Green Peacocks and Papadayan

The almost perfectly conical mountain lying across the valley, from behind which the sun is cracking the pre-dawn sky in two, has wild peacocks.

It is 5 am and the tracker points again at the mountain and nods, “peacocks” to reinforce the point. It is fast approaching a month since my arrival in Java and every time I think I gain a foothold in the uncertainty, this place finds a way to throw me. I thought peacocks were only native to India, but I am beginning to accept that this island has many secrets, most of which I will never know.

Still, I make no attempt to mask my surprise and the tracker smiles broadly at me, entertained by my mix of ignorance and awe. The last time I received a similar jolt of shock was the day after my arrival, when I discovered that the nearly extinct Javan leopard, persecuted out of most of its major range, has been sighted close to the study site. Apparently one or two individuals still live high in the forest that caps the mountain. I have spent several long moments staring hard at it from the balcony of the volunteer house, imagining them lurking beneath the canopy of wispy clouds that cling like shredded cloth to the tree tops.

Nothing ever stirs but the breeze pulling at the threads of the clouds and the sun edging steadily across the sky.

I look up the Java peacock later, they are green here instead of the more familiar blue of the Indian peacock that freely wanders the grounds of so many zoos across the world. Green peafowl are also much more aggressive toward intruders.

The peak looming behind us, the one on which one of the eclectic jumble of research volunteers accompanied by a local tracker tirelessly ascend every night, has no name. At least not one I can find through a Google search. It is labelled on the map with the same name as the nearby active volcano, Papadayan, it’s closest neighbour. When Google doesn’t know where you are, you know you have reached the true peripheral wilderness of civilisation. The outlands, the boarder between the rose-tinted halo of society and the chaos of the wilds. I feel this is more a place to belong than I have found in a while. It is beautiful in its violence and contradiction, in it’s unpredictable geology, its volcanic people.

The call to prayer has already echoed around the valley for an hour or more. From this spot, high on the slopes of the nameless mountain, the voices of many mosques meet and victoriously clash together as if at war. The cacophony is almost by design, with an undercurrent of competition raising the volume on every crackling speaker. I can almost hear the tail-end of each verse rise with a question-mark; which mosque has the loudest call, which singer wakes the earliest, which village is the most devout. To me, it is ghostly, like the wailing of another world. Both haunting and godly. It rattles you. I feel both awed by the strange beauty and disturbed to my bones.

Somewhere higher on the mountain, a feral dog howls.

The day begins at 3.30 am for the villagers. We watch as both male and female farmers peacefully traipse up the 1000 meters to their fields and greet us with friendly, wide-eyed smiles as we blearily descend from our nocturnal wanderings on the high slopes. They must think we are crazy, with our big metal antenna for radio-tracking (proven by one unfortunate tracker to double as a lightening rod), our boxy receivers, our charts and grubby clothes and white faces.

I admire them as I look at the empty sacks they carry scrunched up between their fingers and I think of the carrots and green labu that will later fill them to the brim. Some bags will be as large as themselves and half again as wide. They will each carry two, one hanging from each end of a bamboo stick carried across their shoulders, through the height of the midday sun.

We have just completed a shift monitoring the critically endangered Javan Slow Loris, a lemur-like primate that still somehow manages to cling to survival in the uplands of West Java despite severe habitat fragmentation from agricultural practice and poaching for the wildlife pet trade.

It is unsettling to think of these creatures vanishing forever. Every time I close my eyes, it seems like I see those little firefaces, eyes like hot coals burning in the Jiengjen tree, reflecting the red torchlight. I see the cold blanket of stars at midnight sweeping the day from our minds like cobwebs and the mountain glowing at dawn like a beacon guiding us home.

  • Sadhbh
  • Volunteer

My LFP Experience

To me, the decision to become a volunteer at LFP was both hard and easy in the same time. I really loved my job in Jakarta, which I had to leave eventually should I decide to join this project, and I barely knew anything about wildlife activities. On the other side, I’ve always wanted to do some volunteering actions for years but never actually found a project that really excites me like this one. But then I thought that life was simply too short for that kind of hesitation, so I decided to leave my comfort zone and handed my month notice as soon as my application was accepted.

A sight from the front seat of an angkot in Leuwi Panjang Terminal, Bandung

I travelled to Cipaganti from Bandung for the very first time with an angkot (mini bus public transportation, that can pick up and drop passengers in random places) followed by an ojek (motorbike) ride uphill directly to the green house, the name of LFP field station. I got immediately acquaintained with the staffs and other volunteers (and the cats!) as soon as I arrived while enjoying a huge piece of chocolate cake accompanied by a cup of tea, then I met with the trackers the next day. They were all very nice and friendly, hence a very pleasant first impression of my journey here.

Like any other volunteers I join the night observation team, which usually consists of 1 volunteer and 1 observer (plus another volunteer in training if there’s any). My first training session was to observe a male juvenile slow loris named Mungkin (which literally means “maybe”). I find the way they give the lorises name hilarious. Some are based on an Indonesian word: Bintang (star), Lucu (cute), Tombol (button), we also have slow lorises with quite a famous name like: Toyib (from an iconic Indonesian song, “Bang Toyib”), Sule (a well-known local comedian), Xena (warrior princess!), while the others have European names like: Fernando (maybe inspired by a famous ABBA song?), Shirley, Jean, etc. Since I hardly ever exercised, my first shifts were very difficult. I’ve always tried my best not to give up and right now I’m glad that I’ve gotten much better and faster already (although I’m still relatively slow compared to the other observers and the trackers).

Mungkin climbing down on a bamboo tree

In addition to the night observation, I volunteered myself to help managing the data we collected as well. In order to do this, I had to learn about the R programming language, which is arguably one of the best languages to do statistical analysis and data science. In contrast to the other volunteers, I really enjoyed learning how to code using R. We also do a lot of daytime activities here. One of them is our “Nature Club” programme. Twice a week we visit a local school to teach the children English and some knowledge about nature (like what makes a healthy forest, bio-degradability, etc.). Even though I’m really terrible at teaching, I volunteered to assist the teaching force from time to time and tried my best to transfer some of my knowledges to the children. Once in a while we also plant and distribute some trees to the farmers in the conservation area to ensure the sustainability of the slow lorises’ habitat.

Teaching kids English and biology as part of Nature Club activities

Entering my final few weeks, the experience and amazing new friends in the course of my stay at LFP make me really grateful that I pursued my resolution to be a volunteer here. Doing the night observations can be hard sometimes but they are really fulfilling indeed. I’ve always tried to contribute as much as I could, but in the end I still feel that I am the one who gained the most in form of invaluable lessons and perceptions!

  • Joshua
  • Volunteer