From poachers to protectors: the rangers of Tangkahan

In the sweltering jungle of North Sumatra, a young man carefully dismantles a homemade snare. It’s intended prey? A critically endangered tiger.

It's just one of 320 snares removed in the last 12 months by the Rangers of Tangkahan — a small group of locals determined to protect one of the most bio-diverse places on earth.

The Leuser ecosystem in Indonesia is precious. It's the last remaining refuge where four critically endangered species co-exist — the Sumatran tiger, elephant, orangutan and rhinoceros. Its 2.6 million hectares also help regulate the world’s climate by storing millions of tonnes of Carbon in its peat swamps.

But this fragile ecosystem is under threat from palm oil plantations, logging, mining, and poaching. Human-wildlife conflict is rife. Without a solution, endangered populations are now at great risk of extinction within our lifetime.

A remarkable, inspirational decision

Field Coordinator for the Rangers, Jess McKelson, has dedicated her life to conservation. Fascinated with orangutans since childhood, she chased her dreams to study them. In 2006, Jess received a fellowship to evaluate conservation programs in Sumatra.

"When I visited, it really was a profound experience. What I thought was rainforest below me, was a never ending view of palm oil. It made me realise that it was going to be harder to see these primates in the wild,” Jess said.

“Once back in Australia, I founded Raw Wildlife Encounters [a partner of The Rangers of Tangkahan] and began to develop a strategy for how I could work closely with the local communities in North Sumatra over a longer period of time for a more positive impact”.

Jess chose to work closely with the local Tangkahan community — once an illegal logging settlement— to support their transition away from illegal logging and poaching.

"The community, once it understood the damage they were causing, made a remarkable and inspirational decision to become custodians — and be responsible for the forest, and wildlife, within their area”.

A new industry, a new way of life

Today, the Tangkahan community no longer relies on illegal activities to receive an income. Instead the Rangers of Tangkahan was formed to establish a new, environmentally-friendly, sustainable livelihood — ecotourism.

The Rangers of Tangkahan have four key roles. They patrol the buffer zone around the Leuser ecosystem, collect data, monitor wildlife, and remove poachers’ snares. Each patrol lasts for 10 days and data is collected on foot and via aerial drone surveys. They also act as guides and interpreters for tourists.

“This is a first for North Sumatra, and inspiring to see the Rangers of Tangkahan passionately want to lead this initiative from a community grassroots level. This adventure will also see the rangers get an income for protecting natural resources, rather than receiving income from damaging practices,” Jess said.

Rangers on Patrol. Photo: Jason Savage
Rangers on Patrol. Photo: Jason Savage

An important part of the rangers work includes educating neighbouring forest-edge communities. For many of these communities, illegal poaching and logging has been a way of life. But as community leaders, the rangers are in a unique position to empower others and advocate for the environment.

"Our rangers draw upon their past experiences as illegal loggers and poachers, and today are transformed into conservation heroes," Jess said.

"Providing the team of rangers with the correct skills, tools and advice, we can support them to become role models for other communities and empower local people to make influential conservation-based changes for the future.”

The Rangers also help local communities to safely address conflict between humans and wildlife — such as crop-raiding elephants and orangutans. They are investigating methods such as chilli fences, bee hives and crop guarding.

Collecting data. Photo: Jason Savage
Collecting data. Photo: Jason Savage

The Rangers of Tangkahan say they are already living their dream — by receiving an income to protect the forest they live with. But they still want future generations to benefit from the ecosystem and to protect the species within it.

While challenges remain and change can be slow, Jess knows there’s unlimited potential.

“This model will have opportunities for others to adopt and dramatically change attitudes and behaviour towards a more sustainable future for future generations,” Jess said.

“Globally, we will also have the opportunity to benefit from these protection efforts — to conserve the last remaining habitat left in Sumatra.”

When we first heard from The Rangers of Tangkahan they had no resources for conducting night patrols. As part of our Adventure Sponsorship program, Kathmandu supplied tents, solar lanterns and head torches to help The Rangers carry out efficient and safe patrols for an even bigger impact.

More from the Summit Journal...

Items 1 to 8 of 11 total