Rahcmat paddles his small wooden canoe up the narrow tributaries of the mighty Kampar River, tall dense walls of thick Sumatran jungle tower on either side of him, with sounds of chirping birds and the high pitched cry of a fish eagle. Slowly, he paddles his way towards the tall reeds to retrieve his fishing trap. The local fishermen drop their fish traps amongst the tall reeds, checking their catch each morning. During the day it becomes too hot and humid. The trap is a large box shape framed with net. “Fishing and farming provide food for our families and brings in enough money to sustain our livelihoods,” said Rahcmat.

FISH TRAPS

The Kampar River forms the backbone of the island of Sumatra along its west coast. Meandering through the Riau province, spilling into the Malacca Strait on the east coast of Sumatra. Restoration Ecosystem Riau (RER), works at making the forest and river sustainable for its inhabitants, guarding against illegal logging, arson, teaching sustainable fishing, hunting, farming methods and providing jobs for the locals, enabling them to live in harmony with nature. RER works with locals who live on the river to help sustain wildlife as The Kampar Forests are essential to village life.

Locals join RER as Rangers to help protect the reserve, plant native species to replenish the natural rainforests of Sumatra, and not to overfish the delicate ecosystem. Sustaining the fish species also sustains their livelihoods. Surrounding villages need to work with RER through engagement, education, and employment which is all part of the process, creating a revitalised landscape where the people can live in harmony with nature.

THE REMARKABLE WORKMANSHIP OF THESE WOODEN BOATS IS PASSED DOWN FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION
SMALL RIVER BOAT
LARGE FISHING BOAT WITH ONBOARD MOTOR
DELICIOUS DEEP FRIED CRISPY FISH
SMALL DRIED FISH AT SUMATRAN MARKET

Drying fish is a great way to preserve large quantities, especially in a developing country such as Indonesia. The fish can be preserved between six to twelve months.

The elders stay in the fishing huts on the river and do all the fishing. Later in the day, the younger people will come to the fishing huts to collect the catch and take it back to the village and markets to sell. Often you will see locals on the side of the road with a makeshift wooden kiosk selling dried fish.

FISHERMAN’S HUT TUCKED AWAY IN THE SUMATRAN JUNGLE
FISHERMAN’S HUT

“In the past the fish was so large that one man alone could not lift a Wallago fish. I was strong and young then. Now none of those big fish exist,” said Rahcmat. His smile fading on his sun wrinkled face.

FISHERMANS HUT
LOCAL VILLAGE ON THE RIVER

These fishermen and their families live in wooden houses on stilts due to rising tides, along the river’s edge. There are thirty households along Serkap River who have relied on this souce of income for many years. “We catch Bagrid catfish, sheatfish, minnows, Wallago, which are much smaller now, and there are many snakeheads,” said Rahcmat. “Women join in the fishing as well”.

“In the rivers of Sumatra giant catfish and stingray are still found and sold for their meat. When I see a very large shadow in my net or under my boat, I know it is the giant stingray.”

GIANT SNAKE HEAD
COOKED EEL
DRIED EEL AT LOCAL MARKET
GRILLED EEL
GIANT STINGRAY

Rahcmat continued his story. “Giant stingrays weighing over eight hundred pounds live in these rivers. They grow much bigger than the giant catfish,” spreading his arms as wide as he could. This is larger than a mountain gorilla. Fishermen don’t target the giant stingrays, but occasionally they get caught in our nets. Giant stingrays are great fighters if they are hooked and can drag boats around the river for hours.”

To smoke fish, the locals use non-resinous hardwood such as malaswood, komodan, rambutan or coconut husk or shell. This will produce quality smoked fish. Softer, rotting, or mouldy wood produce smoke containing a chemical compound, that causes undesired aroma and smells.

SMOKING FISH
SMOKED FISH AT A LOCAL MARKET
LIVE FISH ALSO SOLD AT LOCAL MARKETS
ALWAYS FRIENDLY ALWAYS HAPPY
CASTING HIS LARGE GILL-NET

On the wide rivers Gill-nets and hooks are used. The wide rivers wind their way through the jungles of Sumatra where they end up as narrow tributaries surrounded by dense jungle. They are so narrow that the wooden canoes can just manage to manoeuvre up them.

There are many freshwater fish in the wild rivers of Sumatra. Waders are tiny fish found in freshwater rivers, ponds, and reservoirs. Waders are quite popular in Indonesia, especially Java, and usually consumed by coating in a little flour then frying. Fried wader is crunchy, savory, and eaten with sambal and rice. Tilapia, also called Nila, are eaten by locals, and small crayfish which are delicious.

BABY CATFISH
DEEP FRIED TILAPIA
GRILLED SALTED TILAPIA

The male catfish are smaller and narrower than the female catfish. Its head is up to one inch larger and wider, and they have longer and brighter coloured fins. Female catfish can grow up to one inch larger than males and are wider and rounder than males by one and a half inches in the belly area for carrying eggs. Catfish are slippery and have a moustache. This fish has a soft, savoury flesh and is served with spicy chilli. The most favourite dish is Pecel Lele.

SPICY CHILLI CATFISH
CATFISH ON A BARBAQUE
SPICY CATFISH
GRILLED CATFISH

“In northern Thailand, on the Mekong, a giant catfish weighing six hundred and forty-six pounds was caught many years ago”. But there are a lot of much bigger fish out there,” smiled Rahcmat.

There are many other smaller freshwater fish such as Gurame Fish which live in rivers, ponds, and occasionally come to the surface of the water to breathe air. Cork Fish are also found in rivers, swamps, lakes, and waterways, eating various insects, small fish, frogs, and tadpoles. Often Cork Fish are carried away by flooding into the trenches around the homes or entering fish-raising ponds, becoming pests because they will prey on the pets in the pond.

KISSING GOURAMI

“Our local communities and environment would be devastated if there were a decline in our native fish. Nearly forty per cent of the Indonesian people live below the poverty line, so fishing is a way of life and provides an important food source for millions of people. It’s difficult to say which species are being caught where and in what quantities. In Indonesia and many other tropical developing countries, useful fish data doesn’t exist. This makes sustainable management almost impossible” said an RER ranger

A SCENE ONE SEES ON A DAILY BASIS

In 2014 a small bright red fish was discovered in the Serkap river which is thought to be endemic. It swims to the water surface only in the evening, feeding on algae and zooplanktons. During the day it swims to deeper waters. As some fish species disappear new species appear.

SMALL RED FISH DISCOVERED IN SERKAP RIVER

Let’s hope, with the help of Restoration Ecosystem Riau, the wild rivers of Indonesia will become full once again with local native fish. Who knows, these giants may reappear.

A TIGER CALLED CORINA

SAD EYES

How can we save our precious animals from extinction? Save our beautiful lush natural forests from disappearing? Have clear sparkling rivers and stop pollution flowing into our deep blue sea? Can we have a New Earth after Covid-19? 

Life on earth depends on us. We are the masters of this planet and its future. We, humans, control the world. The only way we can protect our endangered species is by protecting their habitats and source of food.

What if our best memories came from experiences we never planned or expected?

As her rehabilitation took place during the time of Covid, she was named Corina. A memory in time never to be forgotten.

When Corina came to the rehabilitation centre in Western Sumatra, she weighed around 77.8 kgs. Her front right leg had severe injuries from being ensnared in a wire trap. After nine months of treatment at Dharmasraya Sumatran Tiger Rehabilitation Centre (PRHSD) in Western Sumatra, Corina was finally released back into the wild on December 20th, 2020. 

Corina was sedated while her GPS collar was fitted. The vet estimated her to be under five years old, measuring 170 centimetres in length and now weighing at least between 85 to 90 kgs.

She was placed into her rehabilitation cage on the Kampar Peninsula, providing her time to acclimatize with the peat swamp forest condition, new smells, sounds and the feel of her surroundings after the temperate climate of Dharmasraya. There was a pungent smell of dead chicken carcases in her cage. She had been well fed. “As we were about to release her, she looked at us with wide, wild eyes and wrinkled up her nose in a growl”, said one of the rescue team.

