The Bekantans of Balikpapan Bay

“Ten years ago this was all forest,” says Stan Lhota, a primatologist from the Czech Republic, as he casts a hand over Balikpapan Bay which now resembles an industrial site. “And this was a romantic little fishing village.” We are standing at Gersik harbour looking out at the horizon of coal mines, oil depots and abandoned shrimp farms. Large boats ferry back and forth carrying loads from the palm oil and acacia plantations further inside the Bay, whilst tugs guide huge barges to the pontoons ready to be filled with coal to ship to China.

With a glut of natural resources the natural landscape is quickly being gobbled up at the expense of the local wildlife and people. It is an area that the Indonesian government is continuously allowing countless companies (both in house and foreign) to exploit, all completely unregulated.

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We had come to see first-hand the destruction being inflicted on what used to be a spot of true natural beauty.  “When I first arrived it was paradise,” Stan tells us, but with 52 new businesses who have received “official” government permission to set up here from 2016, and a new trainline due to be built to transport all of the capitals resourced here, the once beautiful Bay takes yet another catastrophic blow.

Alongside Stan, our guide, we had Dharman our boatman – a local fisherman whose livelihood has now become impossible. With the water sources poisoned from the coal mines there are few fish to be found, and those that are, are most likely polluted. And his kind are not the only ones feeling the brunt of this loss of fish – with nothing to eat the 80 to 90 Irawaddy dolphins that remain are also rapidly declining. Having once lived solely off of the Bay, Dharman now has to buy his fish in Balikpapan city as do all the other fishermen.

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In exchange the government provides the local villagers with free electricity at night but during our stay this offering never materialised. It would last perhaps an hour before power cuts left the villages in darkness – excepting a scattering of lights from those lucky few with generators. It would seem the local Indonesians have been forgotten by greed, the main driving force behind this ruthless destruction. The indigenous people are desperately trying to make a living while the ground beneath their feet is quite literally being taken from under them.

And they are not alone. A very close descendant of ours is also struggling to survive with the rapid industry growth in the Bay. It is the proboscis monkey known locally in Balikpapan Bay as bekantan, a rather unusual creature and one often forgotten next to Borneo’s flagship species – the Bornean orangutan.

Three young Proboscis monkeys rest on a branch in Tarakan, Indon

With its large pendulous nose and pot-belly it may not be the most attractive of primates but it sure has character to make up for it. Listed by the IUCN as endangered, the bekantan is finding itself on thin ice in the Balikpapan Bay area as it competes with humans for prime real estate along the waterways. Bekantan are endemic to coastal and riverside forests, which are sadly the most rapidly disappearing habitats of Borneo.

In 1987 the estimated population of the bekantan was 260,000 but by 2008 this figure had drastically decreased to 25,000. Balikpapan Bay has one of the seven largest known populations of proboscis monkeys and makes up 5% of those currently known. Stan, who has been conducting research on the bekantan in the area for the last 15 years, tells us that there are currently around 1,400, but this is a figure that Stan fears cannot endure if current trends of habitat destruction continue. In fact, he goes as far as to say he believes that the bekantan will be locally extinct within the next ten years.

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There is one troop that is already playing out the scenario Stan predicts. Isolated by new housing and industrial complexes there is a troop of 60 monkeys who now depend on just 3 square kilometres for feeding. He says they will need an 80-90% decrease in numbers to sustain a healthy population in such a small area – and with monkeys now being found dead in the waters, the strain is beginning to show. With the promise of further businesses filling in the gaps around the Bay, isolation of troops is becoming more and more of an issue.

While bekantans sleep in the tall trees of the mangroves, they spend their days foraging inland in the dipterocarp forest – their main food the sonneratia alba, which means that protecting the mangroves alone would not ensure the survival of the bekantan. For a creature with a particularly complex combination of dietary and environmental needs of which they are unable to adapt to degraded habitat, deforestation will be the ultimate cause of this animal’s failure.

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And yet, although the threat is obvious, little is being done to slow down the rapid deforestation of what quite clearly used to be a natural jewel. During our days on the water of Balikpapan Bay we were shocked by how little true mangrove forest still remained, and of those mangrove forests that did, numbers carved on trees showed that land speculations for those areas were already in progress. “They come with lots of benzene, set fire to the land and then the land is speculated. It is claimed the fire was natural but of course mangrove forest doesn’t just burst into flames like that,” says Stan. “And burnt land is much easier to claim and then speculate.”

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We have all heard of EL Nino, the main reason the fires have been of such devastating proportions at the end of 2015 and they haven’t eased yet, but to those setting them no doubt they have been an added bonus. There is no doubt that large companies are paying locals to set the fires, for cleared land allows easy bypass of the Indonesian national law – ‘all riverbank forests as protected forests, which cannot be felled for economic benefits’. Follow this up with a little something to the government and just like that they have themselves a permit. Corruption, as you can see, is rampant.

