December 19, 2014

An Expedition Journal

This summer, for the fourth time in 10 years, I traveled to Indonesia. To me, the country and the people are magical-and so was my assignment: to photograph the field research of the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the Bronx Zoo) in this island nation. In one month, I traveled to three different areas-Java, Sulawesi and Sumatra-photographing a wealth of endangered wildlife and the work being done to save these creatures: sea turtles, macaques, gibbons, elephants, rare birds and much, much more. Indonesia is a shockingly beautiful nation of 17,000 islands spread across 3,200 miles of tropical oceans; and although wildlife here, as in the rest of the world, is being threatened by the rapid spread of people and modern civilization, it is still a nature photographer's dream. I worked by moonlight on gorgeous, isolated tropical beaches, trekked up mountains right into the clouds, spent hours alone in blinds, waiting for wildlife to appear; and even followed the trail of the elusive tiger deep in the rainforest. I also had a sickening assignment: photographing crime units charged with the impossible task of stemming the tide of animals that are being smuggled, in cruel and horrifying conditions, out of the wild and into markets around the world.

In every location, the Indonesian researchers and scientists were wonderful, and the people I encountered were friendly and open; but in contrast to my earlier trips, when I saw many Americans and tourists, I was almost always the only Caucasian in a world of Asians. Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, has the largest Muslim population in the world; and fears of terrorism seem to have nearly extinguished Western tourism.

I carried my laptop with me; and at every stop, from small hotels in crowded cities to primitive camps in the wild, I recorded my experiences, often in e-mails to friends and family. Here are a few excerpts from those observations.

Aug. 11. Even after 40 hours in transit, I was thrilled to step into the Jakarta Airport, mostly open-air, and inhale the clove and frangipani so typical of Indonesia. I love it! The WCS driver, Pak Nasir, took me straight to Bogor, some 60 miles away, to Dr. Rob Lee's home. Rob is head of WCS-Indonesia and one of my best friends. I could make final plans for the month while resting with him, his wife, Cynthia, and their 18-month-old daughter, Kiera. To her I'm Omah Connie.

Central Java, Karimun Jawa National Park, Aug. 14. We woke at 4:45 this morning, and I felt as much as heard the undulating waves and moans, higher pitched and lower, of the Muslim call to prayer. The incantations to Allah permeate the just-breaking dawn and one's very soul. This is visceral, the sound of emotion, pure, like the incessant winds of the deserts where Islam was born. Forty-five minutes later we were in the fish market buying breakfast-mushy rice, with fish and coconut wrapped in a banana leaf-laughing and teasing with the Javanese market ladies.

Minahasa Province, North Sulawesi, Tangkoko Dua Sudara Nature Reserve, WCS research camp, Aug. 29. Coming into camp last night we stopped in a village with no electricity and virtually no lights except for lanterns and fires. While the men arranged for a boatman to pick us up in the morning, I looked up and was absolutely blown away by the stars. There were a double gazillion, and the Milky Way is, indeed, milky looking. We light-polluted Americans forget how special raw nature is-and wonder-full, truly.

Today Iwan, my keeper and an ornithologist, got a picture of me with two juvenile macaques. I had been photographing the monkeys as they groomed each other about 30 or 40 feet away, when the two curious males came up to study me. They sat on either side of me and just stared. It was a weird feeling, but cool to be so close to wild primates again. Later that night, in the mist nets, we caught two kinds of bats and photographed them. One was called an Asian false vampire bat, and it looked like a vampire with a face only a mother could love.

Gorontalo Province, North Sulawesi, Gunung Ambang Nature Reserve, Aug. 22. We are about 5,000 feet high on the side of one of Sulawesi's many perfect volcanoes. We set two mist nets at dusk, then waited. Yusman, the WCS audio specialist, had recorded the calls of a new species of owl; and four freezing and mosquito-y hours later we caught one in the net. We measured, weighed, photographed and recorded all his vitals, and let him go, all in less than 15 minutes. He's a gorgeous little blond owl with a call that sounds like a cross between a dog bark and a chicken cluck.

The rest of the night was pure misery. I had my own tent so there was no human warmth but what I produced for myself. And it was cold. I wore all my clothes-I mean all-and was wrapped in a very thin, but wool, blanket and lying on a thin rubber mat. My body kept waking me up shivering all over. I don't know how low the temperature got, but my guess would be in the low 40s.

