Steering away from the city’s hustle and bustle, Ating moved home to live near the forest in Togean Islands, Central Sulawesi. His life has changed in the past eight years, from making friends with babirusa to fighting against illegal logging.
“The weather is nice today. The boat will definitely sail,” a ticketing officer assured the passengers at Labuah Post, Tojo Una-Una, to Togean Islands, Central Sulawesi.
It was Saturday morning, 21 November 2022. I was among anxious passengers who wanted to sail to Papan Island, one of the islands in the area. The trip to the Togean Islands was not based on daily schedules because of the unpredictable weather.
I journeyed to Papan Island to visit dr. Ating Solihin in Malenge Village, Talatakoh, Tojo Una-una. One of the most impressive views I remember during the trip to Papan Island was the barenaked hills. The trees had been cut down, leaving only wasteland.
After harbouring at Papan Island, we boarded a dinghy and journeyed another 20 minutes to reach Ating’s front door. Ating chose to leave the busy city life eight years ago. He stays in Malenge to dedicate his life to conservation.
Living within the wilderness of Malenge forest, Ating’s daily life is coloured by the activities of endemic wildlife in Togean, who are sadly living under the threat of extinction. The biggest threats come from the local people who like to hunt down wild animals. Wildlife is also threatened by the massive illegal logging that causes habitat damage.
Togean is the habitat for faunas such as cuscus (a marsupial from Phalangeridae family), tarsius (Tarsius spectrum palengensis), Togean monkey (Macaca togeanus), and babirusa (Babyrousa togeanensis). It is also home to hundreds of flora species and dozens of mangrove species. In 2004, Togean was granted the status of a national park and given a formal name as Togean Islands National Park (TNKT). This status means Togean is considered a conservation area protected by the Indonesian government.
National parks, both lands and waters, function as natural conservation areas with original ecosystems. National parks only can be utilised for research, educational, cultural, cultivation, knowledge, and tourism purposes.
UNESCO named the Togean Islands in Tojo Una-Una regency as the 16th biosphere reserve in 2019 in Paris, France.
Now, Togean is called home by Ating and his wife, Medi, and their two dogs, Maya and Hoki. The happy family greeted me in their front yard.
Behind them were three buildings. The one on the left was a house with a rumbia roof, bamboo floor, and bamboo walls. The house was prepared for guests who were staying over. The one in the middle was a school and library for village kids who wanted to study nature, flora, and fauna. Medi and Ating often acted as teachers for the pupils.
The one on the right was a house with wooden walls and a tin roof that had been their home since 2014. For power supply, they installed solar panels. They also filter rainwater to supply drinking water. Ating and Medi earned their living truly from nature.
Aside from the two dogs, Ating and Medi also lived with Makaki and Coco, their faithful friends. Makaki looked like a Toegean monkey, although, according to Ating, the animal is a different species that should have been classified as its own species.
“Makaki has just arrived here. It eats the bananas we prepared,” Medi said, opening the warm conversation that afternoon.
Ating explained that Makaki is an endemic species in Togean under the scientific name Makaki tonkeana. The species is often thought to be the same species with Macaca tonkeana (Tonkean macaque). According to Ating, the two are different species.
“Seventy percent of the makaki population in Togean live in Malenge. No one has registered them,” Ating said.
Meanwhile, Coco is a babirusa, an endemic species in Togean Island. “The animal came here this morning,” said Ating.
The forest, animals, and conservation have become Ating’s long-lasting love. This passion has made him considered as a conservationist.
Ating said he had been passionate about forestry and outdoor activities since joining the boy scouts in high school.
However, to make his parents happy, Ating attended medical school at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in 1984.
After graduation, Ating started to wander the jungles in rural Indonesia: the forests in Papua, Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), and Sulawesi, until finally, he decided to stay in Malenge.
In 2019, Ating’s night sleep was often interrupted by strange noises from the forest behind his house. The noises sounded familiar, he said, but he could not identify what it was.
One night, he came out of the house to find out the source of the noise. Ating could not find out who made the noise, but he found that a number of coconuts had been taken from the trees in his backyard. He thought someone had stolen the coconuts.
Previously, Ating never installed surveillance cameras as a security measure in his house. He believed that his environment was safe and comfortable. However, he installed a set of security cameras after those sleepless, noisy nights.
