By Ellen Lomonico
Decreased poaching, collaborative conservation, community engagement, and rebounding wildlife populations? Against a backdrop of weighty environmental headlines typically fueling my eco-anxiety, interviewing Rudi Putra (Indonesia, 2014) was like a breath of fresh air.
“I’m an optimist because I’ve seen positive change happen in the Leuser Ecosystem,” Rudi remarked as we discussed his conservation work in Indonesia. The Leuser Ecosystem, globally recognized as one of the most biodiverse regions in Southeast Asia, is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers co-exist in the wild. Covering six and a half million acres, including a national park, protected forest, and productive community lands, the region is also one of Asia’s largest carbon sinks, providing an essential function for our planet. And, thanks to Rudi and his fellow eco-warriors, the area has been transformed from “the most biodiverse location you’ve never heard of” to a conservation success story.
The Leuser Ecosystem is for Everyone
Armed with a personal love for the forest’s wildlife and a scientific understanding of the region’s global significance, Rudi is both a trained biologist and an international spokesperson for the Leuser Ecosystem. During his remarkable career as an activist, he has collaborated with scores of NGOs, including Global Forest Watch, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (now Earth Alliance), the International Rhino Foundation, and National Geographic Explorers, to name just a few.
Rudi’s NGO, the Leuser Conservation Forum, was once a small organization with only 10 employees. “We were the little guy,” he joked. “It’s a huge forest, but no one knew about it. No one knew about us.” Today, with a staff of 350 (the large majority of which are in the field), the Leuser Conservation Forum is the largest local NGO working in the region.
Soft-spoken, detailed-oriented, and earnest, Rudi’s mantra of collaboration and long-term planning is working. He does not give up—once Rudi starts a conservation program, he refuses to set it aside until the program is successful or can be administered by another organization. “It’s important to have friends and to work together,” Rudi shared. “You cannot save anything if it is only one party—if it’s only the government or NGOs.”
Threats to the Leuser Ecosystem have shifted over the decades, from logging to illegal palm oil operations. The primary threat today is small-scale forest encroachment, compounded by the COVID-19 crisis and the migration of people from the city to the forest. “If someone loses their job in the city,” Rudi noted, “they usually come back to their village and work in the fields.” To combat forest encroachment, Rudi and the Leuser Conservation Forum work with local communities on agroforestry projects—planting rattan, bamboo, or durian, a profitable tropical fruit. Although initially met with skepticism, the projects have yielded positive results in the long-term, resulting in a 95% decrease in logging, encroachment, and illegal activities in local communities. There are now 600 communities working with the Leuser Conservation Forum on reforestation projects.
“Leuser isn’t only for the locals,” Rudi asserted. “The region can absorb 1,700 gigatons of carbon per year—it’s for all of us around the world.” Although Rudi’s conservation projects center on community engagement, his work to conserve the forest is driven by a global purpose.
The Sumatran Rhino and Wildlife Poaching
Rudi’s face lit up when we started discussing wildlife in Leuser. He is particularly passionate about the conservation of the Sumatran rhino, the world’s smallest, hairiest, and most threatened of all rhino species. The rhino is threatened by habitat encroachment and poaching, compounded by an extremely low rate of reproduction—the rhino reproduces only once every four years (for comparison, tigers can have two babies every year). It is an IUCN critically endangered species with fewer than 80 individuals left in the world. Despite these odds, Rudi is optimistic about the species’ comeback and the strides his team has taken over the years in collaboration with the government and other NGOs. This year, he is focused on breeding the Sumatran rhino in a sanctuary zone.
Since the early 2000s, the Leuser Conservation Forum has maintained a zero-poaching rate for the Sumatran rhino. The number of tiger deaths by poaching has also been significantly reduced. Historically, 10 to 20 tigers were killed each year in the Leuser Ecoystem, but in 2020, Rudi’s team recorded only one death by poison. The same applies to elephants—historically 10 to 15 elephants were killed annually in Leuser, but in the last two years, just three. And the ex-poachers? Rudi recruits them to join his anti-poaching units. “It’s very effective,” he smiled.
What You Can Do about It
Rudi firmly believes that “our future is dependent on us. We can save our Earth together, or we will destroy our Earth together.” When asked how to support the Leuser Ecosystem, Rudi began to enumerate. First? Start with yourself. Reducing consumption and using sustainable products is a great place to begin.
Rudi is also no stranger to the power of advocacy campaigns, as he experienced first-hand when working to stop illegal palm oil plantations. He shared how he saw public perception and social media awareness dramatically impact the actions of large corporations cultivating palm oil. “Companies don’t want to market products with palm oil anymore,” Rudi noted. “Instead, Unilever, Nestle, and PepsiCo want to work with us on sustainability programs. They are doing this because everyday people asked them.” Rudi encourages those who care about the environment to start talking about the Leuser Ecosystem and campaigning on behalf of the world’s forests.
Rudi implores the global community not to support him alone but to help the next generation of conservationists. “Conservation isn’t a two or a five-year program,” he noted. “We are planning for the long-term.” Rudi has made a concerted effort to send staff members to trainings and networking events to establish continued support for the Leuser Ecosystem. “It’s important to support your friends,” he concluded. “Whether it’s Leuser or another region, we all need the forest.”
This blog post is part of the Prize Winners Today series, a monthly installment that reports on the latest news and projects from past recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. From reflections on the Prize to updates from the field, we’ll answer the question—what are these extraordinary individuals doing today?
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