With only a few days’ notice I found myself in Sumatra for a meeting with conservation partners. A three-day trip into the hutan (the Indonesian word for forest) meant I could travel light with only a small backpack, even though we’d be staying in one of our Conservation Response Unit (CRU) camps for the night. The IEF delegation met with project partners and local officials first thing in the morning, and then ventured out into the field. After a roughly 5-hour car ride along narrow, winding roads that eventually ceased to be smooth or paved, a trip across a river in a handmade canoe, and a hike up a large hill, we arrived at the CRU Seblat camp just before dusk. The CRU overlooked the Seblat River and gave a gorgeous view of this pristine but threatened landscape. As the sun set the sounds of hutan became a constant loud hum which would continue throughout the night as we slept uncovered in the 90+ degree Fahrenheit heat with near 100% humidity.
The next morning the mahouts set out into the hutan to find the patrol elephants. The male elephants are kept nearby camp to protect them from poachers, but since female Asian elephants do not have tusks they are allowed to graze freely. Two or three to a motorbike, the mahouts took off as we started the way on foot. As we hiked a mahout would periodically reappear, one of us would hop onto the back of the motorbike, and together we’d disappear deeper into the forest. Over roots and fallen branches, through shallow streams and mud, up steep inclines and down again, dodging vines and tree limbs, the 15-minute bike ride definitely saved us time while adding some excitement. Thankfully the humidity camouflaged any beads of sweat that might have indicated worry.
We stopped deep into the protected forest, a patch of habitat that would not exist without the CRU Seblat’s establishment and efforts, where there was a small clearing with brush and grass at least 2.5 feet tall. From there we hiked down to a tributary of the river and sat in the shade where two weeks’ prior Sumatran tiger paw prints were found, and we waited for the mahouts and elephants. Sitting on a rock next to a river in the hutan your mind wanders.