Corina charged out of her holding cage, down a narrow path created with strong green netting on either side. Her back legs kicking up dirt, with long graceful leaps as she disappeared into the dense jungle of Sumatra. Ear-piercing shrills of birds scattering into the bright sky above. The sound of the last rustle of her departure. Then it was silent. She was finally free. One could hear her booming roar, a growl, some grunting as she faded into the distant dense jungle. It was as though she was saying thank you and that she was home, free. A bittersweet situation as tears welled up in the eyes of her rescuers, knowing they would never forget this incredible moment. Once again Corina can live wild and free.

The jungle heat was stifling, sticky, as a hot breeze ruffled the leaves on the trees. In the distance the earthy smell of an oncoming afternoon storm.

The government, non-Government Societies, and Corporate all came together and worked together to save Corina. Saving one Tiger may seem small, but it is not.

The Kampar Peninsula is a diverse lowland swamp forest landscape, including mixed peat swamp forest, riparian forest, plantation, tall and short pole forest to a wide range of potential tiger prey species.

Sumatran Tiger population as of December 2018 was no more than 600 on the island. Tigers play a vital role to the environment, and so preserving the peatlands is essential.

Joe Yaggi, a producer, and conservationist, once read a quote that inspired him. It stated that though conservation can be messy, muddy, smelly, bite and stink, and most of the time, wet, the saddest of all is that extinction is silent.

Do you want to live in a silent world, never again hearing wild animals? Let your legacy be remembered on this earth, never dying, but forever living. Timeless. There are so many opportunities to volunteer with and donate to wildlife conservation groups! Volunteer work never ends, and it is rewarding. Let us keep it alive, support this outstanding work and education forever remembered to the world. Let us keep our world evergreen.

At Kerinci, where the Flora and Fauna International Tiger Protection Team is supported, serious threats continue in tiger habitats. From illegal forest smallholders, for coffee in highland areas of the park and, in the west and south-west of the national park, for palm oil.

Around four hundred to five hundred wild tigers are left on the island of Sumatra and are classified as critically endangered.

There are three tropical rainforest national parks in Sumatra. These protected areas are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites because of their outstanding scenic beauty, ecological and biological processes, and natural habitats for long-term conservation. They have been placed on the danger list to help overcome threats posed by poaching, illegal logging, agricultural encroachment, and plans to build roads through the sites. These national parks have varied habitats and outstanding biodiversity, making up 50% of the total plant variety on the island. There are many endangered species on the island, from mammals, reptiles, birds, and plants. 

Wild tigers can live between 15 and 20 years, and in captivity, data suggests even more for tigers in zoos.

Sumatran tigers eat mainly wild pigs, deer, and primates such as macaquesTigers are powerful animals and can take down prey up to four times their size. Being ambush predators, tigers will hunt whatever is available, including fish, birds and humans.

Forests are generally abundant with prey, though problems arise when forest-dwelling communities lay snares to catch pigs and deer for their consumption.

When the tiger’s prey is significantly depleted, a wild tiger is more likely to stray into more populated areas to kill livestock, causing serious and potentially fatal conflict issues with the local people. Snares laid down by the locals to snare wild boar or other animals, are also capable of wounding or killing a tiger. 

FFI Tiger Protection Team warned of a new trend threatening the Sumatran tiger in 2011. Referred to as a poach-to-order coupled with a black market rise in the value of wild tiger parts, this led to an increase in poaching activity? Poaching is not a crime just committed by low-level criminals; it is led by highly organised criminal syndicates. Conservation projects have significantly reduced this threat by carrying out intelligence-led investigations, which in 2017 led to the arrest and conviction of on average one poacher or trader a month.

Due to illegal trade, people hunt endangered species. Wildlife has an important role to play in the environment and therefore we need to preserve nature and its contents, being more vigilant in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem during these uncertain times of Covid-19.

Tigers live in dense sub-mountain, mountain forest to lowland forest and peat forest to survive. All they need is a safe space to live and access to food and mates. In Sumatra, towards the end of the Ramadan fast, traps are laid by the local communities, which creates competition between the communities and tigers for the same food. These rudimentary traps can seriously injure or kill tigers. 

Tigers are left vulnerable to diseases such as Canine Distemper Virus, (CDV), as well as a host of genetic problems caused by a reduced breeding pool when they are fragmented into small groups. Therefore, it is so important to be able to track the tigers by GPS collars.

Wild Cats Conservation Alliance is a partnership between the Zoological Society of London and Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation. Their mission is to save wild tigers and Amur leopards for future generations, raising awareness of their status and funding carefully chosen conservation projects. The current project name is “Kerinci Seblat Sumatran Tiger Protection Project 2000 – 2022”. This project is an ongoing project which was launched in May 2000 and is a collaboration between Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP) and Fauna and Flora International (FFI).

Joe Yaggi is the producer and director of this project. He is also the creative director of “Jungle Run Projects”, an independent production house located in Bali, having created many films about the wild, culture, and wild animals.

The aim is to sustain a natural increase in Sumatran tiger populations in Kerinci Seblat National Park through reduced threat to tiger, prey, and habitat. With effective collaborations between the forest communities, local civil society, national and local government, this can be achieved. The Kerinci Seblat Tiger protection project objectives are:

Firstly, by detecting and containing direct and indirect threats to Sumatran tigers through conserving and protecting wild Sumatran tigers, their habitat, and prey. 

Secondly, to investigate and identify poachers and illegal wildlife traders, their networks, and trade routes, supporting law enforcement where evidence is available.

Thirdly, the Tiger Protection Conservation Units (TPCUs) conduct fair and appropriate law enforcement directly while on patrol. Partnering with other government agencies outside the national park and law enforcement leverages. This has resulted in a reduced threat to the tiger, prey, and habitat, as well as poachers and forest crime more widely. 

Responding swiftly to human-tiger conflicts reported to protect both tigers and forest-edge community livelihoods.

There are six Tiger Protection Units operating. Units are led by a National Park Ranger with ranger members from forest-edge communities. Operational under day-to-day direction from young national park managers who report to the director of the national park.

Carina has a GPS collar which monitors her activity, and enables the rescue team to observe her.

A male tiger will explore an area of around 52 km2 and a female a much smaller area of 27 km2. Their average lifespan in the wild is about 15 years, and in captivity about 20 years. They can reach up to eight feet in size and weigh 117 kg or more, the male being much bigger.

As hard as it is to accept, nobody knows what’s going to happen during these uncertain times.

If we want to thrive during these uncertain times, we need to choose to adapt and embrace our challenges, with the firm intention of allowing them to transform us.

As you embrace life’s uncertainties during this pandemic, be encouraged to make a difference, no matter how small you think it is. It will still make a difference.

Corina will always be remembered in our hearts; how can we forget her. Who knows how far her gene pool will spread, and how many offspring she will produce? Do the right thing, protect our Tigers, protect our wildlife. We just need to remember this time of Covid, and we will remember Corina and her new life of hope.

WILD AND FREE

I have been in South Africa since December 2019, and so much has happened since then. At the beginning of the lockdown, I experienced fear, sadness, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed. Will it ever end? Will life be positively normal? Now it’s December 2020, and how my life has positively changed. A New Year begins.

Sometimes we have to leave our comfort zone to grow and make beautiful.

It’s Christmas eve 2020, and tomorrow I will visit my 85-year-old mother. She is never excited about Christmas but realises how grateful she is. At the end of November, I had to move my mother from her flat of 18 years at an old age centre, into frail care at another old age home. I find moving to a new house can be very stressful, imagine how much more it is for an 85-year-old. Leaving behind her friends and four cats, whom she had from kittens, was a huge adjustment for her. She often says she wishes to go “home”, as she misses her cats terribly. But I do believe it’s the lifestyle of independence she once had that she misses most. Moving my mother has made me realise how being in the moment and enjoying every minute of the day is so important, instead of wishing time to pass. Life is fragile. Let us nurture it.

Shannon Alder once said, “one of the foremost important things we’ll do on this earth, is to let our loved ones know that they’re not alone.”