“I found out that “someone” stole the coconuts,” Ating said.
It turned out that the coconut thief is a babirusa, the one that now becomes his close friend.
“We named him Coco because he liked to eat coconut,” Ating said, laughing.
After finding out about the coconut thief, Ating purposely added the number of coconuts in his backyard.
“He stole the coconut to survive. He ate and left. He only left behind the empty coconut shell,” Ating said.
Ating also planted some vegetables, potatoes, and plantains in his garden. But Coco wrecked the garden.
Slowly, Ating tried to approach Coco although he realised that the animal might perceive him as a threat. In the end, though, Ating succeeded in getting close to Coco.
The first touch was on Coco’s head. Afterwards, Ating kept repeating the loving stroke every time they met. Slowly, Coco started to trust Ating and now even let Ating hug him.
“Many people said it needs a lot of tricks and advanced technology just to look at a babirusa. They even have to keep their distance and be in camouflage. But here, I have been friends with a babirusa, in very close proximity,” Ating said.
The friendship between Ating, Medi, and Coco has been going on for three years. However, their livelihood is not safe. Many people see their existence as a threat, making them a game fit for hunting. Babirusa is often perceived as a pest by the local people.
Ating said that it is rare to find babirusa that is friendly to humans. There are only a few, like Coco, who are amicable to human.
“Maybe we are meant to be,” Ating said.
Besides babirusa, Ating also found many other flora and fauna species during his eight years in Malenge. Half of them are under serious threat of extinction.
Official Journal of the European Union noted that babirusa should be protected because the individual number of the species kept on declining. Babirusa has several race, among which are Babirusa Sulawesi (Babyrousa celebensis), Babirusa Togean (Babyrousa togeanensis) which is also known as Babirusa Malenge, Babirusa Buru (Babyrousa babyrussa) which is endemic to Buru Island, and Babirusa Bolabatu (Babyrousa bolabatuensis) which is already extinct.
Babirusa is already categorised as a protected animal in Indonesia. The government guarantees its protection through Government Decree No. 7/1999 on Flora and Fauna Preservation, which is amended through Environment and Forestry Ministry (KLHK) Decree No 106/2018. The decree reinforces the position of animals with the genus Babyrousa as a protected species under Indonesia’s Law.
World conservationists International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also registered this animal in the list of threatened animals. IUCN registered babirusa on the Red List, which means they are threatened with extinction and categorised as vulnerable.
Besides IUCN, babirusa is also enlisted in The Conservation of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I. It means the animal is protected in its entirety and should not be traded, dead or alive, and should not be transformed into a derivative product.
Identification Manual and Bio-Ecology of Key Species in Sulawesi (2020), written by Abdul Haris Mustari, mentioned that this species is an endemic animal of Wallacea. It shares the same diaspora map with anoa, cuscus, and tarsius, which are only found in Sulawesi and Maluku, and nowhere else in Indonesia. The endemic species had been recorded in Alfred Russel Wallace’s trip journal during his journey around Nusantara. This endemic species is also recorded by Alfred Russel Wallace during his trip to Nusantara. He named the biogeographic area as Wallacea, an area that he saw as rich in flora and fauna.
Babirusa can be seen in its natural habitats, such as Gorontalo, North Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, Maluku, and North Maluku. Generally, babirusa likes low terrains and rainforest areas. Haris also wrote that babirusa individuals like to do their activities individually or in small groups. They also like to sit in mud puddles.
Ating has explored the jungles of Togean to find Babyrousa togeanensis. He installed surveillance cameras in every place he visited. As a result, we now know that babirusa roams Batudaka, Kadidiri, and small islands in Malenge.
His friendship with Coco encouraged him to find out more about babirusa in the Togean forest.
“The population has declined from hundreds to only dozens, especially the ones in Malenge. Their life is threatened because of human activity,” Ating said.
Entering 2020, the sound of a chainsaw is getting more and more frequent from Ating’s house. “I thought [the sound] didn’t [come] from the tree-cutting activity. It turned out it was true,” he said.
The chainsaw sound comes from illegal logging.
“They cut trees not far from my home. They command me to stay away from my own land. I am sad and angry seeing that happened!”
Ating said illegal logging is rampant in the wilderness of Togean forest, especially in Malenge. Forest coverage and the number of trees decrease every year. Some people sell the woods, and some turn the forest area into a plantation owned by the locals.
