Today we drove over 3 hours from Medan to Sei Betung which is a part of the Gunung Leuser National Park. I am traveling with the SOCP (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project) team to visit their restoration site. On the way to the restoration site as soon as we left the city, we started driving through dense palm oil plantations. They are sturdy green palms that produce fruit just five years after being planted. The attraction to growing palm oil trees is that after they start producing fruit, they can be harvested every two weeks for the next 20 – 25 years!! The growers can earn income very quickly because of such high production. In addition, each fruit yields 3 times more oil than coconut oil as an example. In general, the oil extracted is 3 times greater than any other oil producing fruits.
The trees are planted in organized rows. The palms are dense and have a tight leaf structure that prohibits any ground growth beneath aside from ferns. The fruit is small and firm – about the size of a large walnut. It grows in large clusters and again, can be harvested every two weeks.
All of the paved roads are pocked with pot holes due to heavy dump trucks laden with palm fruit. I could not count the number of trucks filled with palm fruits that were being transported to the processing centers.
I am going to the restoration site near Sei Betung specifically to fly my drone over palm plantations and to visit this restoration project where a team of dedicated botanists, biologists,and conservationists are working. It has been raining during this 3 hour drive and we are expecting this to be a muddy slurpy trip. After we finally arrive at the first field station, we have to hike through the forest for about one hour to reach the restoration sight.
We are walking through deep mud that wants to suction off our shoes with each step. I am wearing Keene hiking sandals (with no socks unfortunately) and picked up a few unwelcome (but not uncomfortable at all) hitch hikers along the way. Yes, one must always expect leeches in a rain forest. They are benign organisms that are removed easily if noticed early. They managed to make their way through the holes of my Keene sandals and I had one between each toe – not unlike getting a pedicure :-o. LOL!! Anyway, it was a long. laborious hike only because the mud was so slippery and literally tried to suck your shoe off in every step. A few bridge crossings were the only relief from the thick mud.
We finally made it to the restoration site to meet an amazing team of people, a welcome cup of tea and lunch. The restoration project involving this team followed an unprecedented court case where a palm oil company was indicted for planting a palm plantation illegally in the national park. They were taken to trial, lost the case and were forced to return the acquired land to the national park. They were also required to remove the palm oil trees from the land upon return. Upon winning the case, the national park contacted the SOCP Director, Dr. Ian Singleton and asked if his team would start a project to restore 500 hectares of palm oil plantation land into natural forest. And so, in 2009 SOCP took on the monumental task of returning this land to a natural (though secondary) forest in the place of palms so that endemic wildlife and vegetation can once again inhabit and take over the forest.
This team has tirelessly been planting trees from germinated seedlings since 2009!!!! They grow the trees from seedlings at the site and plant tree by tree.
Up until now they have planted 261 hectares of the 500 with 167 species of fast growing trees. They will soon introduce slow growing trees. After several years of back breaking work, they were rewarded when they saw their first orangutan and herd of elephants in the newly planted forest.
After lunch and a short rest, we made our way back into the forest to look for a specific location where I was going to fly my drone. I was hoping to take an aerial image of recently cut down primary forest being prepared for palm oils trees. When we reached the location, I armed my drone and took off.
I flew out 1.2 kilometers (roughly three quarters mile) and couldn’t find the clear cutting of the forest decimated by palms. I reached my maximum distance and height for the drone. I have a custom setting that exceeds this distance, but I was told that the cutting was only 1k out. It was much further than we all actually thought. Instead, I took a photograph of a palm oil plantation next to the primary forest of the national park – you can see the distinct contrast.
After seeing this image, I appreciated the work of this team even more. Below is a photo of biologist Rio Ardi. He heads this project and has been there since the beginning: growing and planting 1100 seedlings per hectar plus 30% more seedlings (330) for mortality (they lose 30% of all of the seedlings that they plant). Below is a photo of Rio hugging one of his precious trees in the restored part of the forest.
~ Jami Tarris