For me, the new “normal” may be a time of acceptance and new challenges. To manoeuvre forward, embrace it and learn. We cultivate our memories through rituals, and daydreams, joyfully lost in our thoughts. Allow them to live alongside us, offering an everlasting  connection to loved ones lost, bringing comfort and a spontaneous spirit to life. It’s a time for empathy and taking note of my mother share her memories with meNostalgia is often the salvation for the aged; don’t let it fade away.

Helen Keller once said, “whatever we enjoy can’t be lost, and everyone that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

As I enter into a new era, a new journey mindset, new challenges and personal growth, I keep my dreams alive, reflecting. Now is the time to adopt new approaches to a new life: Focusing on the four “M’s” – movement, mindfulness, mastery and meaningful social relationships. Speaking things into being, whether by prayer, journaling or observation. Creating balance through heart and mind. I can’t go back, and I can’t create through past experiences, only forward. Learning self-compassion, kindness, empathy, tenderness, forgiveness, a caring conscious living. Realising my fear and what is in my subconscious.  

How I have changed through these uncertain times! Attitude is everything, no matter what life throws at you. I have focused on my growth and not the situation, gaining more confidence in myself. I embraced this time of being in lockdown, becoming more accepting and resilient, with family support. The way to self-mastery: always remaining a student, keeping an open mind, and staying humble. Though there is pain, it’s how we relate to it, how we work with it.

 “Gift from the Ocean,” by Anne Morrow, she writes. “Loving someone doesn’t mean that we have to love them all the time, every minute of the day. Most of us demand this, and it’s not possible, even if we pretend to. Having little faith in the flow of life, love, and relationships, we are afraid it will never return. Insisting on permanency, duration, and continuity. In life and love, the only continuity is in growth, fluidity, and freedom, as the dancers are free, barely touching as they pass, but partners in the same pattern”.  

My goal is to achieve self-mastery, to become less influenced by outside influences. See how things are, not how they should be or could be. To have a more authentic life experience. Being in the moment, slowing down, embracing more immersive, curious, authentic, and interactive experiences. Building wellness, me-time, cultural experience, mindfulness, sustainability, and happiness into my life.

I have learned new things such as watercolour painting, journaling, and spending more time meditating, building my spiritual and physical fitness. Focusing on a healthy lifestyle and walking in nature. I can’t walk the new path if I am hanging onto the old. This new beginning is a time for emotional cleansing and rejuvenation.

We cannot escape time. We age, and life brings its joys and sorrows. Enjoy as many experiences as you can in life. Travel, engage with people along the way, experiencing their cultures, and indulging in many books. Life is about creating memories to sustain us through sad times and happy times of our lives. As we learn we progress through the journey mindset, learning how to survive what is to come. Let’s focus on the positive and practice gratitude every day.  

 VISHEN LAKHIANI once said. “Pushing ourselves into something new, allows us to discover a world of many opportunities. We’d most probably get hurt along the way, but amazingly once we heal, we’ll be somewhere we’ve never been before.” 

Born in 1917 and educated at Oxford University, Diana Athill was one of the great book editors of the twentieth century. She was also an excellent memoirist, as evidenced by her book, “Somewhere Towards the End.”

For those of us who demand answers to the meaning of life, Diana Athill didn’t mind not knowing it all. Diana died in 2019 at the age of 101.

Life is a journey, let us not forget to embrace it. Looking at the beauty of the world, lets’ take the journey and not focus on the destination.

Words from Sai Baba. “Life is a song, sing it. Life is a game, play it. Life is a challenge, meet it. Life is a dream, realize it. Life is a sacrifice, offer it. Life is love, enjoy it.” 

ELEPHANT FLYING SQUAD

“Why do you call them the Flying Squad?” asked my partner. “Because we want them to run fast,” replied the elephant mahout. My partner chuckled to himself. Meeting these fantastic elephants was such a privilege. As I stroked their trunks, their gentle eyes watched me with interest. Their skin under my hands felt rough and wrinkled, with creases crusted in dirt. Their trunks moving backward and forwards as they touched me, detecting new scents.

The Asian Elephant has gentle eyes and smaller ears than the African elephant, constantly moving its ears to keep itself cool. Elephants can only see short distances of up to twenty meters, but their site improves once in jungle areas and shade. They do have excellent hearing, sense of smell, and tactile sense.

The Flying Squad of Sumatra is a group of domestic elephants tasked with keeping the wild elephants from entering villages. Regular patrols are conducted, guiding any wild elephants found back into the forest and away from populated areas.

Three thousand hectares of natural forest serves as a buffer for wild elephants to find food and play. They are allowed to stay in this conservancy and are never pushed out. With three thousand hectares of forest, the elephants thrive. The Flying Squads also conduct joint patrols with WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature) and government agencies to cover a wider area.

Photo by Aenic

When local people spot wild elephants close to their village, they let the Flying Squad know. The local people are happy with the Flying Squads’ presence and enjoy helping the Flying Squad herd the elephants towards a protected riparian area where elephants like to gather.  This method has proven very effective in reducing conflicts.  “By doing this, we are saving the elephant’s lives as well as protecting the community,” said Simon, the Mahout. Patrols are done twice a week around the concession area to monitor the wild elephants’ movement.

Adei, a bull elephant, and two female elephants, Aka and Meri, were the first elephants to start the elephant flying squad in 1986. In 1987 Mira, another female elephant, was introduced into the Flying Squad.  The biggest is Adei, who was born in 1986 along with females Aka and Meri.  Mira is the youngest who was born a year later.

Mahouts with their elephants

The camp at Ukui, in Riau Province, became the home to these four adult elephants. Simon, the Mahout since 1994, has cared for them through the Flying Squad program, although the camp was not set up until 2005.  Simon’s family is more extensive than most. He has nine children, some of them weighing over four tons each.  “Elephants are sensitive animals,” he explains.  “So, I treat them like children. As they tend to suffer from stress, I make sure that they feel comfortable at all times.” 

In 1994 private sectors were asked to help in conservation efforts, allowing them to adopt animals close to extinction, including elephants.  “Our main purpose and goals are to conserve wildlife,”  explained the mahout who cares for the elephants at Sebanga Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampung, Sumatra’s westernmost province.

In 2005, together with the Natural Resource Conservation Agency of Riau, Teso Nilo National Parks Board, WWF, and other companies in the area, the Flying Squad was set up. In 2006, a camp for the flying squad in Ukui, Riau, was built.

The Flying Squad’s elephants consist of Adei, Aka, Meri, and Mira. In 2009 Meri gave birth to a baby girl, Carmen. Two years later, Mira gave birth to a baby boy, Raja Arman. In February 2007, a new member of the Flying Squad, Lisa, gave birth to Nella.

Photo Brown Elephant On A Sunny day
Photo by Katie Hollamby
Photo of Baby Elephant Sleeping on the Ground
Photo by Katie Hollamby

The Indonesian elephant is a beautiful animal, but its numbers are dwindling.  There are approximately one hundred found on the island of Sumatra.  As their habitats get smaller, they inevitably contact humans, where they can damage crops and property.  Now two Elephant Flying Squad teams patrol the forests leading wild elephants away from human settlements.  

Simon, the mahout, takes care of the elephants he considers to be a part of his family. For more than a decade, Simon, his wife, and three children have called the Ukui Estate in Sumatra’s Riau province home, and the six elephants’ part of their extended family.  Simon finds elephants really amusing animals,  especially when it comes to playing with them or bathing them.

“Because elephants can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, like humans, our responsibility is to take care of them, as well as protecting them from being attacked and injured by other wild elephants.  Our constant affection and dedication toward the elephants ensure that they never slip into a critical condition but remain in a healthy state”, said Simon.

Person Feeding the Elephant

The elephants are cared for by a team of nine mahouts and two veterinarians who conduct regular health checks. The elephants have thrived under their care, bolstering their numbers with baby Meri’s birth in 2009 and Raja Arman two years later. There is a strong bond between the mahouts and the elephants.