In some areas a thin layer of mangrove at the water’s edge still exist but if you strike out a little further into the forest, you will find that this is just a natural mask and behind it huge palm oil and acacia plantations have taken root. We had remarked at the lack of bird and insect life but after seeing these vast estates that stretch as far back as the eye can see, it is no wonder that these areas are void of any sort of wildlife.

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Palm oil as we know well has no redeeming qualities. The big palm oil companies spend lots of money on proving that it is a biodiverse environment and yet any animals that may feed on the fruits of the trees (such as squirrels and primates) are classed as vermin and illegally shot. There are only 7 species of bird that can survive solely on the plantations and the huge number of herbicides and pesticides used to kill the local insect life lead to further declines in biodiversity.

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Furthermore, the trees only last 30-60 years after which they are finished, leaving behind nutrient devoid soils and re-locating to destroy the next area of native Bornean forest, creating yet another space where the bekantans cannot inhabit. Bordering the monocultures of palm oil are the monocultures of acacia. Although planting acacia is classed as re-foresting it is an invasive species, poisoning the ground to kill of competing natural species so that they can thrive.

These plantations now cover a few hundred square kilometres of Balikpapan Bay and are ever-expanding in answer to the Chinese corporations huge demand for paper – more incompatible land for the bekantans.

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The shrimp farms are a tactical and very much illegal manoeuvre by local people to claim land. Although proven to be unprofitable and in some cases have even resulted in bankruptcy, these shrimp farms are developed in the hope that one day a coal mine will buy it from them for a life-changing sum of money (unfortunately for Borneo the whole island sits upon coal). “The American dream,” Dharman calls it – and one villager in Gersik has already achieved this “dream,” when a coal mining company bought a plot of land from him and he was able to buy a car. It is the only car in the village which he now proudly drives up and down the 2 kilometres of road in Gersik.

The coal mine that backs on to the small village of Gersik is a monstrosity, closely guarded by the Indonesian army – the best way of the Generals to protect their investments in this huge Chinese company. Although the coal is poor quality it is shipped to China and used in coal powered fire stations there.

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The majority of coal is irresponsibly mined – it means little to them that the acidic rain water that they pump from the coal has contaminated Gersik and the surrounding villagers water sources to the extent that even washing in it is causing illnesses to the locals. While the long term effects of this poisoned water is unknown, undoubtedly all those surrounded by it will be detrimentally effected.

After our time in Balikpapan Bay, Stan took us to see the bekantans of Tarakan, who live in a little mangrove sanctuary completely surrounded by urbanisation – it is an example of what Balikpapan Bay is destined to become. Due to their confined habitat the monkeys are beginning to inbreed and the only reason the two cramped troops (a harem and a bachelor group) are surviving is due to being fed by the locals.

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But this in turn has led to territorial disputes between the males over the feeding station, behaviour that would rarely be seen in adequate living space. And as the forest becomes ever smaller in Balikpapan Bay Stan believes that this is behaviour that we will be seeing more of as troops are forced to compete for the dwindling food sources.

On our second day of following the two groups of monkeys in Tarakan, we were watching two young males from the bachelor group playing on the boundary of the mangrove when they swung out of the protected area and into the neighbouring shrimp factory.

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Suddenly a loud explosion erupted from the direction they had gone and only one of the monkeys returned to the relative safety of the mangrove. When we went round to the other side of the wall our worst fear was realised as the body of the other male was laid out before us – he had collided with a power line and had been killed instantly. At the sight of his body the bachelor group became aggressive and the dominant male launched himself at a passing motorcyclist. The electricity company (who had been called out as the power had gone down in the accident) covered the body saying, “they always act like this when this happens.”

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It is a sorry state of affairs and one that looks bleak for the proboscis monkey. Enhancements in both the management and funding of conservation measures to protect the monkeys remaining regions of connecting habitat, are going to be crucial for the survival of this extraordinary species. In Balikpapan Bay there is the ‘Balikpapan Bay Conservation Movement’ who are working with local villages and government officials to gain support in protecting their mangroves from the clear-felling for the development of all of the coastal industries, illegal shrimp farming and illegal logging for charcoal.

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They are trying to highlight how the destruction of Balikpapan Bay for profit is in turn destroying the livelihoods of local people and wildlife. With the previous high profile failure of ‘Project Pesisir’ in 2004 (a collaboration between USAID and the Indonesian Government to manage coastal resources in Balikpapan Bay), due to a lack of value by the government for good environmental management, internal government corruption and the absence of support by key stakeholder groups within the bay, it would be nice to think that 12 years down the line things have progressed somewhat.

However, with the corruption within the government still rife, coupled with the big-money, global corporations who have invested in the Bay, the battle to curb the ruthless and systematic destruction of Balikpapan Bay will undoubtedly be a vicious one.

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Photos by Luke Massey

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Luke Massey is a renowned wildlife photographer and cameraman. Learn more: www.lmasseyimages.com
Luke says about himself: “I look for wildlife everywhere I go, and if possible I’ll take its photo or film it. My passion is to show people what is on their doorstep or further afield, to show them something new or educate them about a species in decline. If in my career I can help save one species I’ll be happy, but for the moment I intend to try and help save as many as possible through my work.”

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