and other stakeholders.”

In a December 2010 interview Lynn Clatyon spoke with mongabay.com about the strange babirusa, the richness of the Nantu forests, and creative programs to keep it safe.










Click to enlarge




An interview with Lynn Clayton




Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com: What brought you to Sulawesi and led you to start your project?

I first came to Sulawesi whilst an undergraduate at Oxford University. I was awarded a scholarship to spend one year (1986) in Sulawesi collecting data for “The Ecology of Sulawesi” book (The Ecology of Sulawesi, 1987, A.J. Whitten and M. Mustofa). The brief was to gather ecological data from the parts of Sulawesi about which very little was known. So I spent a wonderful year traveling alone throughout Sulawesi conducting small research projects on bats, underwater plants, seagrasses and forests.



Nantu Patrol find adult male babirusa caught in poachers snare. Poacher is prosecuted with YANI support.



Dr Lynn Clayton Pioneering Conservation of the Nantu Forest



Dr. Lynn Clayton was born in the Sussex village where Alfred Russel Wallace spent several months writing “The Malay Archipelago”. She has spent the last twenty years of her life in the region that bears his name. Lynn first went to Sulawesi whilst an undergraduate at Oxford University, spending a year traveling alone in Sulawesi’s remotest areas to gather data for “The Ecology of Sulawesi” book (Whitten et al, 1987). She returned to Sulawesi in 1989 to begin her doctoral study on the rare and elusive babirusa pig, the first long-term study of this species in the wild. After six months fruitless searches through Sulawesi, hunters finally guided her to Paguyaman, named for its massive river and home of the forest-living “polahi” people who live at the foot of its jagged mountains. Like Wallace more than a century before, she traveled days by wooden boat, slept in remote palm huts and spent long hours “perched on platforms in trees” awaiting a sighting of the elusive babirusa. Occasionally, the results were spectacular as she observed 44 babirusa together on the Adudu saltlick. However, the illegal poaching and rain forest destruction she observed led Lynn and her local colleagues to implement anti-poaching checkpoints and to campaign for formal protection of the Nantu/Paguyaman forest.





Red-knobbed hornbills and crested macaque



After four years fieldwork at Paguyaman, Dr. Clayton was awarded her doctorate from Oxford University on the Ecology and Conservation of the Babirusa. She returned immediately to Paguyaman, her objective to work on conservation of the whole Nantu/Paguyaman Forest ecosystem. This work has included pioneering alternative approaches to protecting Sulawesi’s highly endangered rain forests: Nantu Protection Unit patrols have halted illegal logging within the Nantu reserve, stopped babirusa poaching and prevented slash-and-burn destruction of Nantu. Educational programs have included children’s study visits to the forest reserve, Nantu scholarships program and live Conservation concerts. At the same time, 34,000 cocoa and 8000 teak trees, grown in community nurseries, have been handed over to settlers living immediately outside the reserve to provide livelihood assistance. Dr. Clayton and her team have worked with several national and international television crews, including BBC, NHK Japan and Indonesian Metro TV to document the story of Nantu. Fluent in the Indonesian language, Bahasa, Dr. Clayton has been the recipient of an unprecedented three awards from the British government’s “Darwin Initiative” program. Her publications range from “Bringing Home the Bacon”, a detailed scientific model of the illegal trade in babirusa meat, to “The Special Place in the Forest”, an illustrated children’s storybook about the babirusa in Bahasa. Her team founded the NGO “YANI” in 2002 as a local vehicle to carry forward the Nantu vision.





Livelihood Assistance: sharing 3 month old cocoa seedlings at Tangga village near Nantu.

During that time I fell in love with Sulawesi and its extraordinary endemic and unstudied “Wallacean” wildlife, and resolved to return here after graduation. Alfred Russel Wallace a century before had written of Sulawesi’s wildlife: “it is yet wonderfully rich in peculiar forms… in some cases absolutely unique upon the globe”. I returned to Sulawesi in 1988 to study perhaps the most unique of Sulawesi’s “peculiar forms”, the curly tusked Babirusa, for my masters and doctorate degrees. This work focussed on the ecology and conservation biology of the Babirusa, Sulawesi’s endangered and enigmatic pig/hippo, which lives only in rainforest, at the Nantu Forest in northern Sulawesi.

This was through an old French hunter (Maurice Patry, now dead) who, since the age of 12 years old, had dreamt of seeing a babirusa in the wild. He made thirteen visits to Sulawesi before he found the Nantu Forest. At the start of my PhD I went to see him in Paris, stayed in his flat near the 9th bridge, and slept on the sofa. Waking up in the middle of the night I looked up to see tiger heads and other hunting trophies all around me – a bit eerie! Maurice did not want to tell me the location of Nantu as it had taken him so long to find. Instead he gave me a few clues (names of people) so I went to Sulawesi and followed the “hunter’s trail” he had set. Finally after several months a local hunter accompanied me to Nantu and the Adudu salt-lick.