“Our interaction with the elephants begins in the morning, starting with bathing, feeding, and health check-ups, followed by playing until the afternoon,” said Dodi, another mahout.   Elephant health has dramatically improved. They receive adequate veterinary care, can move and feed in the forest, are bathed daily.  They are fed a regular good diet and are strong and healthy.  Each elephant can consume up to four hundred kilograms of food daily, consisting of rattan, tree trunks, breadfruit, watermelon, banana, pineapple, and tomatoes. Once a week, they are also given brown sugar, cassava, corn, bran, and salt to boost their energy.  

Mahouts playing soccer with the elephants

The flying squad is a great example of how the government and the private sector can protect the environment, benefit local communities, and conserve endangered elephants.  Besides solving conflicts, the Flying Squad’s existence also conserves this critically endangered species, with the Squad successfully welcoming six healthy calves so far.

Across Asia and Africa, the human-elephant conflict has been a problem in the habitat of many elephants. The Flying Squad has proven to be a highly successful model for reducing friction between people and elephants.  I hope that with more significant resources, more squads can be established to prevent elephant and human deaths that don’t need to happen. 

Helping bath an elephant
Woman Standing in Front of Black Elephant
Photo by Alexandr Podvalny

There are many opportunities to volunteer and work with elephants. Kindred Elephant Sanctuary, Chaing Mai, Thailand, allows volunteers to come and help bring elephants back into their natural habitat and observe their natural behaviors in their home environment. Recently graduated university science students can do an Elephant Research Internship through Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, getting practical work experience with elephants. This way, we can all contribute to preserving wildlife.

Photo by Katie Hollamby
Photo of an Elephant Carrying People on a Green Grass Field
Photo by Kelly Lacey

Visit the Island of Sumatra, ride with The Elephant Flying Squad, and observe how these amazing animals take care of their wild friends, gently guiding them back into their natural habitat. Getting to know the individual elephants, their charming personalities, and unconditional love and affection for their humans – and conversely – is an experience I will never forget.

FEAR BEYOND BORDERS

My 2020 plans had changed overnight. What would this mean? Flying out of Indonesia, I had no idea that I would not see my partner again for quite some time. I was about to experience a journey into and out of a countrywide lockdown, a time of confusion, emotion, reflection, and personal growth.  

After my South African trip, I had planned to fly back to Indonesia. My plans now organized, It was going to be an exciting year, I thought. All my travel plans for 2020 are on hold. Normality had only been a few weeks ago, with reality stretched into the distant future.

Arriving at Johannesburg airport beginning of December, my partner and I were finally on African soil. In the next half hour, we would catch our flight down to Durban. Stepping off the plane at Durban airport, we smelt a whiff of rain before a storm. A local African band greeted us as we walked through arrivals, with sounds of drums, flutes, guitars, rattles, and shakers resonating around us. These were the sounds of the rhythm of the African spirit. A strong aroma of coffee wafted through the air from the Mug and Bean restaurant. We looked forward to spending Christmas with our families.

We planned to spend a couple of weeks with my partners family before I headed to Pietermaritzburg, a large and vibrant country town in the midlands of KwaZulu Natal, to spend Christmas with my mother. Driving through the suburbs on our way home, we could smell a hint of spicy samosas and smoky boerewors braais in the air. These were the smells that reminded us of South Africa.

Unfortunately, just before Christmas, my partner had to return to Indonesia for work. He suggested I stay a little longer in South Africa and spend quality time with family. Unbeknown of what was going to be ahead of us.

There had been much talk and reporting of a virus called COVID-19 from China. The reports were frightening, and I felt a low level of anxiety starting to grow. 

Since there have been many theories where this virus originated from, but really, where did it originate?

Being aware of this new virus, I continued with day to day activities, shopping, going out to lunch, going to parks, beaches, and spending time with family and friends. I could feel my anxiety growing as I watched the statistics escalate around the world.

There was a relaxed atmosphere milling amongst the people in the supermarkets. Before the South African president’s speech, South Africans were aware of “corona.” Still, they weren’t too concerned about it, as there were only a few cases reported, of which were international travellers. “What do you think about this coronavirus?” I asked a local in the Supermarket. “ I don’t think Africans will be affected. It is quite serious; I think we can still go to church and pray,” he replied. It was going to be a challenge, changing the behaviour amongst South Africans who felt it was necessary to still go to church to pray, defying the appeal to avoid crowded spaces. Were these people in denial, or just didn’t know what they didn’t know, or understand?

As this virus rapidly spread to different countries around the world, people started dying. With heightened anxiety, every morning and evening, we watched the news wandering what was going to happen.

I witnessed hundreds of people queuing down the roads in Pinetown, waiting to collect their pensions from SASSA, South African Social Security Agency. Some people would stand there all day. There was no social distancing. How would this be controlled?

South African health workers decided to be proactive by going from house to house, looking for positive cases before hospitals became overwhelmed. Triage field hospitals set up to treat people who tested positive. Hospitals would receive critical instances only. These are still early days and a long hard struggle ahead.

Finally, the South African president announced the lockdown for the country. I was dreading having to remain in lockdown for 21 days, not being able to go out. It was going to be a challenge. Fortunately, I had a large garden to walk around and a swimming pool for those hot African days. So many people didn’t have these luxuries.

Fear started to rise within me, and I prayed that I would not lose any loved ones or close friends during this crisis of the COVID-19 virus.   

A large percentage of people in South Africa have no health insurance and rely on public clinics and hospitals. These facilities are overcrowded, understaffed, and unhygienic. Hundreds of people of different cultures sit shoulder to shoulder waiting, being aware of possible TB and HIV cases amongst the crowd. Now Covid-19. Some people in wheelchairs and walkers. How would these people get their medications in the future?  

Compounding the situation that there is a high unemployment rate in South Africa. Expecting these people not to go to work is not going to be an option as they needed the money to support their families with food. Education was critical, but how would this be possible for people who had no access to information or social media?  Explaining to people why they mustn’t shake hands, hug each other or go to gatherings, that this was not acceptable anymore. Local people did not know where to seek help. So many of them didn’t even have the basics. 

We decided to help our security guards in our suburb by making them face masks and buying them hand sanitizer, supporting them and our domestic staff by continuing to pay their wages until they could return to work. We would get messages from the guards and staff thanking us for looking after them.  

I was pleased that I had made a trip to Pietermaritzburg to spend Christmas with my mother three weeks before returning to my partner’s family in Durban and then on lockdown. I was not going to be returning to Pietermaritzburg for quite some time. Neither was I going to be flying back to Indonesia, let alone visit my family in the U.K. 

I now had to make plans for groceries and pharmacy home deliveries, as well as for my mother in Pietermaritzburg. My 2020 plans had changed overnight.  

Elderly poor people who were reliant on an income to support and feed their families were going to suffer the most and could starve during the lockdown. Whole families living in one room cannot distance themselves from each other. Poor people living in squatter camps were so close to each other. Their shacks made of wood, cardboard, tin, and other scrap material. The size of a garden shed. These people would use fires for cooking and candles for light, often causing accidents and fires. If one person got sick, it would spread rapidly like wildfire amongst these people. Thousands would die.

I decided to head for Checkers first thing in the morning to get some supplies. It seemed everybody had the same idea. I have never seen so many people and ques going all the way to the back of the Shop. People were emptying the shelves, panic buying, standing trolley to trolley. 

There were reports of people fighting in Supermarkets over items. People were panicking. Fear would become more dangerous than the virus itself, as it affects our immune system and mental health.

The virus had now changed my day-to-day routines, leaving me with more time to start new routines and habits.  My partner and I sent messages via WhatsApp and connecting via facetime. We were lucky to have social media to communicate, where so many people didn’t. We discussed our days, work, and new projects and online courses we could do.  

Now was a time to reflect on our lives and what was important to us. Reassess our priorities, learn new things, reassess medium- and long-term plans, and revise our goals. We encouraged each other to keep a positive attitude, as this would be a period of fear amongst many around the world. “ This seems like world war three,” I said to my partner. “Yes, and we can’t even see our enemy,” he replied. Though we were both anxious, it was essential to know that we were both safe.

