Senin, 27 Juli 2009

Halimun Salak National Park: Final Gateway to Conservation

salak1Gunung Halimun? Gunung, I know, means “mountain” or “Mount” – but halimun? I open the dictionary: ah, halimun means “fog”. I visualize a mysterious atmosphere: fog descending and enveloping the mountain, the sky turning grey, cold and silent.

A three-hour drive south from Jakarta, a billboard by the side of the road greets us: “Welcome to the largest tropical rainforest mountain ecosystem in Java – Gunung Halimun Salak National Park”. The largest in Java? And so close to the bustling capital, Jakarta?
There’s no public transport going to Gunung Halimun Salak National Park (GHSNP); visitors have to go by car or charter a vehicle. As instructed in the website, we stop to report our presence at the Cikaniki Research Center.

The number of visitors to the park quadrupled during 2008. This surge in visits is a two-edged sword for GHSNP: more visitors means more people gaining the educational benefits of nature tourism, thereby spreading the message of conservation so that the forest will be better protected. On the other hand, with more visitors, the wildlife – gibbons, surili (leaf monkeys) and deer will be disturbed and forced to move further up the mountains. But the forest at 1000 to 1500 meters above sea level offers them little food.

Visitors who want to go hiking are urged to have no more than four people in each group, and not to speak loudly or carry radios or tape players. When trekking, visitors are also advised not to wear bright-colored clothing or perfume, which could annoy the wildcats (panthers, leopards, etc.).

The ranger on duty at the Cikaniki Research Center greets us warmly. “We’re really sorry, but we don’t have any rooms – we’re full up. You should book at least a week in advance.” Several researchers from Japan are staying at the Center and doing research in the forest.

The Cikaniki Research Center consists of two elevated houses built jointly by the governments of Indonesia and Japan, represented by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Not far from the Research Center is a species of mushroom that glows in the dark.

So we head to the Citalahab homestay – accommodation operated by residents of Citalahab village. It looks just like a village in a painting: distant mountains in the background, framed by the tea plantation in the foreground; fog gradually descending on the far-off peaks. Déjà vu: halimun. No wonder it’s called Gunung Halimun Salak National Park.

salak2The three-room (twin sharing basis) platform house is in the middle of the village, facing the valley, river, and rice fields. It’s very basic, lit by only a few 5-watt bulbs with power from a turbine driven by the river water. Don’t expect to charge your hand phone; but you won’t need it anyway, since there’s almost no signal here. The wide floor is completely devoid of furniture.

It’s extremely cold at night. Even though we’re sleeping on a spring bed mattress with both sleeping bag and blankets, we still shiver from the cold.

The next morning, Pak Dedek offers to take us trekking into the forest to the canopy trail – a long bridge hanging 20 to 25 meters above the forest floor, built for research purposes. I’m constantly impressed by how well the Park personnel maintain the forest.

There’s no litter along the trail, and the signage is very clear, so you can’t get lost. Unfortunately, the canopy trail is closed; much of the iron the bridge is made of has been stolen. Apparently conservation is a difficult concept for hungry, uneducated residents.

Finally we arrive at the Cikaniki Research Center. The friendly ranger on duty gives us a map of Cikaniki, Citalahab and Cipta Rasa, a village of the Kasepuhan Abah Anom traditional community, who moved to Cipta Gelar in 2001. Cipta Rasa is located within the Park, while Cipta Gelar is famous for its Seren Taun annual village cleansing ceremony at rice harvest time, which is part of Indonesia’s tourism calendarCikaniki Research Center.

It turns out that there are many interesting places to go in GHSNP – several waterfalls, hot springs all along the Cipanas Sukarame river, an archeological site of still unknown origin, and much more. There’s also a lot to see in the Park: watch palm sugar being produced in Kampung Legok Jeruk, watch the rice harvest or tea picking in the Nirmala plantation, and of course observe the wildlife – owa jawa (gibbons), elang jawa (Javan eagles) and macan tutul (spotted leopards), while tasting wild plants as part of a jungle survival lesson.

salak3“Could I come along on the next leopard tracking expedition?” I asked the ranger.

He took a deep breath and gazed off into the distance. “Well, it’s like this – the last time we did research, in late 2007, we didn’t find any tracks at all,” he said.

Could it be that the leopard’s presence in the Park ended in 2007? If so, sad news, especially since the Park is working so hard to prevent illegal logging. Since 2003, the limited production forest areas and protected forest areas near the GHSNP have been united into the Gunung Halimun Salak National Park (GHSNP) Conservation Zone. This has made local people who are used to managing the forests feel their livelihood is under threat, and the situation is aggravated by population growth.

After lunch at the Citalahab homestay, we hike up the valley again to go to our car, which is parked near the road on the hilltop. A cluster of village children are stopped at the bend in the road, pointing up and whispering to each other. “Surili! Surili!”
Two surili (grizzled leaf monkeys) are hanging in the high branches, but they quickly “hide” themselves when they sense the presence of humans. They hide their faces behind the branches, but their big bodies are still quite visible.

I wonder – monkeys right outside the village. Are they starting to get used to the presence of humans, or is their habitat under so much stress that they’re forced to seek food near human habitation? If only there weren’t so many people, there would be plenty of resources for all other living creatures, who also have the right to live. And conservation wouldn’t need to conflict with other interests, such as people’s need to eat.

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