Turtle rescue, scholarships and vulcanic eruptions

Dear Friends of Masarang,

Sunday morning early July, a rare quiet moment in North Sulawesi, Indonesia, when more than 90% of the people here in the mountains go to church. I have been having high fevers and bad head aches for the last four days now but this morning my head is clearing up somewhat so I want to give you a little update on what is going on here with Masarang.

Last week we were visited by Dr. David Neidel and forestry people from Yale University ELTI program, who are interested in cooperating with us. We visited some of the reforestation projects of Masarang and saw the agroforestry to start up the process. They were interested in our sugar palms and setting up training programs for rehabilitation of coal mining sites in Indonesia.

We also received a delegation of volunteers from Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. The group joined other volunteers in patrolling the Lalumpe turtle beach and enjoyed the incredibly clear night sky before around 1 am the moon started rising. There are very few such dark beaches left. The only small village at the beach shuts down their few small generators after 10 o’clock in the evening. The beach, which has almost year round has the same high and low tides and the perfect angle for turtles to come on land, is unique (?) in that virtually every night there are turtles laying their eggs just above the flood line in the white sand of the 3 mile long beach. Moreover, there seem to be very few places in the world where we can see five different species of sea turtle laying eggs! Just a few weeks ago a massive leatherback turtle visited the beach weighing an estimated 700 kilograms!

So it was a beautiful night, but during the walk Melky, our veteran turtle protector who patrols the beach for Masarang’s Tasikoki every night, joined by his 11 year old son and Molly his dog, told me that unfortunately there had been another 12 turtles butchered by poachers. But they no longer frequent the beach to kill the turtles there and steal the freshly laid eggs, thanks to our volunteers that now almost every night join Melky and his two collaborators from the village in patrolling the beach. One of the volunteers told me: “Right here, where we stand now, this poacher lifted his machete high and threatened to kill us!” Fortunately that night there was also some armed police joining our patrols and they were able to handle the situation.

That was about the height of the tension. The local people from nearby Tulap village had gotten used to making a handsome extra income from selling turtle meat and turtle eggs to various markets and obviously did not like the changes. Often we noted suspicious cars passing by the road of the Lalumpe turtle beach. Drivers not looking happy… But these illegal operations are hard to crack… We need hard evidence, like turtles in the back of the cars. And when we find the traces of turtles having been pulled through the sand to a nearby house, you do need a search warrant to look inside. And you need an official for official confiscations and they are hard to get after midnight… So we contacted the local village head, Mr. Jakobi, and he completely understood that the turtles were protected and that what the poachers were doing was not doing the village any good and that the turtles might bring more prosperity to the local people when we protect them. So he announced the strict instruction to all people in the village and in every church service to not kill the turtles. Putting one of them to shame in church really brought the breakthrough!

So now the turtles, once they reach the beach that is, are safe and we are able to relocate the eggs to our hatchery in front of Melky’s house. Now on average we release some 300 turtle hatchlings every night! But Melky was referring to the turtles that were caught from boats before they could reach our beach. Those were taken then on land far away from our beach and outside our reach to monitor the situation. So according Melky the only way to stop them from catching the turtles in the open water was to chase them with a boat with a big spotlight to go chase the poachers in their boats. I was so upset that on the spot we decided to buy a small boat to do the patrols. A sleepy lady, awakened just before midnight, offered her boat for sale. The engine had broken down and they had no money to replace the engine but the hull was still in good shape. So after some negotiations, I was able to pay 4.9 Million Rupiah cash at midnight and all that was left was to buy an new outboard motor so we could start patrolling the beach from the sea side as well until the poachers will completely give up their illegal trade. You see the boat in the picture at the top of this blog.

Yesterday evening the mayor of Bitung, a hub port city, came by Tasikoki, together with the head of the army, the planning agency, the head of fisheries, the head of civil works and a lot of other people that did not yet introduce themselves to Simon, Denny and me. “Turtles? I love them!” the mayor said. “They taste great and I also love their eggs!” That was not quite the response I had hoped for… Then we took time to explain that his city, and his harbor was the most important smuggling route for Indonesian wildlife to the Philippines and further away. Gradually it became clear to him that we meant what we said. He came here with his own agenda, he wanted part of our beach to be opened as recreational area. He will give us a permit to sell entrée tickets that we can use to support the station. He will ensure they only use a small part of our beach and that the rest will be fully protected for our coral reef restoration, our turtles and as hatchery for all kinds of fish.

While talking about how to cooperate, amongst others him helping us getting some new outboard motors for our big speedboat that has been laying at the beach for years now because of lack of funds to repair and operate it, as long as we would borrow it also to the army to chase the smugglers and for the officers to sometimes go fishing…, he nonchalantly mentioned that the head of the police in Papua also had two orangutans behind his house! And there were several more orangutans there with army officers!!! Unbelievable. Anyway, thanks to our new cooperation he now was going to arrange a high level meeting with all security personnel, land/air/water, to support us in law enforcement. So as soon as we can get the funding together we will send some teams to Papua to go pick up the orangutans in need there. The mayor said that he would also give up his palm cockatoo and ask other officials in his city to do the same with their illegal wildlife, but all as part of the deal! So all in all a beautiful evening with good results for nature. Simon and Denny, the Tasikoki managers, were delighted.

This last week we also gave 46 students fellowships. During the ceremony they had to listen to some lectures about reforestation and nature conservation but most of the time they listened with full attention. Many happy faces of these young people that otherwise, had it not been for the fellowships of Masarang, would have had to quit their education. Here are some pictures.

Last Friday, we had a training session at the Masarang meeting room, for some 50 students from my ITM university. These are students that come from the eastern islands in Indonesia, the poorest region of our republic. But those are also the islands where many sugar palms are growing. They come from Papua, the Moluccas, Ambon, Ternate, Tobelo, and regions in central Sulawesi and other less known islands. My university is probably the cheapest private university in all of Indonesia and Tomohon is also a cheap place to live, providing thereby one of the very few opportunities for students of these remote communities to pursue a university study. Now under the pilot project for the Village Hub these students can go home paid for by Masarang, as long as they collect lots of data on the sugar palms in their home villages. Therefore they had to learn how to use the GPS, the refractometers, the cameras, how to map and plot, how to execute the questionnaires, etc. Here is a picture of some of them getting instructions.

Just now as I am typing this the Soputan volcano starts erupting. Thick clouds of ash are raining down around me. Just got an SMS from Simon that the ash also had reached Tasikoki, some 50 kilometers away from the crater! The ash will fertilize the rice fields and the forests here and the first rain will clean the leaves of the plants again. Cars need to be washed quickly to prevent damage to the paint. But people are in no hurry! Church services continue as usual. (In the meantime also mount Lokon has vigorously erupted, but has not caused major harm to people or our projects).

My guests are coming to the house. Jean Kern of Orangutan Outreach Europe and Arjen, a volunteer that will assist me designing the eco-village for the Sintang Lestari project of the DeforestACTION program. Rolando, a financial expert, is here to work on the sugar palm business plan. No time to be sick! Thanks for all your support and I will try in between all that is going on to keep you informed.

With tropical greetings,

Willie
Tomohon,
Indonesia