I seized this opportunity to help struggling friends. It was vital to express our concerns to one another and feel heard. There were feelings of frustration, struggling with long-distance separation, and mental health issues. I felt motivated by helping my friends by improving my journey through positive mental health. Knowing I could make a difference and making my life meaningful during this time of struggle. I would talk to them weekly to see how they were coping, giving them support and encouragement when feeling down, and sharing with each other what we were doing. Some of my friends also had partners working in Indonesia and they were happy someone else understood what they were going through that they were not alone.  

During this time of crisis, we would see selfishness and generosity, compassion, and bravery amongst people around the world. In some countries, local people have reported seeing many more dead bodies than the number of deaths reported via media. Were these additional deaths from the coronavirus? If the reports were not correct, the general population wouldn’t be aware, and so the death rate would continue to escalate.

Amazing things were happening around the world in many countries. Wild animals came out of forests and roamed the streets of towns. Was this because there are no traffic or people? Shaggy mountain goats strolled down a sunny lane in Llandudno, Wales.  Grazing on grass verges and in gardens. Coyotes were roaming streets in San Francisco. Monkeys by the hundreds running across streets in Thailand, scrounging for food outside shops. Some monkeys even took to street brawling, tumbling, and screeching –  Sika Deer in Nara, Japan, wandering the streets, standing outside shops. New Orleans had swarms of rats roaming streets for food. A wild Puma in Chile walking down the streets. A female wild boar and her six baby piglets trotted down a street in Bergamo, Italy. Wildlife had total freedom, and nature was thriving. Mother Earth would continue to survive if the human race disappeared. What would happen after lockdown, I wondered when all the people started appearing again?

I appreciated living in the 21st century, where I could communicate with my partner via facetime, or WhatsApp. Thousands of poor people didn’t have these privileges. Though we are thousands of miles apart, we still feel connected, sharing how our day has been and giving support. During this time, it is vital to show empathy to our loved ones and family.

Life is a journey. There are times when it teaches us many lessons, reflecting on the values of life. Now will be one of those times for people to reflect, appreciate their families, and loved ones even more. Accepting the situation we are in and how fragile we are. A time to heal, practice gratitude, continually being aware of our attitude. During this time of crisis, I continue to document my personal experiences in a diary. Journaling and sketching as I gain knowledge through direct experience. This COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly go down in history.  

I could find some positive things in this situation. If anything, at least I would have had quality time spent with the family in South Africa, creating precious memories.

Older people will feel lonely and isolated. Living on their own without internet access. Not being able to see children and have a hug can lead to depression, anxiety, worry, and feelings of being exceptionally cut off. It is vital to create a check-in rota every day. Regular phone chats can be a lifeline for the elderly, especially parents in age care. 

Phoning my mother daily, kept her positive and talking about fun and distracting things. Encouraging her to play music, do something in her flat and go out into the garden and just potter, getting some exercise, explaining that sunshine is essential for her mental health. I ordered her groceries and medications online, adding little surprises like chocolates, biscuits, and lovely hand lotion. These little surprises would lift her spirits.  

“I’m finding it hard dealing with this lockdown, not being able to see friends, go out to shops. I’m so used to being independent, now I have to rely on my children for help. I feel I’m being a burden,” she said.  I explained to her that asking for help did not make her a burden on anyone.

I encouraged my mother to talk to the nurses at the aged care anytime she felt she was struggling for any reason. Having feelings of isolation and anxiety was ok as this was not a healthy situation we were going through. I reminded her that I would visit as soon as it was safe to do so. 

Arriving in Johannesburg beginning of December seemed so long ago, as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. Skies remained bright and roads clear and quieter, birds continued to sing, nature grew like never before. Life appeared simple, calmer in a better way, but for how long. Now was a time to heal ourselves and heal our planet. I had no option but to be patient and guard my mental health and attitude against fear, knowing that someday this would end and there would be a new beginning.

Arriving in Bali airport on a Saturday morning I was engulfed by the fragrance of frangipanis and incense as I headed off to meet my hostess buddy, Julie, at her art shop in Seminyak.  I was so excited that I was finally about to partake in some Hindu ceremonies.  After we had chatted for quite some time, I asked Julie where she had parked her car.  “No car”, she said, “we do motorbike, Island style”.  Julie chuckled at the amazement on my face.  This was about to be a noteworthy ride with all my baggage.

I met Julie on one of my Bali trips five years ago. I had become fascinated by the little shrines on each corner, as well as those in their homes. The many ornate temples and statues around Bali, and the dedication of the Balinese women putting out their offerings and incense at shop entrances, motivated me to find out more regarding the Hindu faith.  Having grown up in a Christian family and being familiar with our traditional churches, I found the Hindu faith extremely foreign and complex.  This is a colourful faith, with a bold dress and much celebration of their many gods through a host of blessings, offerings, and ceremonies, as well as ornate temples and shrines. There were statues of Balinese female dancers, elephants, lions, and dragons that looked like demons.  Frogs, monkeys, and pigs.  A mixture of all kinds of statues.  I was interested to find out what they all meant and wondered, as a Christian, would I succeed in partaking in a Hindu ceremony myself?  

 While Julie and I sat chatting about her photography in her shop, she offered to take me on a scenic drive.  While admiring all the gorgeous temples, Julie mentioned that she was Hindu. “Tell me about your Hindu faith, Julie,” I asked. Julie patiently explained to me the Agama Hindu Dharma faith.  I asked her if I could partake in the ceremonies with her. “Yes, in fact, please come and stay with me once my home is finished being built,” she said with excitement.  After my visit, I flew back to Australia, then onto South Africa.  Julie and I continued to keep in touch.  A couple of years later, I took Julie up on her offer to join in some of the ceremonies with her.  I had told her that I would like to write a story about the various ceremonies and felt having a personal experience would enable me to have a deeper understanding of the Hindu faith.  What better way to do it than to stay with an Indonesian Hindu family, I thought?   So, I flew back to Bali to start my Hindu adventure.  

Agama Hindu Dharma is the style of Hinduism practised by the bulk of the population on the island. It includes Trimurti, the Indian trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.  Having a personal exposure to living with a Hindu family and partaking in their ceremonies was an exceptional privilege for me. It enabled me to search out a lot more information regarding Agama Hindu Dharma firsthand. Balinese Hindus are known for sharing the different aspects of their religion to outsiders, allowing you to visualize for yourself how Bali attained its nickname, Island of the Gods.  

Ganesha, the elephant god, appeared to me as chubby, happy, and playful in a childlike appearance.  He is referred to as the lord of good fortune who provides prosperity, fortune, and success, as well as protection against diversity.

Narasimha who is part lion, part man destroys evil. Strong and powerful in appearance he is seen to end religious prosecution and calamity on earth, thereby destroying dharma. He is the great protector who specifically protects and defends his devotees from evil and is celebrated in many regional Hindu temples, texts, performance arts, and festivals such as Holika prior to the Hindu spring festival of colours called Holi.

While fun-loving Hanuma the monkey god is greatly admired and adored in the Hindu religion. He is said to be spirited, restless, energetic, inquisitive and mischievous. This we certainly do know about monkeys.  He symbolises physical strength, perseverance, and devotion, and so the list goes on of many other gods and supernatural beings on the Island of Bali.

Then we have Manduka, the frog god who is always alert and ready to respond to nature’s timings, even with a smile across his face.  He is also referred to as the bringer of rain, nourishment, and cleansing. In monsoon cultures, the croaking of frogs is compared to a rain charm. Frogs symbolise rebirth and adaptability, due to their visible life stages as a tadpole becoming a frog, a symbol of reincarnation. 

That evening at Julie’s house, dinner consisted of rice accompanied by spicy vegetables and chicken.  Rice is usually consumed at each meal, typically with duck, fish, or pork.  Being poor, this family might only afford a bit of chicken or fish, a few vegetables and fruit, that they obtain from local vendors on the roadsides.   After dinner we brushed our teeth outside of the shower using a tap, spitting on the floor then washing the toothpaste down the drain.

I woke to the crowing of a rooster the following morning and consumed coffee and deep-fried bananas for breakfast. It was delicious.  Through the morning, I noticed the neighbour washing his roosters in soapy water.  Amazingly, they didn’t appear to mind. Then he put the roosters back into their woven bamboo cages.   “Does he place them on show, sell them or use them for cockfighting?”  I asked Julie.  “No”, she said, “he simply keeps them as pets, treats them as his children.”

