Tue, 05 Aug 2003

Oldest nature reserve near Jakarta in danger

Bambang Parlupi, Contributor, Jakarta

Forests across Indonesia are under grave threat. Nature reserves, national parks -- whatever they are called and wherever they may be -- are being threatened by illegal logging and human encroachment.

Pancoran Mas Nature Reserve, a unique forest just on the southern outskirts of Jakarta, is no exception. Its survival is threatened by poor management and aggravated by population pressure.

Only six hectares in size, the nature reserve is part of the fast-growing Pancoran Mas subdistrict in Depok municipality, West Java, and shares a border with South Jakarta. Also called Depok Nature Reserve, it is the country's oldest nature conservation site.

According to the Jakarta Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA Jakarta), this nature reserve is home to about 12 species of fauna such as birds, mammals and reptiles. Although it is relatively small, it is also home to 48 species of flora.

Squirrels, snakes, monitor lizards, owls and many species of songbirds can be found among the thick foliage comprising bamboo trees, Zalacca palm trees and rattan trees. Most of the plants in the reserve are indigenous to the low-lying lands of West Java.

Unfortunately, this site, some 25km north of Bogor, has to cope with many threats and pressures.

"Proper maintenance is greatly lacking," said Sumardi, a former forest ranger currently living at the reserve. Sumardi is a pensioner of the nature protection and conservation division of the Jakarta office of the ministry of forestry.

Sumardi said that in the past, Pancoran Mas was a very dense forest and that few would dare to go into it.

The only path leading to the deepest part of the forest is no longer visible now.

"It is very dark in the forest, as the trees block out the sunlight, and there are many bushes and rattan trees," he said.

People are also discouraged from wandering deep into the forest because of the cobras and pythons that call the reserve their home. This is, of course, good for this water-absorption area. The forest ecosystem remains intact, as virtually nobody hunts animals or fells trees there.

An iron fence reinforced with barbed wire has been put up around the site to separate it from the local neighborhood.

"The fence is in very bad repair and locals hang their laundry to dry on it," said Triono, a BKSDA Jakarta forest ranger who has lived at the reserve for four years. He lives in a building that serves as both his home and a lookout. No official sentry post has been provided for this nature reserve.

He said that much of the fence was corroded, and that it was broken in many parts.

Where the forest borders local residences, garbage is piling up uncontrolled, some of it spilling into the forest area.

"Many locals are not environmentally conscious and throw away their garbage in the nature reserve," said Triono.

The household waste is dangerous to the well-being of the animals and the vegetation. The forest soil is contaminated and seeds cannot sprout properly.

"The main problem now is the management of this site," he said, as the site had been neglected for several years.

At first, the nature reserve was under the management of BKSDA Bogor but later, owing to some legislative changes, the management was handed over to BKSDA Jakarta. Following this, the site was managed by the West Java provincial administration.

Today, it is under the direct management of the forestry ministry, with the West Java provincial administration carrying out a supervisory role. For the time being, the supervision of the reserve has been entrusted to Depok municipality.

As the management of the reserve has been left to different authorities over the years, it has become much neglected. Triono said the government planned to turn the reserve into an ecotourism destination to be called the People's Forest Park (Tahura).

Historically, the reserve used to be part of a greater expanse of forest in Depok. During the Dutch colonial times, Depok, located at the foot of Mount Salak, was surrounded by a 4,000- hectare forest. The land was then owned by several Dutch landlords, with Pancoran Mas owned by Cornelis Khastelein.

In 1922, Khastelein handed over his 6-hectare plot of land to the Dutch colonial administration on condition that no logging was to be allowed. Locals were allowed to collect the wood for their personal use only.

By virtue of a decision of the Dutch governor dated May 3, 1926, the area was officially made a protected forest. Therefore, the Depok area, which is part of Pancoran Mas village administration, is known as Indonesia's first nature reserve.

Throughout the Japanese occupation and the years of struggle for independence, more people built houses in Pancoran Mas. In 1989, only 15 families lived in the area around the reserve, but today, 6,500 families live in the Pancoran Mas area, which covers 475.55 hectares.

Unless the relevant authorities take immediate measures, the oldest nature reserve in Indonesia will suffer degradation or even face extinction. Its survival ensures that native flora and fauna will also survive.

Besides being home to flora and fauna, it also serves as a water catchment for the surrounding area. A thick forest area is also important as the "lungs" of the city, with the thick foliage absorbing toxic gases from various sources of pollution, particularly those emitted by motorized vehicles and industrial factories.

This nature conservation area plays a great environmental role especially because it is located close to Jakarta and Bogor, where air pollution is abominable.

The Pancoran Mas nature reserve also serves as a living laboratory of nature, a facility very useful in teaching students about the environment, particularly about conservation efforts and why natural forests must be preserved.