Waterbird Census in Sumatran Tiger Hot Spot

Hizbullah Arief (Communication and Reporting Specialist at Sumatran Tiger Project)
Yus Rusila Noor (Head of Programme, Wetlands International Indonesia)

What do Sumatran tigers have to do with Asian Waterbird Census (AWC)? The answer to this question laid bare from the experience we had from 16-17 January 2018 in small village named Sungai Cemara in Tanjung Jabung Timur District, Jambi Province of Sumatera island, Indonesia.

Tuesday morning, we hopped on board of a speed boat travelling from Nipah Panjang, where we arrived the day before. Three 200 HP engines were running propelling the boat at full speed in just several minutes crossing calm and glowing water of Batanghari River heading to Pantai Cemara, the beach of pine trees, in the east coast of Jambi.

Pantai Cemara spans at around 450 ha bordering with Berbak Sembilang National Park. Berbak is the first Ramsar Site in Indonesia, where Sumatran tigers roam freely becoming kings of the jungle. Like a pancake sliced in the tip of national park’s border, Pantai Cemara provides small rooms for migratory waterbirds to take rest, fed themselves in full to make sure that they have preserved enough energy to continue their thousands-miles of journey to find warmer weather. The beach is like an oasis for camels and wanderers in the desert. It is a heaven for both the birds and birding aficionados.

Terek Sandpiper in Pantai Cemara

The first day of Asian Waterbird Census was filled with enthusiasm.  More than 25 people joined the trip, including staff from Ministry of Environment and Forestry, national park authority, students, conservation practitioners from non-government organizations and even a travel agent representing tourism player. Yus Rusila Noor, Head of Programme, Wetlands International Indonesia, is one of them. With years of experiences as Coordinator of Asian Waterbird Census in Indonesia, he had becoming the resource person and of information for anything related to waterbirds and the census. The others were staff from Sumatran Tiger Project, a project funded by Global Environment Facility (GEF) with Ministry of Environment and Forestry as implementing partner.

As we reached Pantai Cemara in the afternoon, we suddenly heard birds singing up in the branches of pine trees standing like a living wall near the coastline. As we walked through pine trees barricade, vast and open coastline greeted us with smiles and while the water retreated.  That was when we saw birds flying and running on the sand looking for high protein delicacies.

We walked around 2 kilometers to reach the perfect spots for bird observation. Using binoculars and telescopes, we were busy challenging for identification of almost similar-looks shorebirds. Others were busy taking pictures with powerful tele-lens to document the species.

Waterbird Census in Pantai Cemara

The census continued on the next day. Early in the morning we left from the village using motorcycles to reach the beach faster. The water is rising in the morning as we braved the sea waves to reach the highest spots for waterbirding. Based on earlier experience, January is not the peak season for waterbird observation in Pantai Cemara. But still, we can spot thousands of migratory shorebirds flying, maneuvering, approaching the shallow waters reaching Pantai Cemara in this moment. These moments were priceless.  Hundreds maybe thousands of pictures were taken to allow these beautiful moments to stand still, including documentation of leg-flagged birds marked in Chongming Dao – China (black over white), Victoria – Australia (orange) and Pantai Cemara (orange over black). The observations of birds in Pantai Cemara that marked at some five years ago is reassuring and demonstrates the importance of this area for these birds.

Migratory waterbirds in Pantai Cemara

A total of more than 13,000 migratory waterbirds of 30 species were counted during the two days over for one-hour observation periods, dominated by Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Mongolian Plover and Terek Sandpiper. It was good to observe Great Knot among the big five with more than 1,000 individual, and 30 Asiatic Dowitchers. “The result is excellent knowing that we only monitor the birds for one hour during challenging high tide” Yus said.

Mongolian Plovers among Great Knots

Pantai Cemara has been declared by the Indonesian Government as a conservation area under the status of Essential Ecosystem Area, under the jurisdiction of local government of Tanjung Jabung Timur District of Jambi Province. The area has been fully recognized as one of the most important staging site for non-breeding (northern wintering) shorebirds, at least since the first assessment of the area for the establishment of Berbak National Park, back to early 1980s. Recognizing the international importance of the area for conservation of migratory waterbirds, the local government is currently developing a plan to establish the area as a special-interest eco-tourism destination, aiming on the sustainable tourism as well as improvement of local’s economy. A scientific-sound monitoring data and information is therefore urgently required to ensure that the area is developed on migratory birds-centered base, involving not only local but also flyway-wide stakeholders.

The potential benefit of Pantai Cemara is real as it provides alternatives income for local communities to prevent them performing illegal logging and poaching in Berbak Sembilang National Park as habitat of the only remaining tiger species in Indonesia, Sumatran Tiger. The presence of (migratory) waterbirds provide a great example of symbiosis and mutualism not only with the local people but also with the kings of the jungle, the Sumatran Tiger.

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