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Protecting a forest in the land of the Indonesian deer-pig

A babirusa sleeps beside a creek. The animal's name, an Indonesian word, translates to "deer-pig." Photo by Schristia/Flickr.

  • In a village in the northern part of Indonesia’s giant Sulawesi island, hunters pursue rare animals that are protected by the law.
  • A local affiliate of NGO BirdLife International is working with locals to preserve the Popayato-Paguat forest block — and the dozens of endemic species within.
  • The NGO is facilitating an ecosystem restoration project in the forest block.

LEMBAH PERMAI, Indonesia — Joula Goni stepped out of her house cradling a skull. “A babirusa,” she explained, placing the bleached white cranium on a formica table on the patio. Babirusa are one of the island of Sulawesi’s unique menagerie of endemic animals. In Indonesian, the name of the animal translates to “deer-pig.” Unlike wild boars, the babirusa has a dramatic set of tusks. One set curves up from its lower jaw. The second, more pronounced, set emerges from its top jaw and curls over the animal’s eyes.

Goni is one of the few indigenous Minahasa people in Lembah Permai village, Gorontalo province, in northern Sulawesi, one of the archipelago country’s largest islands. She said her husband happened upon the skull during a hunting expedition. “He only got the skull. Perhaps the animal died from old age or after being gored in a fight.” Her quip is justifiably defensive. Lembah Permai is famous among trophy hunters as a place to land rare endemic fauna that are protected under Indonesian law.

“It’s true, a lot of hunting happens here,” said Sudirman Hasan, the village secretary of this mostly Javanese hamlet that sits at the forest edge. Hasan confessed he is uncomfortable with this notoriety. He hopes the situation will change with the signing of what Burung Indonesia — an affiliate of global NGO BirdLife International — calls a Village Nature Conservation Agreement, or KPAD.

“The KPAD will outline what is allowed and not allowed in the forest,” he said.

A babirusa skull. Photo by Christopel Paino for Mongabay.

Home to many migrants

Lembah Permai sits at the end of a rocky six-to-seven-hour drive from Gorontalo city, the provincial capital. It’s home mostly to “transmigrants” from the faraway island of Java, where more than half of the Muslim-majority nation’s 260 million people live.

Here in Lembah Permai, the air is clear. Plentiful water flows. At one time, a Korean company considered building a microhydro electricity plant on the local Malango creek. They canceled their plans on account of the oil palm plantation on the opposite bank.

“The plantation has had a bad effect on the Malango,” said village secretary Hasan. “It sucks up a lot of water. The Koreans decided against investing as a result of the plantation. They just went home.”

Only a third of the 419 souls (114 families) that live in Lembah Permai are fulltime residents. The rest are regional migrants. The original village, established by the government’s transmigration department, had a designated area of 5,000 hectares, an area just smaller than Manhattan. When it was last surveyed in 2015 though, the village covered a mere 1,323 hectares. Many houses sit abandoned.

Hasan thinks this is on account of the grade. He says the village land is steep and unsuitable for farming.

Goni, whose husband found the babirusa skull, said that many Minahasan relatives who came to settle decided instead to move back to their home villages after seeing the conditions in Lembah Permai.

For those migrants that stayed, their greatest hope is that they will be able to build up a cacao agroforestry system similar to the two other villages in the Popayato-Paguat forest area. Makarti Jaya and Puncak Jaya are larger settlements that Burung Indonesia — an affiliate of global NGO BirdLife International — is supporting in the development of village conservation agreements.

A dirt road in Lembah Permai village, a short walk from the forest. Photo by Christopel Paino for Mongabay.

Birds aplenty

Burung Indonesia is facilitating an ecosystem restoration program in the Popayato-Paguat forest. According to the 2015 report, Popayato-Paguat’s zonation as a “production forest” fragments and therefore threatens endemic biodiversity. According to Global Forest Watch data, deforestation has been increasing in the Pohuwato area, particularly since 2013.

“Popayato-Paguat is a center of connectivity between important forest blocks such as the Nantu, Matinan-Illeile and Panua,” the Birdlife Indonesia report says. “It unites the natural forest area. Ecosystem restoration work here will rebalance the function and type of habitat in this forest block.”

Burung Indonesia’s technical memorandum describes the Popayato-Paguat as a dry deciduous forest spanning 84,789 hectares — bigger than Singapore — which includes 18,230 hectares of production forest and 66,568 hectares of “limited production forest.” The forest area is jurisdictionally split between two districts, Pohuwato and Boalemo.

The report mentions that the Popayato-Paguat forest block has been deemed an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area since 2014. It has an A1 rating, meaning that it is home to endangered species, and an A2 rating, meaning that it is also home to birds with a limited distribution.

There are 67 species of endemic bird and seven rare species present here. Locally present are also Globally Threatened Species including the maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), yellow-crested small cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), blue-faced rail (Gymnocrex rosenbergii), Knobbed hornbill (Rhyticeros cassidix) and Sulawesi hornbill (Rhabdotorrhinus exarhatus).

Also present are two endangered species – pigdeer (Babyrousa celebensis) and low altitude anoa (Bubalus depressicornis)- and four vulnerable species – the high altitude anoa (Bubalus quarlessi), black macaque (Macaca hecki), the tarsier known to be the world’s smallest primate variety (Tarsius tarsier) and the kuskus bear (Ailurops ursinus).


Banner image: A babirusa sleeps beside a creek. The animal’s name, an Indonesian word, translates to “deer-pig.” Photo by Schristia/Flickr.


This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on June 10, 2016.


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