Sun, 13 Jun 2004

Compost sees big picture of saving wildlife

Fritz Kuhlmann, Contributor, Jakarta

The rhino saunters out of the incredibly green jungle. It gives a long, long look from it's old eyes in a cluster of wrinkles. Then it turns and slowly walks away.

"The beauty of the moment," said Alain Compost, admiring the scene on one of the three monitors in his studio. "When an animal does not flee when I'm filming, it's just as if it would accept me."

"It's only a dream, of course."

The wind had to blow in the right direction, he explained, because if the rhino could smell him, it would run away at once.

Alain Compost, 52, is famous for being one of the few people who has managed to photograph the notoriously shy Javan rhinoceros, one of the rarest animals in the world with an estimated 50 or so left in Ujung Kulon National Park on the western tip of Java.

The bald, short, muscular Frenchman today lives in a house in the countryside near Bogor with his Indonesian wife and children. He has been roaming throughout Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra and other points in the archipelago for almost 30 years, "but people don't know what I am really doing".

The wildlife photographer has begun to focus on educational projects. In July he plans to launch phase two of the Wanamedia Foundation that he started two years ago. It will produce independently financed films, sponsored by NGOs like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Starting with the orangutan, each project will focus on one species and consists of three films. One will be aimed at children, the second at presenting the ecosystem of the animal and a third giving the socio-economic context, targeting local decision-makers. It is a new approach to getting the message across about wildlife conservation.

Any TV station will be allowed to show the films free of charge. But it is equally important to Compost that 1,000 VCDs of each film will distributed to the people in the area where it has been shot.

"After all, they decide about the survival of an animal," Compost said. "It's useless putting pretty pictures in books like I did for so long, because just a certain kind of people will look at them."

He is convinced the moving picture has much more power.

Compost is a man full of contradictions. He tries to provide information to people. He tells how he loves showing his films to amazed villagers who live near the habitat of the rhino but have never seen one in their life, because "that's much more rewarding than to show it to an international public on TV channels like Animal Planet".

Nonetheless this always smiling man, unpretentious in his jeans and dark T-shirt, also says: "Humans are a pest".

They are destroying nature that he is desperately trying to preserve. If he had a choice, he would prefer the company of animals to that of people, Compost said, no joking.

"I am too extreme, I acknowledge that."

It's out in the forest far from humanity where he feels at ease. When filming, he goes with his assistant Ali, sleeping in a simple tent.

"The forest is safe," Compost said. "The water is not polluted, you just have to watch out not to step on a snake."

It's people that he considers dangerous. One of the few times he had to fear for his life out in the jungle was when he filmed in Kerinci Seblat National Park in Jambi, Sumatra, one of the last strongholds of the Sumatran tiger. A tiger would only attack "when its life patterns are disturbed because the habitat is logged, its checkpoints in the forest are bulldozed", Compost said.

But on this occasion he was filming the forest police arresting illegal loggers.

"Suddenly the villagers came by the hundreds, waving knives and sticks," Compost said.

The police fled, so the cameraman just kept on filming. "They pushed us into our car and wanted to set it on fire."

A local sawmill owner finally rescued the film team and took them to a police station. Even there, stones continued raining down on their refuge.

Compost feels comfortable with some people, such as the Orang Rimba (forest dwellers), also in Jambi, who time and "progress" have passed by.

"They feel very close to nature, so I feel close to them." He once showed them a film about the forest people of Papua.

"The Orang Rimba thought they were the only ones living like that, despised by everybody. So when they discovered they are not alone -- this was a very emotional moment."

The pictures appeared in the big French magazine Paris Match, although Compost rarely sells to such media.

"I am just not patient enough to do the necessary lobbying," he said.

That is another contradiction, because photographing animals -- or tribespeople -- takes an enormous amount of patience, just waiting for the right moment.

Instead of engaging in small talk with editors, Compost sells via specialized agencies from his stock of 80,000 slides, all stored in iron cabinets in his house.

In fact, Compost could easily live in Paris and come over to Indonesia to shoot for a few months every year. "But everything I have, I owe it to Indonesia," he said. So he chose to stay -- "especially now that everything is getting worse".

The reformasi (reform) movement had some bad side-effects, he said. "The natural parks are out of control; no one, including local government representatives, respect them any more."

Compost's love of animals no doubt comes from his previous profession. He was once a simple zoo keeper; he always wanted to work with animals, so when he failed to become a veterinarian, he started working at the Paris Zoo.

"I often had to open cages for photographers, that's how I got the idea to try that myself."

When taking pictures in the zoo in 1975, a chimpanzee bit him badly in his right hand, leaving scars still visible today.

"I didn't have any insurance, but the ape had," Compost said. "That's how I raised the money to come to Indonesia to stay."

He had been here for a short visit before and had fallen in love with the country's threatened wildlife.

"Still, I don't think that anything I do really makes a difference. To be a conservationist is to be a loser."

Still, Compost says resigning himself to reality is not an option. Maybe he is a brother in mind to fellow Frenchman Albert Camus, who imagined Sysiphos, the mythic figure trying to roll a heavy stone uphill and destined to forever fail, as a happy person.

Compost bears a fresh wound on his arm. Another ape, this time a gibbon, bit him. "It was my mistake, of course, I surprised him."

He keeps the animal in a huge caged part of his garden. The wife of an animal catcher brought it to him after her husband ran away and she was unable to handle things, the animals dying one after the other.

An NGO will soon help to release the gibbon into a remote area of Sumatra.

"In the big picture, that one animal doesn't matter at all," Compost said. "I just feel it's my responsibility."