More species are threatened with extinction in Indonesia than any other country on Earth. If we are to save them, it will take more protected areas, radical shifts in deforestation, and better anti-poaching efforts, but in many cases it will also take species-specific conservation efforts that work directly with local people. The Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo) is a model organization for this method, founder Marcy Summers describes it as “very small, community-based, and efficient, with very low overhead.” By focusing on the wonderfully bizarre maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), a ground-nesting bird on the island of Sulawesi, the organization has succeeded in protecting a vital nesting area while initiating a moratorium on the egg-harvesting, which once devastated the species.
Sulawesi’s endangered Maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo)
“Since the moratorium began in 2006, we’ve protected over 5000 eggs, chicks are hatching naturally, and the number of adult maleos returning to this nesting ground to lay eggs has tripled. Some days it even gets crowded out there on the nesting ground—a great problem to have!—and we see signs of maleos starting to lay in new nearby locations,” Summers told mongabay.com in a recent interview.
According to Summers, the entire initiative started in 2004 with a presentation she gave local people on the island’s unique and disappearing wildlife, including the maleo.
“At that point I think they had never really thought about their maleo bird as something special, something to be proud of, and something they stood to lose if they weren’t careful,” she explains.
Village leaders than approached Summers—who was at the time working with The Nature Conservancy (TNC)—to help them develop a conservation program to save the maleo. The program started as completely volunteer-based, but transformed again due to another presentation by Summers this time in an Audubon group in the US.
“A core group of wonderfully able, committed conservationists stepped forward to join this alliance and try to help the folks in Tompotika save their maleo. Since then the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation—called ‘AL-TO’ for short in both Indonesian and English—has become an independent 501c3 non-profit organization in the United States and a registered “Yayasan” (non-profit equivalent) in Indonesia […] We now have four major field programs (maleo, sea turtle, fruit bat, and forest conservation) plus ongoing outreach, awareness, and Art for Conservation programs, and we also sponsor annual eco-service trips to the area,” she says.
The moratorium on egg collecting was not an organizational decree, but instead proposed by the locals themselves, concerned with the fate of the rare bird.
“We launched the moratorium with much food and fanfare in August of 2006. In this village of Taima, Tompotika, we set things up so that the guys who previously had taken turns parceling out the right to take eggs now would take turns earning a daily wage—a better, more reliable wage—as guards at the nesting ground,” Summers says, adding that, “in the beginning, the conversation was mostly all about economics: the guys who dug the eggs realized that they could make more money as guards than they did from the sale of maleo eggs, so they were willing to try it. But now, they have come to know the maleo better, watching them all day. The maleo itself is no longer just an object to be exploited, but means something to them now.”
Still AlTo’s successes have not come without difficulty.
“It is very hard to be successful at conservation anywhere in the world, but especially here! We struggle with a lot of factors—apathy, ignorance, or corruption among those in power; a seemingly insatiable public appetite for more cash, goods, and technology; funding limitations; insufficient numbers of committed, local environmentalists ready to be trained as AlTo staff. But ultimately most of the challenges all boil down to the same thing: getting people to know and care about the natural systems of which they are a part,” she says.
Strangler fig in North Sulawesi
But this is not a problem unique to Indonesia. In fact, Summers says that if the world’s species are not to vanish entirely, the industrial world, as well as the developing, must change.
“People in the U.S. and members of the ‘Global Consumer Class’ simply need to wake up. Our precious and glorious planet is bleeding, and despite climate change, deforestation, ocean collapse, biodiversity loss, and more, we’re refusing to see it. What’s cutting those wounds deeper and deeper every day is the combination of an ever-expanding world human population with the rising rate of resource consumption of those nearly seven billion human beings,” she says.
In a December 2010 interview Marcy Summers talked with mongabay.com about the unique island of Sulawesi, working with locals to save the maleo bird, challenges to conservation in Indonesia and how to overcome them.
Mongabay interview – Marcy Summers of Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (“AlTo”)
mongabay.com: What is your background?