Gorontalo Province, North Sulawesi, Gorontalo to Minahasa Road, Aug. 26-27. Working all night with the Wildlife Crimes Unit was sickening. We stopped dozens of pickups loaded with huge fruit bats and dogs and bush pigs, all legal, and headed for the bush meat markets and the traditional, mostly Chinese market in Minahasa. All the transporters were poor, rough-looking and probably woods or country people. The buyers are rich, fat and greedy. I almost lost it with the first crate of dogs, but then I hardened up. The first load of cats almost did it to me, too, as did a days-old bush pig pushing at a pig carcass which was probably its mother. It, too, went to its doom in Minahasa.

Aug. 28. I flew back over the amazing rainforest and perfect clear water of Sulawesi to Bogor, then to Lampung in south Sumatra.

Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Sumatra, Aug. 31. These guys on the Tiger Protection Team are a thoroughly male group, and just entering their house/office was like taking a testosterone bath. Not a criticism. I loved it, and when I showed them some of the panther pictures from my camera traps in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County I was in. We compared notes, talked camera trap frustrations-their biggest problem is elephants destroying the cameras-habitat for cats, and so forth. Actually, watching them was like watching the wild male chimps in Africa. They were always aware of each other-what one did, the next reacted to-and each was, in his own way, trying to jump up the hierarchy or at least stay put. My not understanding the language actually helps with a closer attention to the body language.

Way Canguk Research and Training Center, Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Sumatra, Sept. 1. I'm back in the land of big butts-tree buttresses, that is-high canopy, dark understory, rather sparse with weedy ginger, and a zillion bugs calling, including chain- saw bugs and alarm-clock bugs. And yes, it's also leech city. Lots of birds, but no hornbills yet. I feel back home. The forest, one enormous living creature, has embraced me, loved me; and I love back. The floor is slippery clay; but the three-hour walk was easy, mostly pretty flat, and only one big thigh-high river to cross.

This is a special place, Sumatra, still quite wild. Unfortunately, Bukit Barisan, a mountain forest along the southwest coast, is already cut by two roads, though they are really just trails; but those roads are the beginning of the end. It's still a rugged piece of paradise, but the same old story holds true: It's being shrunk by logging, some hunting and, mostly, clearing for farming.

The camp is really posh. There are four houses and the mess house, all wood and on stilts, all overlooking the river which is down a quite steep slope. One thing clearly distinguishes it from similar camps in Borneo: the eight elephant skulls mounted around the camp. It's amazing to be putting on wellies with your face in an elephant eye socket.

September 2, 2004. The agilis [a species of gibbons, famous for its haunting calls] didn't sing until almost 10 a.m., after the rain stopped. It rained hard all night, and the tin roof made quite a din. There is nothing as sweet as this song. It's like having other-worldly sopranos singing an aria for half an hour or more, and relaying it around the forest canopy to other families. I'm in heaven. The siamangs, on the other hand, the largest of the lesser apes, sound like small freight trains with attitude. Loud, yes, with more power than finesse.

The rain sent out the leech message-fresh, hot, white meat in the jungle. Come and get it! And they came, but I am too well trained to let any really take hold; and I didn't, though I must have flicked a hundred of them.

Sept. 4. I spent the day hunched over in a blind watching and photographing hornbills. I shot the male coming in with fruits for his mate in the tree hole three times. He even brought in both purple and orange fruits to add to his bright colors in the pictures. We have been hearing the sounds of their wings: Whah WHUH, whah WHUH, whah WHUH. Unmistakable. The female and male short-bark to one another when he comes near with the fruits. She seems to be saying, "Man, we're hungry in here. Stop being a weenie and get over here with those figs!"

On the way to the blind, we scared up three aggressive forest pigs that were wallowing on either side of the trail. They snorted and, scarily, did not run very far away, but pretty much stayed their ground. After hesitation, Ade, who was taking me to the blind, walked on through; and I thought I better stay with him, even if it meant turning my back on three wild pigs. Later he told me he'd had a standoff with some elephants a few months ago when they were playing in the river at dusk, but they ran away when he tried to take a flash picture.

A few minutes on, we ran across a muntjac (a kind of deer); and it, too, held its ground after barking once. And this morning, as I was drinking my coffee in the early half-light, I saw three otters playing in the river. There are 45 or so tigers in this forest, but one rarely sees signs of them. There are rhinos, too, and elephants, but they don't know the numbers for a sad reason. Four years ago, when they were conducting a survey using dung samples and camera traps to count them, a poacher followed the researchers and managed to kill four elephants before he was caught. They scrapped a similar research effort with rhino after the elephant poacher was caught, since there might be others with the same idea.