The babirusa weighs up to one hundred kilograms and adult males have four tusks, the upper two growing vertically up through the skin of the snout, which have long fascinated observers. Locating a study site was a considerable challenge. After six months fruitless searches through Sulawesi, hunters finally guided me to Paguyaman, named for its massive river and home of the forest-living “polahi” people who live at the foot of its jagged mountains. Like Wallace a century before I traveled by wooden boat, slept in remote palm huts and spent long hours “perched on platforms in trees” awaiting a sighting of the elusive babirusa. Occasionally results were spectacular as when I observed 44 babirusa together on the Adudu salt-lick at Nantu. After almost four years fieldwork studying the babirusa in remote and challenging conditions – the only access to Nantu is by longboat a journey of half a day upriver over rapids, while floods, earthquakes, malaria and encounters with 7 meter pythons were quite frequent hazards – I completed my doctorate at Oxford University. This was the first ever long-term study of the ecology of the babirusa in the wild. The illegal poaching and rain forest destruction I observed during this time led me and my team of local colleagues to implement anti-poaching checkpoints and to campaign for formal protection of the Nantu/Paguyaman forest. After completion of my doctorate I returned immediately to Paguyaman, my objective to work on conservation of the whole Nantu/Paguyaman ecosytem. It was only after two decades of my life spent in the region known as “Wallacea” that I learned I was born in the same Sussex village where, more than a century before, Alfred Russell Wallace had spent months writing his famous book “The Malay Archipelago”!

mongabay.com: Could you describe your current project?


Long term field staff Jemi Komolontang (left) and Yotje Mamahit (right) on a Dracontomelum dao tree.

The overall goal of the current project is to conserve the 62,000 hectare Nantu Rainforest in Gorontalo Province, northern Sulawesi. Nantu is the last stronghold on earth of the Babirusa pig (whose wild population totals around 5000 individuals) and is of international importance for Sulawesi’s other endangered wildlife, including the rare Anoa (an endemic dwarf buffalo), a locally endemic species of macaque and the large eyed Spectral Tarsier. Nantu is one of Sulawesi’s few remaining pristine rainforest ecosystems; it comprises 33,000 hectares of Wildlife Reserve (formally gazetted by the Indonesian government in 1999), while the remainder is a combination of forest currently classified as Protection Forest (19,000 ha) and Production Forest (10,000 ha). Nantu has been described as “one of the top five best sites for biodiversity in South-East Asia” by visiting scientists. More than a hundred species of birds have been recorded here, of which 35 species are endemic. These include two species of hornbill. Particularly unique about Nantu is a large natural salt-lick in the forest: this is the one place on earth where large congregations of babirusa gather and where their extraordinary “boxing” behavior, in which adult males rear up on their hind legs and joust, can be observed.

Key project activities are:

Progress achieved over the last decade includes:

mongabay.com: What are the current threats?


Wildlife department staff survey burned area outside boundary of Nantu Forest.

One can look at what surrounds the Nantu refuge to see its future if nothing is done. Vast abandoned sugar cane plantations stretch along the banks of the Paguyaman river for kilometers downstream of Nantu. Land once richly forested by tropical forests, with massive dipterocarp trees soaring 40 meters high, are cleared or degraded by decades of unchecked industrial logging. The line between Nantu and the degraded land that surrounds is stark – sometimes literally a clear line beyond which trees and vegetation are scarce.

The main threat to Nantu at the current time is from illegal gold mining. Several hundred miners currently operate deep inside the Nantu Forest, poisoning the watershed by their use of mercury. Some 15,000 villagers downstream depend on the Paguyaman/Nantu watershed for their only water-supply. Illegal logging, slash-and-burn clearance and illegal wildlife poaching are also threats to Nantu.

mongabay.com: Do you see much hunting?


Paguyaman River and Boliyohuto Mountains.

As a result of the project’s intensive forest protection patrols described above illegal poaching at the Nantu Forest has largely ceased. However continued vigilance is necessary against leg-snares set by hunters at Nantu. Sulawesi-wide small numbers of babirusa continue to be purchased by some rogue dealers and sold at Langowan market near Manado in North Sulawesi.

mongabay.com: What are the biggest challenges to conservation in the area?

Low awareness amongst all sectors of society of the importance of saving forests. This results primarily from a lack of educational materials highlighting this subject.

mongabay.com: Is the reserve a National Park? If not what are some of the concerns about converting it into one?

No the area’s current status is not National Park, but rather Wildlife Reserve, plus some Protection and Production Forest. Plans are ongoing to upgrade Nantu to National Park status.

mongabay.com: Is there any potential for carbon finance (REDD) to help fund the reserve and create alternative livelihoods?

Yes, there is great potential for carbon finance to support conservation of the Nantu Forest. Early assessments indicate the Nantu Forest area stores over thirteen million tons of biomass carbon.

mongabay.com: What are your thoughts on the Norway-Indonesia REDD partnership? Is it having a positive impact on forest conservation in Indonesia?


Tangga school, Paguyaman: National Trans TV crew, Project field staff and school-children filming “The Young Explorer at Nantu” television programme.

I fully support any efforts that aim to protect Indonesia’s forests. I think it is too early to assess the impact of this partnership on conservation of Indonesia’s forests.

mongabay.com: What are key to protecting wildlife in Paguyaman/Nantu and other reserves in Indonesia?

Facilitating first hand experience of rainforest biodiversity by local school-children, students and other stakeholders.
Effective forest law enforcement implemented within forest reserves.

mongabay.com: How can people abroad help your efforts?

Funds to support this work are always much needed, and are spent directly at ground level to protect the Nantu Forest. We are also currently seeking to establish a Nantu Trust Fund in order to secure long-term financial sustainability for this work.





If you’d like to support the Nantu Forest Conservation Program, please contact Lynn Clayton











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