Marcy Summers and Tompotika children feed an injured maleo bird. (Photo: Steve Caldwell)
Marcy Summers: My family has deep roots in the Puget Sound area of the U.S.’s Washington State, where I grew up and live now. As a kid I was an animal nut: I spent hours observing birds & squirrels at our feeder; typed up lists of the world’s endangered species (at that time there were few enough that you could do that!) and formed clubs with my friends to save them; and I kept a menagerie with a pet from each vertebrate taxon. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have had all kinds of jobs and lived in several different countries—I’ve been a baker, farmer, veterinary technician, construction worker, mayor of a small town, editor, wildlife field technician, gardener, eldercare worker—you name it—and this varied life and work experience has taught me how to work with all kinds of people. I like people immensely, but my deepest calling has always been to work with animals and wildlife. I also love the Arts and Humanities, and did a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Religion and Fine Arts at Harvard University before doing a master’s in Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at the University of Maine. For 13 years, I worked for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), first in the U.S. and then in Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. It was when I was living and working for TNC in Indonesia that I first got to know Sulawesi, and visited Tompotika.
mongabay.com: What is the origin of the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation?
Maleo bird egg
Marcy Summers: I first visited the Tompotika area as part of my work for TNC, ground-truthing a vegetation map we were creating for the island of Sulawesi. On that visit, in 2004, I met and became friends with a local politician and environmentalist called Yani Mile, and I also learned that Tompotika had one of the best remaining communal nesting grounds of the endangered maleo bird, Macrocephalon maleo—a remarkable, iconic bird which has great cultural importance in Sulawesi but is in steep decline due primarily to overharvest of its huge eggs. Yani asked if I would come back sometime and give a presentation to local villagers about their wildlife.
So, a few months later I came back on my own time, with my two kids, and spent time in the villages near the nesting ground. Villagers and local leaders all gathered to hear my presentation about what makes Sulawesi—and Tompotika in particular—so very unusual and precious from the perspective of global biodiversity and conservation. I concluded by talking about the maleo bird—about how it is found only in Sulawesi, how unique is its life story of incubating its eggs in warm sand or hot springs, how it has already disappeared from most of its former range, and how here near their village was one of the maleo’s last best strongholds—but inevitably, it would disappear here as well in a few years if they continued to take every maleo egg, as they were doing now. At that point I think they had never really thought about their maleo bird as something special, something to be proud of, and something they stood to lose if they weren’t careful. After the presentation, the village leaders asked if I would help them design some kind of conservation program to make sure that the maleo didn’t disappear from their nesting ground. To such a request, how could one possibly say no?
Native rainforest of Mount Tompotika, Sulawesi, Indonesia
We began by assembling allies and discussing options—at that time it was just a volunteer effort in my spare time. But in 2005-06 I left TNC, moved back to my home on Vashon Island in the United States, and gave another presentation about Sulawesi and the maleo bird to the local Audubon group there—a hotbed of environmental talent and energy if there ever was one! A core group of wonderfully able, committed conservationists stepped forward to join this alliance and try to help the folks in Tompotika save their maleo. Since then the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation—called “AL-TO” for short in both Indonesian and English—has become an independent 501c3 non-profit organization in the United States and a registered “Yayasan” (non-profit equivalent) in Indonesia, with Boards in both countries; one U.S. and six Indonesian full-time employees; and scores of village assistants who help with our field programs. We now have four major field programs (maleo, sea turtle, fruit bat, and forest conservation) plus ongoing outreach, awareness, and Art for Conservation programs, and we also sponsor annual eco-service trips to the area. But we remain very small, community-based, and efficient, with very low overhead.
mongabay.com: How did the moratorium on maleo egg collection come into being? Are you seeing signs of success?
Marcy Summers: Those initial discussions with villagers in 2004-05 ultimately led to villagers themselves proposing a complete moratorium on the harvesting of maleo eggs. The eggs are not needed for subsistence, but were sold as a luxury and status item, a little like caviar. Taking eggs has actually been illegal since 1990 but until recently no one paid attention to that law. We launched the moratorium with much food and fanfare in August of 2006. In this village of Taima, Tompotika, we set things up so that the guys who previously had taken turns parceling out the right to take eggs now would take turns earning a daily wage—a better, more reliable wage—as guards at the nesting ground. Each day, one of these village guards is paired with one of our regular AlTo staff, who are conservation-minded college students from the Tompotika area that we have trained in ecology, outreach, and conservation field techniques, and they record data and bring breadth and accountability to the project.
