The Green Heart of Sumatra The Leuser Ecosystem, one of the world's richest yet least-known forest systems, is increasingly threatened by logging and encroachment by a burgeoning population. We fly into the heart of the forest to profile the conservationists trying to keep it pristine for future generations.
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The Green Heart of Sumatra

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The Green Heart of Sumatra

The Green Heart of Sumatra

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Indonesia has had more than its share of natural disasters recently. A tsunami was followed by earthquakes and more tsunamis. All told, nearly 200,000 people have been killed. In our latest National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Michael Sullivan reports on another threat to the region. This one is largely manmade, but no less real.

MONTAGNE: the Leuser Ecosystem in the north of the island, mostly in the province of Aceh. And the quickest way to see Leuser is by air.


: Mike Griffiths is a former oil company executive turned conservationist who sees Leuser as his second home. And he heads the conservation group, The Leuser International Foundation. He rattles off the names of volcanoes, rivers, and other landmarks as our plane climbs from Medan over the dense green jungle below.

MIKE GRIFFITHS: Every single mountain you're looking at here, I've climbed it. I know them very well. And this is good habitat still for all the species. The orangutan, rhino, elephant, tiger - they're all here. It's the only place you'll find them all together.

: Griffiths may know this area better than almost anyone, by foot and by air. In December 2004, he was one of the first to fly over Aceh's devastated coast just after the tsunami struck.

GRIFFITHS: The first thing that came to my mind was these pictures you see of Hiroshima after it had been blown apart by the atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War. It was so utterly devastated. It was vaporized. Unless you really knew what this country looked like from the air, you would never have suspected that there'd been any towns or villages there before.

: The first pictures you saw of the tsunami were probably Griffiths' - amateur videos he shared with the Indonesian government and the world's television networks after he landed - videos he was told helped mobilize the massive aid effort that followed.

Griffiths is hoping to make a difference again, this time to save the Leuser ecosystem before it and its charismatic species are lost - lost to palm oil plantations, to encroachment, and to logging.

GRIFFITHS: Okay, let's go.

: Griffiths is from New Zealand and married into Acehnese royalty after he came to Indonesia. And he seems a bit regal himself as he sits in the bow of a long wooden canoe, heading up the Bessitang(ph) river to the forest he calls home.

GRIFFITHS: Over here, we have some pandanus palms. The local people weaved them into rather beautiful mats. Over on the right here, you have durian trees. They're considered the king of the fruit here, and they're very much sought after by the local people.

: The tsunami was a humanitarian disaster, but one with a silver lining for conservationists. Donors who pledged more than $5 billion for reconstruction insisted that some of that money be set aside for preserving the environment.

The money helps fund Leuser's conservation projects, including this one - elephant patrols along the forest's edges to discourage poachers and illegal loggers. Sitting on the lawn at the elephant camp, Griffiths explains preserving the forest is more than just saving animals popular with conservationists and western tourists.

GRIFFITHS: If you lose the Leuser ecosystem, you don't only lose the last real chance for the tiger, for the orangutan, for the elephant, and for the rhino and many other species as well, - you lose the basic foundations for the welfare of four million people. That's how many rely on this place for water and flood protection, erosion protection, and so on.

: A few hours later, we go for a walk in Griffiths' forest, careful to spray repellant on our clothes to help discourage leeches - tiny bloodsuckers that start out no bigger than a needle, but swell to the size of a small cigar once they've had their fill of you.

GRIFFITHS: Okay, we're in business.

: On one side of the trial, what's believed to be the burial mound of an Acehnese king, more than a century old. On the other, enormous fan palms and gigantic termite towers, tucked in behind taller and sturdier trees.

GRIFFITHS: When you walk through the forest there are certain features that I always like to look for, and if by some chance I see the footprints of rhinos, then I know the forest is probably as intact as it possibly can be.

: Efforts to keep that forest healthy may be complicated, Griffiths says, by a new peace agreement between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government that's brought an end to decades of bloody conflict.

GRIFFITHS: As long as the Indonesian military were fighting against the separatist movement, then no one was really safe in these forests. Anybody who wandered around would either be heavily questioned or perhaps would be suspected as being a member of the other side and would probably be shot. So what happened is that people did not come into these forests for almost ten years.

: With peace, the pressure on the forest is likely to increase. Griffiths explains logging and oil palm plantations bring what he sees as the biggest threat to the forest and the animals in it: roads.

GRIFFITHS: Elephants and tigers will still cross roads, but the vast majority of these species will not. They like to be inside contiguous forest, just like we're in now. Almost like a twilight world of green. A road is a very much a foreign environment for them and they don't like it. They won't cross it.

: Just a few new roads, Griffiths says, are enough to fragment some animal populations here, and send them crashing toward extinction. In what Griffiths cheerfully calls a war to save the forest, the Leuser Foundation uses some unconventional weapons.

GRIFFITHS: There was tremendous pressure from the local government to build a road right through the Leuser ecosystem. And we sat down with them. We negotiated with them and we recognized, jointly, that if you want to develop business in the area, if you want to develop tourism in the area, you're much better off giving those people quick access. And the best way to achieve that is through aircraft. So we agreed to build, for them, an airport.

: You bribed them. You said, don't put a road here, put this airstrip here instead.

GRIFFITHS: Call it a bribe. Call it a creative solution, but it worked. And now they're not doing much illegal logging there. They're not pushing for their road. And Leuser is just a little bit safer and the people are better off.

: One battle won. But he's had his share of losses too.

INSKEEP: a clear-cut area, some 37,000 acres, just inside the Leuser National Park. A barren, empty place with just a few shacks scattered here and there, baking under the hot tropical sun.

GRIFFITHS: You've heard of the silent spring? Well right here, we're looking at the silent forest. There is no forest here. All those wonderful birdsong you heard this morning, that's all gone. It's really an ecological desert.

: Griffiths says it will take 200 years to bring this place back to what it was before. But he's confident it can and will be restored, with help from the Indonesian government.

GRIFFITHS: I think conservation has been hampered in this country because of lax governance, and even corruption. But there's some good news. The governor of Aceh, who promoted many roads that went through Leuser, was eventually jailed on charges of corruption. Now the fact that he is now in jail shows that there is some commitment, at the highest levels of this country, to stamp on corruption, and to us that's very heartening. It gives us hope that in fact, the rule of law, in the end will win.

: And, will help provide just a little more protection for the Leuser ecosystem and for all the animals who live in it.

For Radio Expeditions, I'm Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.

An extended conversation with Michael Griffiths is at our Web site. And you can also subscribe to the Radio Expeditions podcast. Just go to

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