Tue, 25 Jan 2000

Illegal poachers threaten Ujung Kulon national park

By MMI Ahyani

UJUNG KULON, West Java (JP): The Ujung Kulon National Park, Java's main sanctuary for biodiversity and endangered species, is bearing the brunt of a severe lack of security.

An estimated 80 percent of the coral reefs in Ujung Kulon National Park have been damaged. Fish bombing and forest theft have been blamed for the environmental degradation.

The lack of personnel and equipment is a dire problem for the park.

Tri Wibowo, the park chief, said that management has only two patrol boats and 28 people to secure the 38,543 hectares of Ujung Kulon peninsula, which accounts for the core of the 120,551 hectare park.

The park has a bigger boat named Macan Kumbang which is not fast enough to chase intruders stealing fish and coral. It also has a speedboat, but park management claims there are insufficient funds to operate the boat.

Wibowo recalled that the park once operated a speedboat from New Zealand named Kiwi, a luxurious boat by Ujung Kulon standards. It had a glass panel on the bottom to observe the underwater scene, but operational costs were just too high, forcing the park to ground it.

Observation posts on Handeuleum and Peucang islands are also provided with small motorized boats but they cannot overcome the large waves of the Indian Ocean.

Wibowo's complaint about the lack of personnel and equipment is well founded. The rangers have complex jobs -- from monitoring rhinos, watching visitors and helping researchers to chasing thieves.

They often risk their lives to perform their jobs as they are poorly armed. Old fashion rifles and knives are their main weapons. To compensate for this, rangers learn the Banten traditional martial art.

Park rangers said fishermen using explosives were especially dangerous to apprehend. The fishermen usually use fast boats, are escorted by armed gangs and threaten the rangers with bombs. They have caused widespread damage to the coral reefs.

"They will attack our boat or blast their own boat when they know there is no escape. That is to get rid of anything that may be used by the police as material evidence," said a ranger in Tanjung Lame.

He recalled an incident in which rangers fired at a fishing boat. Soon after the incident, a military officer came to the rangers to intimidate them. It turned out that the officer was the commandant of the person who was shot.

The environmental criminals often manage to escape legal responsibility because the material evidence submitted by the rangers to the police is often lost.

The rangers are left powerless because they do not have the authority to detain and punish the crooks.

The opening of ecotourism in Ujung Kulon has added more pressure to preserving the environment. Tourism development has now reached core areas like Cibunar, Ciramea beach where turtles lay eggs, Handeuleum island, Cigenter river and Panaitan island.

The local government and the park management do not seem to be interested in developing tourism in the 19 villages located in the buffer zone although they have tremendous potential.

Development in the villages would not only lessen pressure in the core area but would also improve the residents' welfare. The local government is expected to restrict development projects to major facilities like tourist resorts, hotels, restaurants and housing in the core area.

It is believed that the development of the villages would improve livelihood prospects for the residents so that they would not encroach on the forests and coral reefs.

The aggressive promotion of tourism in Ujung Kulon has not been accompanied by efforts to improve security in the park. Besides, the available tourist facilities are not adequate.

Ironically, the old park information center on the Peucang island is sorely dilapidated while nearby stands a posh hotel that offers comfortable rooms for US$35 to $50 per night -- which probably equals the rangers' one-month salary.