With AlTo’s help, these ladies have reclaimed their lost weaving tradition, not practiced for 12 years. Now, they are earning money for their families and passing on their traditional weaving techniques to the next generation. Their weaving skills and support for their families earns them increased freedom and respect and helps reduce the pressure to illegally log the surrounding forests.
The moratorium has worked beautifully. Because pretty much the entire village was behind it from the beginning, we almost never have problems with attempted poaching. Villagers enthusiastically renewed the initial shorter-term contracts, and we just renewed for another five years. And what is perhaps most exciting to me is the change we’ve seen in the meaning that villagers attach to the program and the maleo itself. In the beginning, the conversation was mostly all about economics: the guys who dug the eggs realized that they could make more money as guards than they did from the sale of maleo eggs, so they were willing to try it. But now, they have come to know the maleo better, watching them all day. The maleo itself is no longer just an object to be exploited, but means something to them now. At our recent meeting to renew the contract, villagers spoke of how excited they were to see juvenile maleos in the area, for the first time in living memory. They spoke of how proud they were that the outside world has recognized and honored them for their efforts to conserve this remarkable bird. (In March 2010, Taima village was honored by the international community with the first “Maleo Award” for outstanding conservation.) And they spoke of their grandchildren, and how they want the maleos to still be around for them. I think the villagers are coming to have what theologian Martin Buber calls an “I-thou” rather than an “I-it” relationship with the maleo bird, and by extension, with the rest of their natural surroundings—and that is truly exhilarating.
Stream in Tompotika Forest Preserve (Photo: Robin Moore)
Best of all, everyone is benefiting, not least the maleos themselves. Since the moratorium began in 2006, we’ve protected over 5000 eggs, chicks are hatching naturally, and the number of adult maleos returning to this nesting ground to lay eggs has tripled. Some days it even gets crowded out there on the nesting ground—a great problem to have!—and we see signs of maleos starting to lay in new nearby locations. Fortunately, we’ve been able to work with the village to protect the key forested corridor which connects the nesting ground to nearby rainforest habitat. We even recently were able to persuade a local business concern to change the location of its planned new coconut oil factory, moving it away from the chosen spot less than 1 km from the nesting ground to another location far away. In that effort, we were strongly supported by village and district government officials, who have come to regard maleo conservation as important.
mongabay.com: Why is Tompotika special?
One of AlTo’s villager assistants, Omis, with an endemic giant frog (Photo: Robin Moore)
Marcy Summers: The island of Sulawesi, of which Tompotika is one remote peninsula, is a global treasure for biodiversity. Though not as species-rich as its better-known neighbors such as Borneo or Sumatra, Sulawesi is much higher in endemism: almost half of Sulawesi’s vertebrate species are found nowhere else in the world, and in some taxa—non-volant mammals, for example—that number is over 90%. And it’s not just that Sulawesi has unique species—it’s that they occur in unusual combinations. Sulawesi has never been connected to a continental landmass—its many odd arms and peninsulas were each isolated island fragments from various Asian and Australasian origins, which plate tectonics brought together over millions of years to form today’s strangely-shaped island. Sulawesi’s flora and fauna reflect that strange mixing, so that, for example, you find both Tonkean macaques—primates from Asian origins—and bear cuscuses—marsupials from Australian roots—in the same forests. One of the first to document this was 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, in whose honor the region is often referred to as “Wallacea.” So rich is Sulawesi’s biodiversity, so ripe the opportunities to conserve it, and so devastating the costs if we do not, in fact, that conservation priorities analyses in recent years have repeatedly ranked Sulawesi at the top of the list when it comes to where we should be directing our conservation attention and resources.
