At first it’s a rustling of leaves and you can see the taller trees shake. The ranger keeps calling. Then you catch small glimpses of grey, and then you see him. A sumatran elephant emerges from the undergrowth to come and see us. He’s not wild, we missed the wild herd by a few days. This elephant is part of a Conservation Response Unit, a team of rangers that are working on the ground in Sumatra to reduce human animal conflict and illegal activity in the forest. They do this by walking and covering as much land as possible just watching the forest. On their patrols they disarm traps, monitor illegal logging and where they can try and prevent everything from deforestation to poaching from taking place.
This team is one of our partners on Inaudible, our new landmark work scheduled to premier Summer 2020 at the National Children’s Museum, Eureka! in Halifax.
Inaudible is about things that we cannot hear, the sounds of nature that we cannot perceive with our human ears. It look specifically at elephants and the infrasound that they use to communicate, and from the elephants it then looks at their ecosystem, how we interact with them and by extension all of nature.
The piece is a continuation of our landscape and ecology work, the first of which we created three years ago in Indonesia with Nada Bumi (publication for that project can be found here). And now we are back in Indonesia. In Sumatra this time.
Sumatra is not Java, and it is definitely not Flores (the two Indonesian Islands we have worked on before). There is a different feel here. On our journey we travel long distances, 10+ hours of driving and yet when you look at a map we have barely scratched the surface of the Island. We are out there with Amanda Korstjens, an academic and primatologist from Bournemouth University. She is another partner on this project and our way into the world of research stations and frontline conservation in this critically endangered part of the world.
We travel from Kedah where our journey begins, amongst pristine tall rainforest where we are constantly drenched by early rains, to Langsa. To get there we travel over vertiginous mountains, untouched valleys, that slowly give way to the deforested landscape of conflict palm. It happens slowly, but you begin to spot the palm husks on the side of the road, then you find yourself stuck behind more and more trucks piled high with large palm oil bulbs, and then the factories, standing in clearings and belching smoke cars, vans and trucks cue up at the gate waiting to be paid by weight for their crop. Palm is a major driver of deforestation, in order to grow it farmers clear cut ancient rainforest and grow palm as a monoculture. The plant itself is squat and in the way it is grown most commonly does not provide any of the cover, height and biodiversity needed by the species whose jungle is gradually being eroded. A further issue with palm is that as a non native species it is actually badly suited for the environment, requiring more water than the water tables are able to adequately provide. The final problem with it is perhaps the greatest indignity of all, and this is that it is a relatively poor model of income compared to some other more appropriate crops, but it grows fast, harvests multiple times a year and there are factories (backed by huge multinational agricultural companies) willing to pay.
It’s complicated and hard to watch. The deforestation is tragic, the relative poverty is rampant. As we cross the mountains into the heavier palm related areas our truck is stopped by men claiming to be police they want to know why we are here, what our business is. A bribe gets us back on our way. We try to take photos of the factories as we pass by, but our local guide is uncomfortable with us stopping. Interfering with palm and the business of deforestation is interfering with the people making a hard living and they don’t necessarily take kindly to white NGO style intervention.
We are there to watch, to learn, to record and try to begin to understand what it is to work on this frontline of ecological disaster. And we meet some incredible people. Activists, rangers, researchers, people whose work is making a real difference, the forest is still being cut back but in many places the rate is falling, elephants are still being killed but there was an over 80% fall in the numbers in two years; they are about to start trying to breed the Sumatran Rhino. ‘Nothing is impossible’ we are told.
Into all of this steps us, with a brand new major installation, trying to tell the stories of conservation, to get people to understand why what happens to a tree 12,000 miles away matters, why species survival is now of critical importance. In a piece of work that is about the elephants and everything that sustains them. This first journey has taught us loads and has created the contact we needed so that this work will have real impact. Blurring multi-disciplinary boundaries the work is aiming to create a large sonic dataset of the jungle, creating a mass distributed multichannel sound recording — which will not only sound incredible in the work but also allow for us and our partners to build algorithms to do population counting and monitoring which is a vital task in assessing the health and size of endangered species populations. We are also working on the ground with our imaging toolset — using both LiDAR and a drone to allow us to capture dense point clouds of the forest and its vegetation from which all sorts of readings and studies can lead.
So this is a huge project, with huge stakes and we are so excited to have begun work on it. We return to Sumatra later in the summer for the next phase, so more soon.