“Now it’s time for you to learn how to make an offering,” Julie said.  In a small woven basket, Julie placed a banana leaf at the bottom, then a banana, another fruit, sweets, and flowers on top.  “Just follow what I do.  Typically, I place in rice, depending on what I actually have at the time.  In our culture food is a present from Brahman and  there are several  rituals from day to day.” Explained Julie.  “Now you’ll be able to take these offerings and place them within the temple,” she said.  I walked up to a brief flight of stairs to a rooftop where her little temple was and placed the offerings on the altar and a few around the base.

Canang sari is a daily offering by Balinese Hindus, conveying praise and prayer to the Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the three major gods known as the Trimurti as well as the supreme god of Balinese Hinduism formally known as Agama Hindu Dharma.   You can see Canang sari within Balinese temples on little shrines, in homes, and also on the ground or part of a more significant offering. The flowers on the offering are symbolic of essential devas: white flowers facing east for Iswara, red flowers facing south for Brahma, yellow flowers facing west for Mahadeva, and blue or green flowers facing north for Vishnu. These offerings are given daily to Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa as a thanksgiving for the peace given to the world. The philosophy behind the Canang sari is selflessness since they take time and energy to arrange.  

Dharma in Hinduism means ‘duty,’ ‘virtue,’ ‘morality,’ even ‘religion,’ and it refers to the power that upholds the universe and society. Hinduism is a spiritual, philosophical, and cultural tradition that developed in  India together with their sacred writings.  The Hindus believe in a supreme being who appears in many forms and natures, but only in one eternal truth, their desire for liberation from earthly evils, and their belief in reincarnation.  

Balinese adopted both Hindu and Buddhist concepts, which is why you see statues of Buddha in Bali.  Therefore, the part of Indonesia, where these ceremonials and traditions are still being done, is in Bali.  Every day, the folks of the island make offerings of food and create various things for the gods. 

“Our God is the creator and upholder of all life,” said Julie.  “The seeds we sow, cultivate, and eventually harvest is thanks to god’s blessings and beauty.  Therefore, out of feeling and devotion, we offer especially good food to god. This can then be shared and distributed as prasadam or blessed food. Once consumed with love, the prasadam purifies the mind and senses.”

I associated Bali with seemingly endless ceremonies and celebrations, with sounds of water buffalo horns beating metal,  high pitched melodies from bamboo flutes, gongs, cymbals, and hand drums.  I felt myself being transported to an extraordinary world, a region to escape from a way of life immersed in technology.   Balinese robes are ornately embellished in a rainbow of extremely bright colours: fuchsia, violet, turmeric yellow and fiery red. The colours red, white, and black mean, respectively: Brahma the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.  From the last day of May till the first week in June, there’s a lot of prayers, feasting, visiting friends, and salutation.  Balinese prefer to tell stories and build drama through their dance and music.  June tenth is Kuningan – the ending of ceremonies and the time for the gods to come.   The remote villages of Karangasem within the hills around the holy mountain of Lempuyang celebrate in their own inimitable fashion. 

Once again, after waking to the crowing of a rooster and also to the excited chattering of youngsters, Julie, Amy, and their cousins went down to the beach for a swim, arriving back at nine for a bowl of rice and green bean stir fry breakfast.  “We are going to the purification ceremony now, just beyond Ubud at the waterfalls,” Julie said. “We must wear brightly coloured sarongs, and anyone can participate in the ceremony, making offerings in bamboo woven bowls with flowers, incense, and a small amount of money inside. “

A large crowd gathered at the waterfalls in their brightly coloured apparel.   Religious leaders reciting mantras, families walking, and talking, placing their offerings and incense on the alters.  The people then walked all the way down to the waterfalls, still in their brightly coloured apparel.  Standing beneath the waterfalls,  they raised their arms higher than their heads shouting. I questioned whether or not this was through sheer praiseful joy toward their immortal deity or the magnitude of water falling on their heads; whichever, everybody was happy, enjoying the experience.   The energy from the waterfalls is said to come from the Hindu deity Shakti.  Her spiritual power flows, cascading down from the mountains of affection and meditation, creating strong healing properties in the flowing water.

Families then made their way up another flight of stairs to a pool where they stood underneath waterspouts from the mouths of carved Dragons within the rock.  Exiting the pool, in their dripping garments, they stood in front of the priests to receive a blessing.   As I sat on a low stone wall under a tree with Amy waiting for Julie to complete the ceremony, I watched the families make their way up to some food stalls, then sit underneath the trees to have their picnic lunch.

After the waterfall ceremony, we drove up to Kintamani, slightly below the volcano, through the misty rain, where temperatures drop below seven degrees. Arriving at her parent’s house, we sat down on the ground in their living room to eat rice and fish out of paper wrappings.  Julie explained that the Balinese additionally participate in a purification ceremony at Bali’s sacred pool, the Holy Springs of Pura Tirta Empul, situated inside the village of Manukaya. We arrived back at Julie’s house at eight-thirty that evening. Exhausted, we fell asleep.

Tuesday morning, Julie and I left for Seminyak.  While she worked at her photo gallery I went exploring.  That evening, on our way home, we met a friend of hers for a meal of rice and deep-fried duck at a local eatery. It was surprisingly delicious.

The following day we spent the morning relaxing at home,  helping Amy with her English schoolwork.   Wearing a sarong and long sleeve laced jacket in bright orange and an oversized scarf tied around my waist, Amy, Julie, and I headed up into the hills in the early evening to a different temple encircled by trees.   A row of food stalls was set up outside the temple, with twinkling fairy lights strung between them.  Starting the ceremony outside the main temple we placed our offerings on an altar with sticks of sweet-scented incense.   Sitting on the ground with the people facing the priest, we prayed.  Then the priest blessed us with water by sprinkling some on our heads for purification, and within the palms of our hands.   We sipped the water from our palms, meaning purification of speech, then passed our hands over our head after the fourth time. 

In Bali, Hindus still don’t read a written book when they perform Puja (worship). They learned from a lontar, a manuscript that has traditionally been written by hand on palm leaves. Before they recite the Ramayana Kakavin, the lontar is adored. (Rama meaning God, Aayana meaning way, Sutasoma Kakavin meaning Indonesian Hindu scripture).   Then there is a special ritual of lifting the sacred book and carrying it throughout a procession.  Delivering it to a particular place on the ground doing the bhumi puja (mantra), worshipping, and consecrating the ground where they place the book down. The priest will then sit and recite the Ramayana.

Moving into the inner part of the temple, we repeated the recitation of the Ramayana ending by receiving a Tridatu, a blessing bracelet from the priest. It consisted of three colours of thread, red, white, and black.  “Julie, what does this bracelet represent,” I asked.  “These colours are for  Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, the Gods we pray to, additionally they also mean birth, life and death,”  she said. As we walked out of the temple on a path lined with trees, food stalls, and twinkling fairy lights, I found the atmosphere relaxed and calming. 

One day rolled into the next, but all too soon I was leaving behind the easy-going atmosphere of the island,   gamelan music, scented frangipanis, and sweet-smelling incense.   I flew out of Bali the subsequent morning.   My personal Agama Hindu Dharma experience had given me a deeper understanding of what the Hindu faith was all about.   Having partaken in the different ceremonies, I had learned about the different offerings and ceremonies and what they meant.  I felt this would give my story more soul and meaning and that I had achieved what I had set out to do:  have a personal experience with the Hindu faith.  It was now a little less complex and foreign to me.  The sheer dedication of these folks, their kindness, and amazing hospitality, happy and content with their simplistic lifestyle will always be an experience I certainly will never forget.

Tiger Walking on Brown Rock
Photo by Robert Stokoe
brown tiger lying on gray rock during daytime
Photo by Laura Nyhuis

What is up with the cats’ tails? I asked a local. If you have ever been to Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s larger Islands, you would have definitely noticed, and perhaps be bemused by, the strange tails that adorn the pleasant feral cats. Some are stumpy, some curly, some crooked, some are just average, long and slender.  I asked a local about the curious cat’s tails, and he shrugged and said, “They are just born that way.”