AlTo Conservation Officer Agus checks out a Tompotika bat cave (Photo: Robin Moore)
Sulawesi itself varies considerably from one region to another, and although suffering from deforestation and natural areas conversion like the rest of Indonesia, there remain many high-quality natural areas on the island. When I worked for TNC, we did a comprehensive analysis to identify the most important remaining areas for conservation in Sulawesi, and Tompotika was one of them. The Tompotika peninsula is connected only by a narrow neck to the rest of Sulawesi’s central arm, and its soils (mostly ultrabasic) are different from those nearby. So, within the hotbed of endemism which is all of Sulawesi, even in the relatively small 2400 km2 area of Tompotika, we have at least 7 species known only from Tompotika. And that’s just among reptiles and amphibians—most taxa haven’t even been surveyed. In addition to beautiful, intact tropical rainforests, the Tompotika area also hosts high-quality offshore coral reefs, mangroves, savannah grasslands, some unusual cave formations, and the full complement of Sulawesi’s endemic megafauna, including the dwarf buffalo anoa, the strange babirusa deer-pig, shy dwarf cuscuses, majestic red-knobbed hornbills, gremlin-like tarsiers, and others—many of which have been extirpated from other parts of Sulawesi.
Tompotika also has a great deal of cultural significance: at the center of the peninsula stands 1600m Mt. Tompotika, which is rich with stories and legends and considered a sacred point of origin for all three of the ethnic groups native to that area.
mongabay.com: What are the biggest threats to forests and biodiversity in the region?
Tarsier in North Sulawesi
Marcy Summers: The main threats to forests and biodiversity in Tompotika are much the same as in other parts of Indonesia: uncontrolled logging (both legal and illegal), mining (mainly nickel), conversion for small-scale agriculture, and most recently, conversion for palm oil plantations. This latter is the fastest-growing threat in our area, as many locals see palm oil as a potential cash source that can be implemented more easily and on a smaller scale than, say, mining—but its effects on Tompotika’s forests are proving to be devastating. For certain species, overharvest is also a huge problem—for sea turtles, for example—and for many other rare and endangered species that are legally protected but still widely poached. And, it’s too early to know for sure, but we seem to be seeing increased rainfall in the Tompotika area, probably due to climate change, and this will likely have broad impacts of many different kinds that we’re only just beginning to understand.
mongabay.com: What are the biggest challenges you face?
Crested black macaque in North Sulawesi
Marcy Summers: Oh! The challenges are legion, and sometimes very daunting—it is very hard to be successful at conservation anywhere in the world, but especially here! We struggle with a lot of factors—apathy, ignorance, or corruption among those in power; a seemingly insatiable public appetite for more cash, goods, and technology; funding limitations; insufficient numbers of committed, local environmentalists ready to be trained as AlTo staff. But ultimately most of the challenges all boil down to the same thing: getting people to know and care about the natural systems of which they are a part. Until they are educated and called to another perspective, most people don’t understand how their human lives depend on healthy natural systems, and they care more about short-term gains and their own immediate personal convenience than about their long-term well-being and the health of the planet and their human and non-human neighbors. It’s a long and hard process to change that, but we are seeing that it can and does happen.
mongabay.com: Tompotika is not a national park. What are the tradeoffs associated with becoming a national park?
Marcy Summers: The national park system in Indonesia includes some of the largest and most intact natural areas left—in Sulawesi, for example, Bogani Nani Wartabone and Lore Lindu National Parks are critical strongholds for forests and wildlife, and provide the main backbone for natural areas conservation on the island. But they also come with some strings attached, the biggest being that national parks are managed by Indonesia’s central (national) government. As such, they are subject to all the vagaries of an Indonesian government ministry: power plays, corruption, mismanagement.
Strangler fig in North Sulawesi
The Forestry Department is part of the larger government context, and it’s probably even one of the better ministries, but there’s no escape from these crippling problems that run throughout the system. The result is that most national parks receive very inadequate on-the-ground protection—whether it’s because of a national policy that has deliberately opened them up for mining, or because someone in the line of power is turning a blind eye to lucrative illegal logging. Also, park rangers and managers are part of a national rotation. In any given park, they cycle in and out, are probably from another part of Indonesia, and don’t necessarily have a chance to get to know or care about the place they are supposed to be protecting before they are transferred somewhere else. And finally, there is generally little attempt to integrate the livelihoods of residents living around (or inside) parks with the sustainability of the park.
