Indonesia is a beautiful country with tremendous biodiversity, culture and spirit. I ventured out to Indonesia to visit my friend and colleague Wulan Puspirini, a wildlife biologist working for the Wildlife Conservation Society in her home. Wulan's responsibilities include coordinating conservation efforts for orangutans, tigers and rhinos, but she also has an interest in elephants and various other species. During my visit we trekked in the rainforests of Sumatra to view rehabilitated orangutans in Bukit Lawang and took at two day boat trip to Komodo Island to see Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat. In between these adventures, we visited a colleague of hers, Hariyawan Wahyudi, a field biologist conducting carnivore field surveys in Baluran National Park, Java.
Baluran National Park is located on the east coast of Java. In fact, you can easily see Bali from the coastal shores of the park. Baluran is also known for its grassland savannas dotted with acacia trees- a landscape that earned the label "little Africa". I must admit, after so many years in Africa, it was surprising to see this landscape here!
Wahyudi was quite busy with several projects, but had particular interest on the Critically Endangered Javan leopard- a subspecies that is thought to total less than 250 individuals.
Javan leopards are a bit of a mystery. They are one of the smallest sub-species and it is unclear how leopards ever got to Java. They are present in Malaysia, but can not be found in Sumatra, the stronghold of the Sumatran tiger. The island of Java is the most densely populated island on earth and that pressure has created a highly fragmented natural landscape with tiny sub-populations of leopards in many of the smaller parks. Wahyudi has created a forum for researchers and conservationists that want to conserve the Javan leopard and he has developed a map of populations with potential corridors between them for genetic connectivity. Now, he is focused on the leopard population in Baluran. He has GPS collars to fit onto 3 leopards and enough motion-sensor cameras to set up a park-wide population survey.
While visiting with Wahyudi and his colleagues, we discussed how to set leopard traps and the keys for setting up a rigorous grid for camera based population surveys. We spent the day visiting his trap, pouring over maps and equipment. At night, we drove along the main roads of the park. Many visitors from Banyuwangi town were still in the park driving after dark. This underscored the threats that poachers could have on endangered species like the Javan leopard- valued for its pelt. As the evening sky grew dark, we took out the spotlight to view the noctural animals- palm civet, leopard cat and then she came out into the road... a Javan leopard. We quickly lowered our lights as not to frighten her. She was walking towards us at last glance, but stepped off the road again. As we slowly approached and turned on the light, there she was, sitting not 10 feet from the road looking up at us. This was my first Asian leopard and considering the status of Javan leopards, I felt privileged.
Though numbers are low, many local researchers are optimistic. First off, leopards are highly secretive and tend to move around with little notice. Second, conservationists feel that the landscape in Java has undergone all of the habitat fragmentation it will likely see. The national parks are strong and will stay in place. Third, palm oil plantations, a major source of habitat fragmentation, are havens for leopards. Plantation owners do not seem to persecute leopards or their prey that live in these large tracts. Poaching, however, is still a major concern and leopards are a sought after prize.
Wahyudi's research will be the first study of its kind on Javan leopards. To date there have been no collared leopards on Java, so all of his data will shed light on this elusive and Critically Endangered species