In the footsteps of tigers: the all-women patrol team protecting Sumatra’s rainforest | Conservation and indigenous people

“Guess what I found?” Darma Budi Pinem asks the women who have gathered round to see what he has in his hands. “My instincts tell me this is Opung’s faeces,” says Nayla Azmi as she studies the clump of hair, broken egg shells and bones.

“Opung,” in Batak – Azmi’s language – means grandparent, the term used when referring to tigers. The Batak people are Indigenous to the island of Sumatra, the third-largest, western-most island of Indonesia, and many of their legends involve ancestors who formed friendships with tigers that became part of the family.

Azmi, 35, is leading a training session with Pinem, 47, a former ranger for the Gunung Leuser national park (GLNP). She is with the four other members of the Nuraga Bhumi Institute, the all-women Indigenous patrol team that she founded in 2021. Their job is to help GLNP rangers protect 100 hectares of buffer zone territory between the national park’s Bahorok V district and privately owned land.

It is in these buffer zones that trouble occurs. The GLNP was established in 1980 and protects almost 1.1m hectares (2.7m acres) of the 2.6m hectare Leuser ecosystem, a world heritage site that spans the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh, but with many unfenced borders and a shortage of rangers, it is not difficult for poachers or palm oil companies to encroach on national park land.

One of the most biodiverse places on Earth, the Leuser ecosystem is the only place in the world where tigers, elephants, orangutans and rhinos live together in the wild. But all four species are in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as a result of poaching for body parts, illegal hunting and rampant habitat destruction: forest cover in Sumatra more than halved between 1985 and 2014.

When habitats are destroyed, displaced animals such as tigers and orangutans seek food in villages or farms, where they are often seen as a threat to people or crops. They are attacked, killed or captured and moved to sanctuaries or poorly resourced zoos.

  • The team is trained to use drones, to help track wildlife and monitor the forest for encroachment or poaching; a moth rests on Jhugul, a younger member of the Nuraga Bhumi team

“We can’t just sit around while there is rampant poaching or while our Opung live in cages,” says Azmi, who founded Nuraga Bhumi, which means “souls dedicated to the Earth” in Sanskrit, in response to what she sees as a twofold problem in local conservation efforts: a gender imbalance and a lack of Indigenous people.

“I estimate that only about 15% of Sumatran conservationists are women; the percentage of Indigenous women is probably less than half that,” says Azmi, who worked in elephant and orangutan conservation for more than 14 years.

She says local conservation efforts run by men, most of whom are not Indigenous to the territory, are a problem “because [they] come with a certain way of thinking”.

“For one, they aren’t connected to the community. So many of the conservation-related ‘community development’ programmes frame Indigenous people as threats to the forest, who need to be educated or relocated. This mindset devalues the relationship Indigenous people have always cultivated with the forest.”

Azmi adds: “We have to remember that conservation is only necessary as a result of colonialism and the forced displacement of Indigenous people who have stewarded the land for thousands of years. This is the true root of the conservation issues Sumatra faces.”

While the Nuraga Bhumi team have a deep spiritual connection to their environment through their Batak heritage, they have to undergo practical training to learn how to conduct patrols effectively. In sessions provided by national park rangers and Pinem’s organisation, Nature for Change, they learn how to use GPS, camera traps and drones to track and monitor wildlife, to identify and dismantle poachers’ traps, and to report their findings to the park authorities.

A grassroots endeavour funded mainly by donations, Nuraga Bhumi operates from a village called Timbang Lawan, close to Bukit Lawang, the main destination for tourists to experience encounters with wild orangutans.

As the team conducts one of its regular weekly patrols, they come across a mother orangutan carrying her one-year-old baby. “It’s the first time I have seen an orangutan in my life,” says Devi Dawati, 20, one of the newest and youngest members of the team. Visiting the forest is prohibitively expensive for most families in the area.

In addition to their patrol duties, the team of women host a weekly conservation education class for about 75 local children and youths. “Nurturing a respectful bond between children and animals early is key so that they don’t resort to poaching and forest destruction when they grow up,” says Azmi.

Nuraga Bhumi patrol members Wulan Dari, 21, and Selvy Atika, 23, were among Azmi’s first teenage students. Dari is a black belt in taekwondo and shares her self-defence training with the other women in case they come into conflict with poachers.

Dawati joined the team in 2022. Her father died and as the eldest in her family she would have had to seek work abroad to support her mother and siblings, were it not for Nuraga Bhumi. Jhugul (who goes by one name) also joined in 2022, after working in a factory in Malaysia.

The patrol team has the support of the local head of the GLNP, Yosia Ginting. “We, the official officers, can’t do it all by ourselves. We need more partners in implementing conservation of the national park. All of this time, patrol operations have been identified with men, but in reality, women are also able to do it.”

As another day of patrolling comes to an end, Jhugul notices what looks like a tangle of wire.

“It looks like a neck snare,” says Jhugul, as they take hold of the wire loop with both hands and deftly remove it. After marking the location with GPS coordinates and making notes, Dari retrieves a camera trap that has been attached to a tree for several weeks.

Back at Timbang Lawan, everyone gathers around the laptop to watch the recordings.

In the first clip orange and black stripes flash across the screen. “Whoa! It is not easy to get an image of a tiger that close!”

The team is delighted to know that a tiger in the territory they are protecting is safe – for now.

Danielle Khan Da Silva is a National Geographic Explorer. This photography project was produced with support from the National Geographic Society.

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Danielle Khan Da Silva