Dispatch from Sumatra’s nastiest swamp (part 1 of 2)

Forget for a moment the dreadful conditions in this miserable Sumatran swamp, which include being eaten by tigers (seven in the surrounding area last year). Just getting here is an ordeal in itself. Start by taking the 1,400-kilometer flight from the capital, Jakarta, to Sumatra‘s bustling northern port, Medan. Then it’s a grueling twelve-hour ride straight across the island’s dramatic mountains-and poorly maintained roads-to the Indian Ocean, where a puttering speedboat will be waiting to make the hour-long trip upriver.

If all goes well, you arrive at camp for the daily rationing of rice and canned mackerel. This is assuming you secured the four permits required for a visit to this hidden corner of Leuser National Park, a World Heritage Site.

Yet despite the remoteness or food or the fact the Suaq Balimbing field station is in the middle of a flooded swamp, the scientists here couldn’t be happier at their return. “We were all waiting for this place to reopen,” Andrea Gibson, a PhD candidate at University of Zurich who had to delay her orangutan fieldwork by three years because of the station’s hiatus, said to me.
There’s no question why so many researchers clamber to be here. The site rocketed to fame in the mid-1990s with the discovery of tool-use among orangutans, the only primate besides chimpanzees with such abilities; it remains the only location with widespread tool-use. Later work contributed to a landmark paper in Science that demonstrated the existence of orangutan culture. This modest patch of swamp, quite frankly, boasts some of the smartest apes in the world.

But an upsurge of violence from the long-running civil war at the end of the 1990s forced the Suaq primatologists, as well as wildlife researchers across Aceh, out of business. Only now, with a peace treaty in place, are they trickling back. Nowhere has the homecoming been more dramatic or anticipated than at Suaq Balimbing.

As the boat pulls into the dock-a rickety piece of plywood-the field station looms large, looking almost palatial against the backdrop of dense jungle foliage. But once on top of the riverbank, you realize the camp, which consists of three tiny rooms in two wooden shacks, is about to burst at the seams. Fifteen people, including three graduate students from Zurich, an Indonesian student, a cook, and several field assistants jostle for space alongside generators, laptops, food supplies, and an entire department store of wet field outfits hung out to dry.

None of this, however, was around a year ago, and with that in mind, Suaq’s transformation seems nothing short of miraculous. When the field staff evacuated in September 1999, hastened by the execution of the head assistant and violent skirmishes nearby, they left behind two sturdy buildings, one of which had six rooms. By the time they returned for a brief survey in 2006, everything had gone up in flames. “The rebels had been using our camp, so the military didn’t burn it down for nothing,” the camp’s principal investigator explained to me. Equally disheartening, the boardwalks used to traverse much of the 350-hectare swamp had rotted away.

After completely rebuilding the station last February, albeit on a smaller scale, the staff spent much of the summer blazing a new, 46-kilometer trail grid, an absolute necessity when tracking orangutans day in and out. They started collecting behavioral data last September.

The civil war’s impact on the Suaq jungle, on the other hand, was quite unexpected. When President Suharto fell from power in 1999, illegal loggers almost overran the station. “Then the civil war stemmed that,” explained Ian Singleton, a Medan-based orangutan researcher who oversees logistics at Suaq. “The illegal loggers and poachers didn’t want to risk being shot. So the civil war was extremely good for conservation.”

Continue to part 2.