Sumatra

So here’s a place people don’t talk about enough – Sumatra. Almost twice its size, Borneo has been getting all the attention over the past decade or so. Perhaps it’s because the mammal watching there is concentrated in a much smaller area – the state of Sabah where distances between points of interests aren’t huge. But Sumatra is still so little explored in terms of mammal watching  besides Way Kambas. Lying on the equator, Sumatra hosts a showcase of Southeast Asia’s most sought-after species, inlcuiding Tigers, Golden cats, Tapirs, Elephants, Pangolins, Sun bears, Clouded Leopards, Binturongs, tarsiers, lorises, siamangs, y.t. martens, weasels, linsangs, flat-headed cats, and several civet, mongoose and otter species for starters. It also has its own version of the Orangutan, smaller but rarer than Borneo’s, and a “stronger” population of Sumatran Rhino, which may not be as impossible to see as most think. At least for now (as of 2015).

Sumatra is a long island. LONG, as in 1250km between Leuser and Way Kambas. But I think there is some very good mammal watching opportunities there. I started researching places for my upcoming trip in May, 2015. The main places that are currently recognized for bird and mammal watching are:

  • Way Kambas
  • Kerinci Seblat National Park
  • Tapan Road near Kerinci
  • Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park
  • Gunung Leuser (or just Leuser) National Park

Leuser is the furthest from all the others, being about 1250km from Way Kambas. It’s located in the state of Northern Sumatra, but for now I’ll spare you the logistics of getting there. Why come to Leuser, you ask? Well it’s because Leuser area is the last stronghold of the now critically endangered Sumatran Orangutan, which is not very hard to find in the park, starting your adventure from Ketambe. Reports I’ve read see 5-10 individuals over a 2-3 days stay. Leuser is often referred to as a place “rarely visited [with] many discoveries still to be made”, both bird-wise and mammal-wise. Of the few tourists that do venture there, one bird-watching group saw a sun bear and almost all reports list siamangs in addition to the Orangutans. Slow Lorises are also supposedly fairly easy in the area around towns. This park holds the “strongest” population of Sumatran Rhino, but Johan from http://www.gunung-leuser-trek.net reckoned you would need to go on a 15-day trek to see them. Tigers are also present but not often seen, and Johan mentioned you would need about a 10-day trek to try to find them. But again, I’m not sure how accurate these trip lengths are since practically nobody goes looking for them. Treks to find Elephants are also available with a few guides/agencies. Leuser is also good for White-handed Gibbon, “flying lemur” (I’m guessing Colugo and other flying squirrels), with chances of Binturong, Clouded leopard, Porcupines and Civets. I’m sure that if more mammal watchers visit the parks, we will learn more about how and where to find some of the interesting species.

Bukit Barisan Selatan, while not as far from Way Kambas and Kerinci, is even less visited than Leuser. It is also home to the endemic, super rare and really cool Sumatran Striped Rabbit. I corresponded with a guy named Nick Brickle who I found through a bird watching website (since mammal watching in Sumatra outside of WK is practically non-existent) and he told me that Way Canguk in BBS is a pretty good place for Clouded Leopards, where during field studies of local gibbon populations, clouded leopards were seen hunting them with somewhat regular frequencies. Nick advised me that that a spot for the Sumatran Rabbit is located somewhere on the drive to Way Canguk, but since I’m not visiting BBS this time, I didn’t ask him specifically where this spot is located. Nick sent me a picture of a pair of Marbled Cats and suggested this is as good a place as any to try to find them. I also corresponded with Maman Suherman from the Rhino Protection Unit, who has seen a Sumatran Rhino here, but who also suggests they’re easier to find in Way Kambas. Apparently, this park has a pretty good population of Sumatran Tigers and Elephants, but even more so than Leuser, this park awaits mammal-watching exploration to really know what’s up.

Kerinci is actually a well-traveled national park, especially among bird watchers. The park covers a HUGE area, but most bird and mammal watching is done on the main trail of Gunung Kerinci (Gunung = Mountain). Here is an interesting fact: Golden cats are seen often on the main trail in the afternoon or at night. I know with Golden Cats, “often” should be said with caution, but numerous birding reports and conversations with local guides report the cats being seen regularly. One guy I talked to has seen the cats 3 times in Kerinci, all on different visits, including a sighting during the day. Another person I corresponded with informed me that the cat sightings are still relevant as of Dec, 2014.  Apparently there are two individuals who frequently hunt partridges along the main trail, one of which is melanistic. This is also a good place for the endemic Sumatran Surili, a type of langur. I also talked to one guy who saw an Indonesian Mountain Weasel here, which is outside the known range of this species. Sumatran Tigers also exist here with some strength in numbers, but are more frequently encountered on the Tapan Road. There are also some reports of Tapirs and sun bears in this park. Again, more mammal trip reports would give better data on how frequently some of the interesting species can be found here.