My husband and I arrived on the Island of Sumatra to do some volunteer work in a small town in the province of Riau surrounded by the jungle. I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.

Coming across a black cat, she watched me from a safe distance with her big green eyes. She was standing next to a table, and as I ventured closer, I saw three kittens, possibly a week old. She meowed at me and seemed quiet, tame for a feral cat. She obviously was used to human contact, as some food had been put there. Maybe someone had dumped her when they found that she was pregnant. I asked some other local people in the area if she belonged to anyone, but, like the last guy, they just shrugged. “Many people had cats in the town,” one of them said. As someone was obviously feeding her, I left slightly less concerned and went back to our house.

 Eating a slightly spicy version of nasi goreng, a popular Indonesian fried rice dish with pieces of meat and vegetable added, at one of the local eateries, a cat sauntered by, gave me a bored look and kept going.  Then it happened again with another cat. And again. These cats weren’t hungry. They seemed satisfied, well fed and content. Another strange thing was that they had stubby tails.  

This town had so many feral cats and at least ninety percent of them had stubby tails. They would wander around the town, sleeping in shops, lay outside shops, on top of tables and under tables, being fed by the locals. They also survived in the Sumatran jungle. Many Indonesians believe that cats with short tails or no tails are better ratters, so they look after them.

But how did they get here?  I decided to look into it.  It seems that some of the cats in Indonesia and elsewhere through Asia may have descended from the Japanese bobtail breed.  According to informed popular belief, most of the cats got wiped out by some poison spread by the Japanese during occupation during World War II, and so there was a rat invasion. Cats were likely imported from Japan and China. This mixed with interbreeding has increased the chances that a cat will be born with a smaller tail.  

It is also believed that the small Indonesian cats are not descended from domestic cats, but small jungle felines. They are cousins of the true Siamese cats. Their bodies are narrow and flexible. The muzzles are square, and the eyes are large in proportion to the face to aid in hunting in dense foliage. The feet are very small and the back legs longer than the front. These cats are great jumpers.  

I decided to go back to see if the feral cats were still where I had last seen them, which they were. The mother cat had patches of fur missing all over her body. This was obviously from surviving and hunting in the jungle. She had a slim body, pitch black fur, long thin legs, and small delicate features with big green eyes. Very much a Siamese resemblance. I would visit her every day with some food, and when I went away, I would often wonder what would happen to her and her kittens.

With little food and water, in very hot humid conditions, my husband and I decided to rescue her and the three kittens.  We were prepared to do anything to ensure the safety and well-being of the mother cat and her kittens. We put them in the car and brought them home. I noticed the kittens all had long tails with kinks at the end. The mother cat had a stubby tail. Two of her kittens were tabbies, one, in particular, looking exactly like a little leopard cat.  

I discovered that these creatures are called Bengal cats, a crossbreed of an ordinary domestic cat with a leopard cat. They have beautiful natures and can be very affectionate, though some might find them a little aloof. Leopard cats love to catch fish, and Bengals like to play around in their water bowl. I called my two Bengal kittens Tigger and Minx. Tigger was lighter in colour and Minx much darker. Tigger was the most affectionate of the two. Minx didn’t like to be cuddled and was a little bit wild. The Bengal kittens were great furniture scratchers. The third kitten was a female with white paws, so I called her Mittens. She was gentle like her mother. Chloe lived a very rough life before she arrived at my home. She is a cat of courage and poise, with a quiet gentle nature. 

The Bengal cat is one of the fastest-growing breeds in popularity of recent years. Due to its hybrid background, the Bengal has not been accepted by the largest cat registry, the Fanciers’ Association (CFA).  However, the International Cat Association and the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) do register this breed.

Bengal cats

Seeing my new life through the eyes of an extraordinary feline such as Chloe, as a cat lover writing about the feral cats of Sumatra and doing all of this through the eyes of a cat is never less than perfectly endearing.

She would snuggle up to me on the couch or on the bed, and the kittens were always at my feet.

When Chloe fell pregnant again, she gave birth to six kittens in the bottom of my cupboard, all different colours and all with stubby tails.  The second father was discovered to be a large white domestic cat.  With a proper diet, my cats were in really good condition, and Chloe’s fur grew back in the patches. She now had a sleek black coat.

As the first three kittens became young teenagers, they began to do their walkabouts in the jungle, as they still had that wild instinct in them. I would imagine they would venture back into the jungle to find a mate and continue to breed, keeping the snake and rodent population down for the locals. One morning, my little female kitten Mittens, wandered off into the jungle, and of course, never came back.  She had been hanging around a larger male, whom I named Bobbitt, with markings much like a leopard cat, another Bengal feline.  He was very aloof and kept his distance. I guess it was Mittens’ time to venture off and start her own family. At least I hope that’s why she never came back. I never saw Bobbitt again. Since then, time passed and due to being very busy with our work and me doing a fair bit of travelling, I decided to rehome our cats, knowing in my heart, I had given them a good start in life. They are living with loving local families, and I always get news and photos about them. The six new kittens of course are now happily running around.  I have many photos of the cats while they still lived with me, which will always remind me of my experience with these beautiful feral cats of Sumatra, and the privilege of raising a very special breed, the Bengal. Who knows, we might rescue another one.

Feral cat interbred with jungle wild cat

Though small in build, these cats are tough and remarkably intelligent, surviving monitor lizards, which can grow as long as two metres in length, King Cobras, wild boar and other larger wild catsof the jungle.

At least six species of wild cats live, and seem to do so harmoniously, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  The Sumatran tiger is the largest. The Sunda clouded leopards and Asiatic golden cats are in similar size but a little larger than a domestic cat, then the marbled cats and leopard cats, similar size to domestic cats.

brown and black leopard on brown soil
Leopard Cat

  

leopard walking on gray sand during daytime
Sunda Clouded Leopard

Several cat breeds are defined by the morphological variation of the tail. The Japanese Bobtail is a breed that has been accepted for registration only within the past 50 years; however, the congenital kinked tail variants defining this breed were documented in the Far East centuries ago, and the cats are considered ‘good luck’ in several Asian cultures.

We have found the people of Sumatra are some of the most friendly, polite, and relaxed we have met. They are proud of their rich heritage and, despite their isolation, are eager to share what they have with the outside world, including their feral cats. Their smiles are infectious, and their hospitality is unmatched.

We have had the privilege of living on the island of Sumatra for seven months. Known as the “secret valley of Sumatra” by the Dutch, was one of the last places in Indonesia to fall to their control, as late as 1903.  Local cultures remain very traditional, and tourists are few and far between.

I plan to visit my extraordinary cat Chloe in the next couple of weeks. Who knows what interesting stories her kittens might provide for me, and so the saga of the Sumatran feral cats continues? I wonder if she’ll remember me? 


The older boy, short and chubby, seemed the leader of the group. He smiled and waved at me, “Selamat Pagi Bu,” good morning mam. “Selamat Pagi, Apa Kabar,” good morning, how are you? I replied. “I am good,” he replied. “What’s your name,” I asked. “Yogi,” he replied. He sauntered over to me, three younger children in tow. Their smiles never leaving their faces. The older boy took my right hand, and bowing slightly touched the back of my hand to his forehead. The younger children followed suit, some with their forehead, some with the tip of their nose, then ran off with great excitement and keenness to continue playing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wherever I go on the Island of Sumatra, I notice the Indonesian people are very hard workers, given the opportunity.  They rely on fishing as their livelihood and have chickens running around their yards.  These people are very poor. 

Small fish are left to dry in the sun

They believe that the best solutions to breaking intergenerational poverty lies with the next generation.  Having education and healthcare, as well as excellent infrastructure, is a major factor in alleviating poverty.  The brightest students of Southeast Asia leave home to pursue higher education, commonly in the United States, UK, Australia, or the Netherlands. The government spends huge amounts on scholarships for Indonesians to study abroad. Soon this will be changing, with the Indonesian government opening up access to the local higher education sector, through partnerships with private Indonesian institutions, so students won’t need to leave home to get a world-class education. Thus far, the University of Cambridge, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Queensland have expressed interest in operating in Indonesia. The regulations also encompass a mandatory partnership with local private universities. In addition, the only majors they are allowed to offer are in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Having met a number of Asian students in Australia, achieving masters and doctorates in these disciplines, and hearing about their lifestyle back home, having come from such poor backgrounds, I was keen to learn more about their country and see their living conditions firsthand in Indonesia. Most students go back to their countries, offering their skills to improve productivity and economic growth, providing their families with a better life. An example of this was a young man I met.

