Stop to take a closer look and you’ll see the true meaning in the saying that ‘life attracts life’. One afternoon, sitting in the peaceful surrounds of a special little place we call ‘Red Lake, I stopped to ponder the devastating effects a monoculture crop like Palm Oil has on these rich ecosystems. From the greatest mammal, to the tiniest ant. It’s all right here at Red Lake, somewhere in the last remaining jungles of Sumatra.
We decided today to take a bit of a jungle trek in to find a place we call Red Lake. It’s a lake in the middle of the jungle not far from our camp covered in red algae and it’s quite picturesque. Last time we walked there we heard siamang gibbons just above us. When we arrived a couple of hornbills flew over. They’re the most unreal looking bird, so prehistoric as if a few pterodactyls had just paid us a visit. Magnificent creatures. We passed a few of the camp elephants on the way in who were seeking shelter beneath the trees. You wouldn’t have even known they were there, in fact we didn’t until we were about 2 metres away from them. For such huge animals, they sure play hide and go seek well. Amazing!
We sat by the lake quietly for about an hour watching all of the life around us. Amazing coloured dragonflies fluttered around us, birds of prey flew overhead and monitor lizards scurried in and out of the water. We saw beautiful coloured frogs hopping around by the water’s edge and some amazing plant life growing out of the fertile soil. I thought about the massive biodiversity in this one little patch alone and how if you look closely the jungle is just teaming with life.
Yet across the river, in the masses of palm oil plantation, it’s a sure contrast. A monoculture of plant species. Palm oil, palm oil and palm oil. Nothing grows around it, nothing grows beneath it. 90% of villagers in the local village alone own plantations and the average plantation size is 3-4 hectares. That’s just one small village amongst many others in a country whose number one industry is palm oil. What’s going to happen to all of this life when this lush jungle is replaced by plantations, or worse, the mining company finally gets the green light on exploratory mining here. What happens to the snakes, the insects, the birds and those incredibly old trees that have trunks as wide as a truck? Made me really sad to consider all of this. It’s not just the elephants that are losing their homes, look deeper below the surface and it’s got a massive domino effect for all other life.
Red Lake as we call it, is part of government protected habitat for a number of endangered species who rely on this ecosystem. It is such an important safe haven for the animals here. The siamang gibbons, leaf monkeys, Sumatran tiger, tapir and a herd of endangered Sumatran elephants all call this place home. The 7000 hectares that is currently protected is completely surrounded by palm oil plantations. Basically, the animals are stuck here in the centre of it all and are in the world of danger when they happen to cross the boundary. Not that they know where this boundary is of course, they usually come face to face with it when they are caught in snares, poisoned or shot. And sadly, I have come to face to face with a number of animals who have suffered the consequences of activity such as this in this very area alone. It is not pretty. These animals truly suffer.
Although the laws are in place for the protection of this place, encroachment of the plantations still eats into this habitat every day and illegal activity still happens below the cover of the jungle canopy. Already the illegal activity is having devastating impacts, I hate to think the massive impact on it when someone has actually been given the green light to be destructive. Regular conservation patrols are doing their bit to protect the animals here and while this is a safety net for now, it is a sad fact that his site also holds around 20 million tonne of coal deposit which had recently been approved for exploratory mining on the site. 700 hectares of this precious habitat will be sacrificed as part of this exploration and the resulting mining.
I’ve often wished that the people that sit behind their computers, mainly in far away countries, who make these decisions, could come here with us and spend a week seeing the amazing things we’ve see here. Wake up every morning at 5am to see the fog lifting over the lush green jungle, hear the siameng gibbons calling and cuddled up in the tree tops nurturing their precious babies, see the diverse bird life like the prehistoric hornbills fly over every afternoon, hear the amazing insects, see the jungle alive and thriving. I also wish they could wake at all hours to a hand-raised orphan elephant baby who is in her predicament because of these kinds of human activities. See her crying out in pain for her mother that is no longer here and watch her struggle just to survive.
I worried most for the herd of 70 wild elephants that call the ECC home. They are part of a critically endangered species who is believed to be extinct in under 30 years. Relocation for these animals is not an option, elephants have internal homing devices that will always make them migrate back to their home no matter where they are relocated. So once this home of theirs is gone, there’s nowhere for them to go. Displacement will only mean more devastating cases like Bona’s. I would not wish her predicament on any other baby again. What she has been through, because of our own race, is so unkind. But this kind of activity here in their home is only going to see more cases like Bona’s present themselves. And we honestly dread this. $25, 000 to save one baby is not easy to come across time and time again.
And so it seems, this real life Fern Gully scene is playing out just like the movie. I only hope we can save this precious environment and others like it before it’s too late.