Tapan Road – This is a road that passes through the greater Kerinci National Park. Again, since I’m not visiting Kerinci on this upcoming trip, I didn’t check exactly where it is and how to get here, but it’s well-known. I have read at least one mammal watching report which suggest that this road is no longer a good place to bird and mammal watch. But I corresponded with a few local experts who say that while all of Sumatra isn’t as good as it may have been 5 or 10 years ago because of deforestation, Tapan road remains one of the better places to go looking. It’s a road… so there’s some traffic, even at night. The only mammal watching trip report from the area is from Carmen and Torbjorn Landqvist who left the area disappointed. But they may have just had bad luck – I was told that the road was not widened but they may have seen earth movers stabilizing the road from the very frequent landslides. On more than a few occasions, I’ve read reports of Tigers encountered during early morning on this road, occasional leopard cats, a single report with a clouded leopard, and several species of smaller carnivores. Again, I think it is so under-explored by mammal watchers that as more reports come up, some light will be shed on the likely-encountered species.

Finally – Way Kambas: I don’t need to elaborate on the variety and density of mammals that can be seen around here, since numerous reports exist, and Richard Webb particularly summarized good areas for mammal watching and specifically for notable species. The possibilities for mammal watching here are endless, as all the magafaua of Sumatra is found here in some of its strongest numbers, with the Orangutans being a main exception. I will add just a few things: I corresponded with the RPU (Rhino Protection Unit) about joining their patrols in the park in hopes of finding a wild rhino. They happily agreed (especially when I explained to them I’m going with Jon Hall who is the owner of an international mammal-watching website which promotes responsible ecotourism and wildlife conservation) and asked me to send them a copy of my passport. Because of the language barrier (their English isn’t so good) I don’t think they understood that we are only interested in joining them for 1 day or for a few hours in the places where we are most likely to see the rhino, and that we don’t want to spend all our time in the park patrolling with them. Well, that also probably makes my request ridiculous because I doubt the chances of finding a rhino on any given patrol shift is sufficient. But the communication with them wasn’t good enough so I gave up. But I think if you are set on finding a Sumatran Rhino, Way Kambas is your place. And I don’t think it’s as impossible as we may think. Sure, it’s the shyest and perhaps the rarest rhino (with Javan Rhino spotting now made easier at Ujung Kulong) but the population does exist in the park, and almost nobody is looking specifically for them. At least one birding trip report I came across actually heard a rhino but didn’t see it. Nick Brickle saw a Pangolin at night near the SRS (Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary), and there are numerous reports of Fishing Cats from the park, despite the fact that this species is not recognized by science to occur on Sumatra! Richard Webb mentioned that the photo of the supposed “flat-headed cat” on the board at the lodge is actually a fishing cat, providing photographic evidence of its existence in WK (unless of course this picture was taken elsewhere). This would make the total species of cat found here 7, which if I’m not mistaken would tie with some place in India for the spot with the most cat species anywhere. Also, most trips to WK come across Yellow-throated Martens at one point, and few birding reports I read join the Tapir spotting club, following Ian Loyd, Lorna Watson and Steve Morgan’s report. Again, if you compare the number of trip reports from here to the ones from Borneo or other popular mammal watching destinations, you will notice that the data is still not sufficient to conclude how locally-common some species are. But more importantly – I believe that if mammal watching develops in more places on Sumatra as it did in Way Kambas, they can all turn out to be just as amazing. WK is the only place on this HUGE island that’s getting mammal-watching attention, and it immediately earned its reputation as a mammal watcher’s wet dream. I think Leuser, Kerinci and Bukit Barisan Selatan can prove to be just as awesome. To put things in perspective, one 2-week bird-watching trip report from Sumatra I recently came across listed Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat and Binturong as part of the 28-mammal species encountered. And this is bird-watching, so obviously the focus was NOT mammals…

Other species I didn’t mention in these bits of info occur throughout Sumatra, like several interesting squirrel species, both of the flying and non-flying variety, leopard cats are pretty ubiquitous throughout the island, several species of monkeys, tree shrews including the pen-/feather-tailed tree shrew, several species of civets including otter and banded civets, deer species including greater and lesser mouse deer, and 4 otter species. In other words – this is a mammal-watching heaven as expected from a huge tropical landmass which lies directly on the equator and contains such a diversity of altitudinal ranges and ecosystems. I found it very difficult to find a mammal checklist of Sumatra, unlike the easily obtainable mammal checklist of Borneo. So everyone should stop what they’re doing and buy plane tickets to Sumatra (Just kidding). Increasing ecotourism and interest in wildlife might also help conservation… That’s it for today, thank you for watching. Stay tuned for more (but don’t hold your breath). I’ll leave you with these world maps of biodiversity. It seems to me that Sumatra should be
talked about more often:

Threatened Mammals              Carnivores

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8 Comments on “Sumatra”

  1. jasonwoolgar Says:

    Hi Tomer…..what’s your cut from the Sumatran Tourist Board?

    My schedule is pretty full for the next two years, as I would want several weeks to do Sumatra justice, but I am working on a trip to either Sumatra or Burma (Myanmar if you prefer), probably in the summer of 2017.

    Will keep you posted and meanwhile, enough with the long distance research and start looking for a caracal in Israel for us!

    Cheers

    Jason

  2. vdinets Says:

    I was on Sumatra for a month in 2009 and got close to 90 species. Could be a lot more, but I had an extremely limited budget, and the main purpose of the trip was crocodile research (although I didn’t see a single croc the whole month).