Madi grew up in the backwaters of Sumatra. His family’s house was built on stilts to prevent flooding, as it was on the river’s edge, with the wild Sumatran jungle as the backdrop. His father fished every day to provide food for the family, as well as working on plantations to earn a little money. They had no electricity or a flushing toilet. Madi was the oldest of six children, and always harbored curiosity for the unknown as he said.  He felt a sense of satisfaction on discovering anything new and vowed to one day find a job that would allow him to keep learning and help his family.

Highly polluted waters
Houses are built on stilts along the waters edge

These children are also subject to work in agriculture, which exposes them to extreme heat, pesticides, and organic dust. Long hours, working with dangerous tools and machinery. These plantations are generally located near villages. Poor quality and low availability of schools and low regard for education in rural areas contribute to a steady supply of child labourers in the plantations.

“I worked hard at school, studying at night by candle light,” he said, “but it paid off. I received my first scholarship in secondary school.”

As the oldest of six children, Madi felt extremely lucky to be able to help relieve a bit of his parents’ financial burden with the scholarship. Through the company that he received his award from, he could get a university scholarship, he, of course, was extremely keen and decided to apply. This would pay for him to study at an agricultural institute, and also allow Madi to gain a full-time job with the company. He felt truly blessed. Though the families are poor, they will make every attempt to send their children to school and university. Fathers working in the plantations and mothers selling fresh produce.

Sitting quietly amongst shabby shacks, dirt, chickens, and cats, in the village, I watch Yogi and a group of younger children hanging on a branch, bending it to the ground, so a little girl could grab the end. “Lihat Bu,” look mam, yelled Yogi. The branch catapults into the air with the little girl hanging on. Letting go, she falls to the ground laughing, amazingly no broken bones, ready to try again. Having such excitement and eagerness for more, I find these children quite adventurous. They then run off giggling to play “let’s pretend.” Yogi, with a big grin across his face, holds up his shoe, “pretend mobile,” to do a “let’s pretend selfie.” The rest of the children quickly stand behind him, looking up at the pretend mobile, grinning with excitement to have their “selfie photo” taken, even though the mobile is not real. A simple pretend game that brings so much joy to these jungle children. Yogi being the leader of the group and quite adventurous, was good at creating something out of nothing. I hoped he would become another Madi someday. Before I left to continue exploring the area, I yelled out to them, “Selamat Tinggal”, goodbye. The children rushed over to me to perform Salim. “Nice meeting you,” I said. “Nice meeting you, too,” they replied. Then off they ran, waving back at me.

Happiness is simple. The cellphone is fake… but the smile… is real

The older people are respected through performing Salim, which is like a handshake, touching the back of the hand to the forehead. When shaking hands with an older person, such as parents, grandparents, and teachers, the younger children are expected to touch the back of the older person’s palm with the tip of their nose or forehead, showing respect from the young to the elderly. This is similar to hand-kissing, except only the tip of their nose or forehead touches the hand, not the lips. This is seen in the villages and amongst families.  

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On the main beaches littered with rubbish, children find coconuts to roll into the surf, over and over again, never getting bored with their simple game. Families fill the beaches with their picnic dinners, waiting for the sunset, a local tradition to end every day. A simple outing, yet so enjoyable and so much excitement.  Food trollies set up along the beach and BBQs burning, oblivious to all the litter.

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As I continue to explore the village, the jungle of Sumatra closes in on me with stifling humidity and heat.  Wiping the perspiration from my face, I continue to walk down the dusty road enjoying the simplicity of my surrounds. I notice how content these people are with how little they have. Poor yet happy, always smiling, waving and saying Hello. Such a humbling experience.  

When greeting or introducing yourself, smiling, shaking hands (Salam), and a slight nod is a kind gesture. A medium to a soft handshake is adequate since gripping too hard can be considered rude or aggressive. It would be considered polite to follow this form of salutation. Generally, in Salam, the equivalent of the handshake is to proffer both hands and gently touch your counterpart’s extended hands, before finally bringing one’s hands back to the chest to demonstrate that you welcome from the heart. Politeness, as well as respect, modesty, and loyalty, is prevalent in the culture. Indonesians believe smiling initiates contact, so it’s recommended to smile back in return. Smiling, toward strangers that you interact with, or someone you have eye contact with, is considered polite, being a social icebreaker and to show that you are approachable. Probably that is why Indonesians are rated the most smiling people in the world.

Content with life itself, they survive poverty, sickness, floods, landslides and deadly roads due to poor maintenance.  When the floods come, the roads break up and leave gaping holes in the road, which are difficult to pass through especially when they are full of water and you don’t know how deep they are.  Traffic is slow due to the condition of the roads, and there are many large trucks, cars and motorbikes over taking on solid white lines, blind rises, blind corners with oncoming traffic. There doesn’t seem to be any road rules. Everyone takes a chance. Some motorbikes are laden with baskets of produce, some have an entire family on, some with helmets and some without.

When the main rivers flood, water flows into the plantations bringing fish with it. Local Indonesians find places to fish wherever there is water, in wide, deep dug canals along the side of the roads, which help to prevent flooding across the roads, and along river banks. Children and adults are quite content with fishing rods, some sticks with fishing line and bait, to catch fish for dinner. Mothers sit on a blanket waiting patiently, who knows what they catch in these waters. I guess the Indonesians are quite resilient, you have to be, living in these conditions. Yet they are happy with the little they have. Again, smiling, waving and saying Hello. I guess innocence is bliss in a way.

Simple games and things Indonesian jungle children do. So little in life, and yet always happy and never complaining. This is a humbling experience about life for me, making me feel guilty in a way.  

As for Madi, having studied in the Netherlands, he hopes to expand his knowledge further in the field of science, continuing his studies at the master’s level, and then working towards his Doctorate. Having had access to a good education, and earning a good salary, Madi is now able to give his family a better life and access to good healthcare, building a new house for his parents’, where they can have electricity, a flushing toilet, and a television. This is proof that access to education and healthcare, and good infrastructure are major factors in alleviating poverty. Madi tells me that when he goes home, he still studies by candle light, of course, until the new house is completed. Such high achievements for a young man from the backwaters of Sumatra. Since meeting Madi, I have come to learn of many young Indonesians who have achieved university degrees, masters, and doctorates. Studying in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, proving how extremely bright and determined they can be, these young people have come from such poor, disadvantaged backgrounds, and yet they still can achieve so much. This is a sheer determination for education and a better life.

ABOUT YOURSELF

A human being is part of a whole……Our task must be to free ourselves….by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in it’s beauty. – Albert Einstein

Hi, my name is Kat.

I am a travel blogger at junglelifebykat.com currently living in Indonesia.

I was born in South Africa then immigrated to Australia in 2009 where I lived for the past ten years. I am now living and travelling in Indonesia. I would like to share with you my travels and experiences on the Island of Sumatra, as well as other parts of Indonesia, interacting with the locals.

As a child I loved exploring my surroundings and burying myself in books, especially mystery, adventure and fantasy. Now I enjoy reading an assortment of Authors such as Lee Childs, David Baldacci, Khaled Hosseini, Bryce Courtney, Sidney Sheldon and the list goes on.

My stories are about the folk on the islands of Indonesia, how they live, how they survive in the jungle and the type of work they do.

Their love for cats, and how the local cats coexist with the wild larger jungle cats, as well as other wildlife of the jungle.

I’d love to connect with other free spirited travellers and bloggers who like to explore local cultures and travel to out of the way places.

I hope to accomplish sharing my many interesting stories about my travels and the locals of Indonesia, and what we can learn about the Island of Sumatra, it’s people and their simple way of life.

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