In Tompotika, we’ve opted to take a different approach. Although they’re disappearing fast, there are still many high-quality natural areas outside of the national parks and protected areas system in Indonesia. In Tompotika, we’ve started with the local people surrounding the intact forests of Mt. Tompotika, and we’re working directly with them and with local-level governments to help support sustainable livelihoods while protecting the 10,000 hectares of forest immediately surrounding the mountain. We’re training local farmers in organic farming techniques to conserve and enrich soil, and get higher yields from their existing agricultural lands, so that they won’t need to cut and clear new tracts of native forest. We’re hiring them as patrolers to protect the forests, we’re in process of designing a forest restoration project that will hire local villagers to rehabilitate degraded and abandoned patches of formerly forested lands, and we sponsor eco-tourist visits to the area. And through it all, we really push the awareness piece with both adults and children, emphasizing how healthy human communities depend on intact and healthy ecosystems. By starting at the local level, and building support and “ownership” of the protected forest from the ground up, we believe the local and regional public and governments are much more invested in protecting the forests, and we avoid the complications of national-level oversight entirely.
mongabay.com: Do you see opportunities to improve national park administration in Indonesia?
Red-knobbed hornbills in North Sulawesi
Marcy Summers: Certainly there are many aspects of national park management that could be improved, as noted above—and I applaud the good souls who are focusing on this, just as I applaud government efforts to prosecute illegal timber barons and wildlife traffickers, and the generally strengthened attempts to root out corruption. For our part, however, at this stage I’m more inclined to focus on opportunities to achieve real conservation progress in those remaining natural areas like Tompotika that are not yet protected, by starting to work directly with local people and building support for protection from the local level up. We are just a little conservation partnership, and reforming Indonesia’s national park system is more than we could take on—but we can still make significant, tangible progress in protecting a high-quality, intact but vulnerable area of Sulawesi’s native rainforest.
mongabay.com: How can people in the U.S. help your efforts?
Schoolchildren take part in an AlTo Awareness Campaign (Photo: Scott Newell)
This villager, Roma, displays AlTo’s sea turtle conservation poster on the wall of his hut. (Photo: Robin Moore)
Marcy Summers: Well, one obvious way that folks can help is to donate money to support the efforts of conservation NGO’s like ours (see our website at tompotika.org). If you care about the health of our planet, that’s an easy, direct, and significant way to help. But less easily, though perhaps more importantly, people in the U.S. and members of the “Global Consumer Class” simply need to wake up. Our precious and glorious planet is bleeding, and despite climate change, deforestation, ocean collapse, biodiversity loss, and more, we’re refusing to see it. What’s cutting those wounds deeper and deeper every day is the combination of an ever-expanding world human population with the rising rate of resource consumption of those nearly seven billion human beings. In the U.S., we consume something like a quarter of the world’s resources, though we are only 4% of world population. That’s obscene, and that’s ultimately what’s driving the destruction of places like Tompotika: the nickel mine and the palm oil plantations that are threatening to destroy Tompotika’s forests are being proposed to feed the rapacious appetites of consumers in the developed world who want more electronic gadgets and processed foods. That ultimately is what we must come to terms with, individually and collectively, if there is to be any future for places like Tompotika (or, indeed, our own back yards); people in the U.S. can help best of all by changing our own lifestyles and political priorities so that we move our country toward being part of the solution, not the continuing source of the problem. AlTo is an international partnership, comprising folks from Indonesia, the U.S., and several other countries, and we are keenly aware of this: the world is still looking to the U.S. for leadership in this arena. The trail ahead toward a healed planet and a green future awaits someone’s blazing, but it remains to be seen: who will step forward?
Saving Sulawesi’s ‘pig-deer’, the babirusa
(12/06/2010) 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 babriusa were not formally studied until the late 1980s when Dr. Lynn Clayton spent four years in Sulawesi’s forest observing them.
(01/06/2008) Little-known Sulawesi may be the world’s most strangely shaped island: with four large peninsulas jutting outward, the island could either resemble a mangled lower-case ‘k’ or an upside-down emaciated mermaid—depending on one’s perspective. However when Dr. Charles Cannon states that the island is “one of the most unique spots on Earth”, he is not referring to Sulawesi’s shape but its ecology.
(06/28/2007) Roughly 80 percent of Sulawesi’s richest forests have been degraded and destroyed for agriculture, logging, and mining, reports a ground-breaking assessment of the Indonesian island’s forests.
(03/20/2007) A new study on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia confirms the critical importance of fig trees to the rainforest ecosystem. The research has implications for wildlife conservation in an area of high rates of forest loss from agricultural conversion and logging.