    It’s certainly not a place that can be covered well on one trip (unless you are prepared to take a lot of local flights and stay for 2-3 months). I would recommend doing it in three trips: one to the north, one to the center and the Mentawai Islands, and one to the south.

    The highlights were Sumatran dwarf gymnure (Kerinci, at the frogmouth stakeout), Sumatran water shrew (Leuser), Sumatran hog badger (Seblat EF), finless porpoise (off Medan), Frazer’s dolphins (off Krakatau), elephants (Seblat EF), greater mouse deer (Leuser), serow (Kerinci, high along the summit trail), Eurasian boar (Way Kambas), 2 spp. of Hylopetes flying squirrels, Sumatran porcupine (Seblat EF), and striped rabbit (Bukit Barisan, during a drive along the main highway). I also got all Sumatran primates except the loris, but didn’t manage to get to any of the Mentawais. No cats at all 😦

  3. tomeslic Says:

    Jason – 6.3%. Tell them Tomer sent you… I’m kidding, obviously, but ever since I realized there was cool wildlife outside of Africa (about 12 years ago when I was 17) I learned that biodiversity increases as you near the equator. And while South America has 3 countries that cross the equator, Africa has 6, but Asia only has 1: Indonesia. So for like 10 years I’ve been googling national parks and reserves in Indonesia to see what’s there, and now that the mammal-watching community is well established and reports are coming in from all over the world, I started wondering why almost nobody goes to Sumatra.. And when Jon entertained the idea of going there, my response was: “ABSO-F***ING-LUTELY”.

    Vladimir – you saw the Sumatran Rabbit??!?!! Well done! I was under the impression that it was rarer than the rhino. I wonder why you saw no cats. Had you gone before 2005 I would say that maybe the condition of the forests was different (with 10 less years of deforestation) and that maybe the cats were staying deeper in primary forest or something… But 2009, I guess maybe you were hanging out by water all the time looking for crocs which is both the reason why you saw all these primates and no cats..? All the mammal watching reports from WK and the one from all of Sumatra saw at least 1 cat, I believe.. But you’ve already seen all the cat species that exist on the island so I don’t feel bad for you 😛

    • vdinets Says:

      I think the reason I didn’t see any cats was that I spent too much time on travel between locations and too little time in the forest. Also, in WK I found that visiting it in a normal way would be way over my budget, so I spent just one night and one day there on an unofficial visit, so to speak. Pretty much the same in GL. In KS it was still possible to walk in for free if there was nobody in the entry booth, so I spent 3 days and nights there.

      I haven’t seen Sunda clouded leopard or marbled cat, and I wouldn’t mind Sumatran tiger or another look at golden cat. So I still hope to get to central and southern Sumatra again.

      The rabbit sighting has been published:
      Dinets V. 2010. Observation of Sumatran striped rabbit (Nesolagus nescheri) in the wild. Mammalia 74: 1.

      • vdinets Says:

        BTW, one excellent place I found was Seblat Experimental Forest (I think it’s now called Elephant Conservation Center). It was cheap, had an excellent trail network, and with some persuasion I was allowed to walk around at night without any guides. As a bonus, you can ride tame elephants without a mahout – wash them in the river, etc.

  4. jasonwoolgar Says:

    Is actually great research Tomer and it will be interesting to see how you get on. I will contact you as I progress and Sumatra is looking a great deal easier than Burma at this stage, although I have never been to the latter, so that appeals. As I want to do either trip justice and go for at least six weeks, I am probably looking at June 2017, the week after James completes his A Levels!!

  5. tomeslice Says:

    Vladimir – that’s some interesting info. I’ll look up that place (though I won’t be able to visit it this time), and yes – Way Kambas is SUPER expensive.. I think that with increasing popularity they’re also increasing their prices.. hence people should spread out to other places in Sumatra 😉
    ALTHOUGH – one thing I forgot to mention is that WK is mostly Secondary forest (whereas I think the other places I mentioned are primary) so maybe it has a similar effect as Corcovado in Costa Rica, where all the best sightings of otherwise elusive mammals happen in the secondary forests around Sirena Station.

    Jason, by 2017 James is going to be a big kid… 🙂
    Jon will surely post a trip report from our upcoming adventure, and I’ll also try to add a personal touch with my own report, including some hopefully useful info about the species we encounter or miss.

    Oh, and about the Caracal… I forgot to mention – I’m on it!! Well, between school and getting my wisdom teeth removed in the next few weeks… But I’m going to hook up with this night-safari operator (who i’ve been in touch with for a while, I just need to find the time to visit them) and test out the situation, hopefully prior to your visit. Coincidentally (and sadly), he just posted a picture yesterday on Facebook of a road-kill female caracal right near Sde Boker which is where they’re doing their spotlighting. Will keep you posted via email 🙂

    • vdinets Says:

      I’ve never been to Sirena Station. I walked into Corcovado from the other side and explored the primary forests in the interior. Worked out great, too: 2 days, 2 nights, 15 spp., including the tapir, all primates and a very cooperative water opossum.


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