Guest post by Jessie Panazzolo
I had always been told the same thing over and over again from my schooling, the scientific papers I read, and people I met growing up. This was that once primary rainforest was gone and removed from the Earth, it could not grow again. I was told that the forest needed a constant cycling of nutrients to flourish. That without the trees blanketing the ground in leaf litter the soil would be devoid of any nutrients needed to create such rich life again.
I had also been told that important forest dwellers such as the Sumatran Orangutan would only find a home in thick established forests. I had read in many different papers that Sumatran Orangutans, unlike their Bornean cousins, never spent any time walking on the forest floor in fear of the predatory Sumatran Tiger.
Considering all this, you could imagine my surprise and awe when I found myself in the middle of a brand new Sumatran rainforest, barely five years old, seeing orangutans walk the ground in front of my very eyes. It was then that I knew that anything was possible.
Panut Hadisiswoyo, with his passion for saving the Sumatran Orangutan, reclaimed five hundred hectares of oil palm plantation and chain sawed every single agriculturally planted tree to the ground. Over the following years, he and his team from the Orangutan Information Center used guides from other tropical countries as well as observations from the neighboring landscapes to replant the barren land exactly how it would be if it was never destroyed in the first place. Setting foot into this wonderfully restored landscape I was astonished at how many elephant pathways wound through the forest floor and how the dung showed there to be a mix of both adults and babies using this space.
Sumatran Elephants are the smallest elephants in the world to date, distinguished uniquely by an extra pair of ribs at their disposal. They silently move through the forest leaving clues as to their whereabouts such as footprints, dung, pathways, and hair strung from trees where they had scratched themselves. All this evidence of elephant life captivated me as I never once saw an elephant in the forest. With their invisibility, they became my forest fairies, my guardians of the land.
Almost as if Panut had contracted the elephants out to assist with the restoration, the elephants had begun engineering the forest back to its fullest capacity. Their droppings, filled with undigested seeds, made great nurseries for new seedlings which covered the forest floor. In their paths they knocked over trees and logs to create new habitats for smaller creatures. In their footprints the rain that filled them created new ponds for frogs to hatch their tadpoles. As I noticed the human restoration efforts within the field site it was hard to ignore the elephantine contributions.
In the news, the following week, I heard that forty elephants had been poisoned on an oil palm plantation in Aceh, a province north of the forest I was in. Plantation owners despise the damage done by elephants following their old movement routes through their properties and eating a tree or two along the way. Instead of using passive methods to prevent elephants entering their land, they poison water sources and destroy all wildlife that decides to quench their thirst in the deadly rivers. I thought about how the exact same elephants that walked through that property could have easily been the elephants who have been helping build this new North Sumatran Forest. It was then that I realized how important it was to create new safe spaces for these animals.
I needed to tell everyone I could to stop listening to the papers, the scholars, and the teachers, for they were all wrong. We can create new forest habitat to preserve and protect not only elephants but a diverse array of other wildlife just by gathering a team together, putting on some boots, grabbing a trowel, and planting to our hearts content. It is up to us to take the initiative to do something positive and create new homes where old homes have been destroyed. I know that it is possible now to create a forest which barely reaches the age of a human toddler yet has the capacity to house cheeky macaques, majestic hornbills, quirky woodpeckers, and humongous monitor lizards.
On my last night in the forest, after six months of growing within it myself, I sat on the cabin roof and looked out over the canopy highlighted by the orange and pink sky. The forest fairies trumpeted into the night for the first time letting me hear their calls. It was in that moment that I knew it was up to me to tell their story. If we help provide sanctuary to them, they will do the rest, and to perfection at that.
Jessie Panazzolo was an Australian intern with the Orangutan Information Centre, based in Sumatra. She endeavors to help people be responsible tourists. You can learn more at her website, heroictourism.com .
These short animations on the same theme are also great for sharing with kids:
Elephant Grows the Forest by Elephant Reintroduction Foundation on Youtube.