“Many people knew this fact, but they kept silent. They saw it with their own eyes.”
Very early in the morning, I explored the Malenge forest. Behind Ating’s house was a thick jungle. The vegetation was still dense. The forest consisted of many trees with various diameters.
Only three kilometres away from behind Ating’s house, there were many tree stumps left from logging. They also have turned black. Bottles of lubricating oil were scattered around the trees.
“The incident happened two years ago, and many people have known,” Ating said, angry.
Abdul Haris Balango, an environmentalist in Ampana, Central Sulawesi, confirmed that illegal logging happened all the time in Togean.
He said the high number of illegal logging in Togean threatens the wild animals and the ecosystem. Moreover, Togean is a well-known tourist spot for domestic and foreign travellers.
The disappearing forest coverage due to tree cutting, Abdul said, will speed up the rate of climate change. Ultimately, the climate crisis will invite disasters to coastal areas and small islands, including Togean.
According to Ating, the lack of proper surveillance by the authorities has become one of the factors that encourage massive illegal logging. Ating is worried that if illegal logging keeps happening in Malenge forest, the future of Togean biodiversity, especially in Malenge, will be even more threatened.
“While monitoring the babirusa, [I have seen] the declining population. From hundreds to only around fifty thousand, captured by the trap cameras,” he said.
Besides illegal logging, Ating said the high intensity of hunting activities to babirusa keeps the population declining.
Sardin Mattorang (41), a Kadoda Village resident, said the same thing about the babirusa hunting activities in Togean. “[If] they (babirusa) walk through a plantation, the animal must wreck [the plantation]. That’s why they are considered pests by the people,” he said.
Ating said some people also hunt them to get the meat. Research by H.J. Kiroh from Animal Science Faculty at Sam Ratulangi University in Manado (2020) said the available trade chain that demands babirusa meat becomes one factor that boosts the declining population.
“Babirusa meat is still distributed and traded in several traditional markets in Minahasa Regency, North Sulawesi. The suppliers are usually from Central Sulawesi,” he wrote.
The research also says three main regions supply babirusa meat in North Sulawesi traditional markets: Central Sulawesi (58%), Gorontalo (25%), and Bolaang Mongondow (17%).
The Environment and Forestry Ministry declined to comment on this issue when I approached them for this article.
A Home for All
Ating’s decision to buy 2 hectares of land in Malenge is a form of a campaign to protect the increasingly endangered Babyrousa togeanensis. Ating said buying a piece of land is the only way to protect the animals’ well-being without changing the form of their natural habitat. Ating is also inspired by world conservationists such as English primatologist Jane Goodall, who always share information about her activities.
“This is their land. I am just a foreign settler here,” Ating said.
“If their home up there (in the jungle) is no longer accommodating, where would they run? They would run here (Ating’s home near the shore). Because here is the only place where they can feel safe and settle for a long period of time,” he said.
Ating realised that his daily encounter with Babyrousa togeanensis in the flesh was a privilege.
“If we are good towards fellow living beings and show love to them, we can live side by side and take care of each other,” he said.
Ating wishes that the Togean National Park biodiversity will grab more attention from all people. He said the regional administration, Police, and village authorities coordinate better to create a commitment to take care of the national park from harmful parties.
Because of Ating’s warm friendship with Coco, many wild animals started to visit him at home.
“Now we have Makaki. Many of them started to come here. They love eating ripe bananas. If I provide the unripe ones, they won’t eat. It’s different if they’re in the forest: they would devour everything, including unripe bananas,” Ating laughed.
When the sun started to travel West, Ating put several bananas in several spots to attract Makaki. He also spreads water spinach, coconuts, and sweet potatoes to attract Coco.
“They really love this. They must come. Let’s just wait,” he said.
Ating wished the existence of wild animals in Togean, including babirusa, makaki, tarsius, and cuscus that he had encountered, would grab the right people’s attention.
“Wildlife has important roles in taking care of the ecosystem and the balance of nature,” Ating said. “This is the home for all animals who want to live.”
Ating is still busy campaigning for animal protection for the better welfare of the Togean wildlife. If you are interested in helping, Ating receives donations from individuals who are interested in his conservation efforts in Togean. You can reach Ating through his personal website or through Facebook. You also can contribute by sharing this article with your friends.