From killer to savior
It was never going to end well for at least one party: Four young men, three rifles and a single monkey.
Or so the hunters thought.
After the animal had been hit by about 20 rounds it seemed dead but was stuck in the top branches. Syamsul was the sharpest shot and might have joined the army to kill other primates had he not worn glasses.
So the bravest of the gallant woodsmen shinned up the tree to retrieve the cadaver for a meal. Then he made a discovery that was to change his life.
The monkey had been executed for the crime of being simian but her baby was still clinging to its mother’s breast and life. Shots had grazed its leg and face but done no lasting harm.
Syamsul took the little creature home and discovered compassion. He nursed it back to health and eventually gave it to a friend whose son wanted a pet. He started thinking about the way he was behaving and his relationship with the natural world.
Syamsul no longer prowls the dense bush which cascades from his three-level home in a kampung flanking Brantas River in Malang. When he hears men scouring the undergrowth with dogs and weapons he whistles to distract the pursuit.
He used to rain stones from a catapult onto the stalkers till dissuaded by his wife Suli who said he was being too aggressive. Certainly not appropriate behavior for the Buddhist convert and animal protector he’s become since his monkey moment decades earlier.
Syamsul is now an active member of an animal rescue and release field camp in East Java. (See breakout)
Syamsul (left) dedicates his work to his late mother Sutrisnowati who died of cancer in her early 50s.
“I was very close to my Mom,” he said. “She was a wise person steeped in Javanese lore who taught me how to appreciate and honor our culture and people. I’d dropped out of high school and just wandered around. When she died and left me the house I set out to repair the damage I’d done.”
Syamsul is now helping rehabilitate langurs, which are often caged as pets, and so ease their suffering. He wants to encourage more care for the natural world but knows changing social behavior takes time and effort. The Soeharto-era days of meek communities obeying government orders have gone. Instead he’s trying to alter by example.
This means using his talents as a musician and dalang (puppet master) to promote conservation under the stage name Kardjo. He’s also mastered the art of wayang suket using dried mendong sedge (Fimbristylis globulosa) to weave the tiny figures.
He uses this skill while storytelling to emphasize the interconnectedness of nature and humanity, and by telling his animal adventure stories.
These include his first job relocating a crocodile and learning how to be wary of wildlife. A colleague was badly kicked by a supposedly tame cassowary brought from West Papua by a returning soldier who found the bird too big to handle in suburbia.
It seemed docile – until the rescuers arrived; their intentions were good but not their planning.
“Returning animals to the wild has to be handled carefully,” said Syamsul watching field camp workers feed fresh-cut branches of acacia to the langurs living in a cluster of tall wire cages.
“Those born in captivity or captured young have lost foraging and survival skills. This is why we keep visitors away. The langurs need to discover distrust. They look ferocious when they make threatening faces but flee when that tactic fails.”
The field camp’s facilities include incubators, scales and a medicine cabinet. The buildings are basic – dirt floors and bamboo walls but include a small library.
The workshop lists details of the seven males and 14 females going through the stages of acclimatisation. Rinda and Mira, Moses and Oat feature on a whiteboard but the volunteers, rostered to camp overnight as observers and security, try to avoid using names in their daily dealings.
“It makes the task so much harder if we develop emotional attachments,” said Syamsul. “Our job is to ensure they can survive without our help. We wear masks and gloves and clean cages twice daily to avoid disease transmission.”
Langurs live in groups of five or six lorded by a dominant male; those who’ve spent years behind bars alone don’t know how to relate to others. Watching how individuals interact with other langurs is critical prior to release which may come months after the animal is brought to the center.
So far more than 50, plus other creatures like the nocturnal loris have been released. Although the center has access to only four hectares of forest leased from the government the langurs should be safe in the 100 hectare park where indigenous creatures are protected.
Apart from their attraction as pets, monkeys and langurs have been hunted because their meat is supposedly an aphrodisiac and cures skin diseases. Although not grounded on fact the beliefs persist. East Javan langurs are now an endangered species with probably less than 3,000 in the wild. As numbers fall values rise.
The illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia is now worth Rp13 trillion (US $975 million) a year according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Opening the cages
Despite being in a heavily used holiday area in Central East Java, only the curious will discover the Javan Langur Center. It’s tucked away from the foodstalls and sports grounds at the Coban Talun recreational park set 1,350 meters up in the cool and lumpy mountains around Batu.
Known locally as a field station it’s funded by the Aspinall Foundation, an international conservation charity ‘working in some of the world’s most fragile environments to save endangered animals and return them to the wild’.
It was founded in 1984 by John Aspinall, an eccentric British zoo owner and entrepreneur who made (and lost) fortunes though gambling. He died in 2000.
The foundation has a center in West Bandung and two in East Java. Last year 15 langurs were imported from zoos in Britain and France for return to the wild in East Java.
Leaf-eating langurs, frequently mistaken for monkeys, have long tails, often close to a meter and twice their body length. Most have black fur but a few of the East Java variety are orange colored.
First published in The Jakarta Post 1 August 2017