Lampung, Trans Sumatra Highway, Sep. 6, 2004. With the Wildlife Crimes Unit here. The bird markets are filthy, and the thousands of birds there were all taken wild from the forest. Yet it's not illegal unless they are officially listed as "endangered." Most are eventually going to the bird market in Jakarta and/or to China as song birds or, occasionally, for food. All the sellers got written up, but no one was arrested because no contraband birds were found. Later, the WCS fellow, Sunari, took us to a snake man selling, yes, snake oil, live snakes and snake parts-gall bladder, male parts-to several squirrels, and a leaf monkey dying because they were trying to feed it fruit. I think the conservation community should give free Viagra to every Asian man wanting animal parts to make him virile. Unlike ingesting animal parts, Viagra will work, and it would probably be much cheaper to supply pills by the millions than to try to stem this flood of animal parts. I am quite serious.

Breakfast in the Hotel Kantin in Lampung, Sept. 7. Two sullen-looking women/girls, one taking room numbers, the other opening one side of the plastic wrap on packs of already-too-thin napkins and cutting the fold off so that taking a napkin consists now of taking only half a napkin. Not sufficient, of course, but there are rolls of toilet paper on the table should you need more hand wipes. I have my rice, cold, greasy fried egg, sambol and kopi. The TV is on, and all the ads show women with whiter-than- white skin, whiter than in U.S. commercials by far, pasty- white, yet still with black hair, deep brown eyes, Indonesian features. What do they do to their faces? Why is that supposed to be the model?

Lampung airport, Sept. 7. Homeward bound. The food has been good, but I am looking forward to a salad. I have pigged out on rambutan, an ugly, round, hairy-looking but delicious fruit, and those little fruits that look like large scuppernong grapes but open up to a lychee-like pulp and seed. I think they are called langan. I have had good raw jackfruit, and cooked as well. I have seen hundreds of durian fruit on roadside stands and eaten some, too. They smell like excrement to some but are very sweet. The car that brought me here had 20 or so in the back, and did it ever have that unique durian odor! Ripe, ripe, ripe! A day ago I, too, was ripe, but I have cleaned up since.

I have been cautious about talking politics, but I have dipped my toe in a little. Uniformly they hold extremists in contempt-extremist Muslims, Christians and Jews. They see the Iraqi war as destroying America's (implied: moral) leadership in the world and taking attention away from terrorists who, they believe, are proliferating all over the world while our government obsesses about Iraq.

The more I see, the more I think the West is on the decline and Asia is on the ascent-especially China, and secondarily India and maybe in some areas-high-tech, consumer manufacturing-Japan. But don't count Indonesia out. Despite its cultural heritage and its being Muslim, which disinclines it to aggressive commerce, it, too, is a nation on the move. For the U.S., Vietnam was the turning point, and we still have not learned that the rules have changed and wars are now led by terrorists, as we call them, or guerillas-or freedom fighters, viewing it from the other side. Our moral superiority has been squandered by corporate and government greed and corruption, just like much of the rest of the world. China, on the other hand, makes no claims to moral superiority but just to industry, and their education and social system is in high gear to prevail in every aspect of commerce.

This is the century of the Chinese, and it bodes very badly for the environment. The Chinese have no interest in, or sympathy for, wildness. It is there to be exploited by humans. They eat everything. Maybe a panda or two will remain in zoos or enclosed in managed areas, and maybe a tiger, but otherwise-food. No sentiment here.

Just saw something on the airport television about a hurricane in Florida. I am anxious to hear more. I am also anxious to have a sit-down loo that accepts paper and a shower without mosquitoes. It will be nice to ride in a car and not choke on fumes. I doubt that 10 percent of the cars and motor bikes are actually roadworthy here, or that any of the trucks are. It will also be good not to be stared at all the time. I have seen a total of seven non-Asians since getting on the Air China flight out of L.A.

Shooting all digital and rough editing already, I am pleased with my photographs, and so is Rob. But even as I head for the Florida side of the earth, we have already planned my return, as soon as it can be arranged, to spend more time in the Sumatran rainforest-this time, climbing up to platforms in the high canopy to photograph the siamangs and the hornbills and maybe even the agilis. I'll also go to Borneo to capture the elusive bearded pigs. I can hardly wait! I love this country with all its foibles, its wildlife and its people.

Postcript, Jan. 4, a week after a tsunami devastated many coastal areas of Indonesia. I have edited this article with a heavy heart and teary eyes. For the first few days after the tsunami, I called and e-mailed to find out whether my friends, human and animal, were safe. All are accounted for, and Bukit Barisan along the southwest coast of Sumatra is fine, too. But the reports are devastating. Though my personal friends were not lost, the country is collectively, physically and emotionally devastated. And these are people I love.