Where on Earth?
Leuser Ecosystem, Indonesia
GPS Coordinates: 2°51’N 97°53’E
It’s getting harder and harder to find original, untouched wilderness areas on Earth in the 21st century – and even tougher to find ones not under threat. Stretching across 2.6 million acres of tropical coastline, swampy lowlands, meandering rivers, towering mountains and up the flanks of two major volcanoes, Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem qualifies in the first category, but sadly not the second.
Located on the island of Sumatra, just north of the Equator, the Leuser is Southeast Asia’s largest remaining wilderness, and home to an incredible diversity of species. Because it runs from sea level right up to 3455m at the top of Mount Leuser, the region comprises a huge range of different habitat types, from coastal lagoons to montane cloud forests.
Due to a long-running insurgency between 1976 and 2005, this huge, rugged area remained largely undisturbed as rebel forces fought the central government, with over 15,000 lives lost. The Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 helped bring about a ceasefire for aid to get through and successful negotiations followed. With peace came progress. National Parks were opened up again and the area was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its exceptional biodiversity in terms of both species numbers and uniqueness.
As UNESCO notes, the protected area is home to an estimated 10,000 plant species, including many endemic ones found nowhere else on Earth. There are more than 200 mammal species; 580 bird species and 22 different mammals known so far, and much remains unexplored. Because they still all have space to roam freely, it’s the last place on the planet where orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos and sun bears co-exist in the wild.
In its rich forests and peatlands, the Leuser Ecosystem stores over 1.6 billion tons of carbon and produces untold quantities of oxygen – which is fitting since on a map it looks a bit like a pair of lungs. Much of the region’s untouched forest remains, but the ecosystem as a whole is under threat from new road development, illegal logging and palm oil plantations. Indeed, over the last 15 years, Sumatra as a whole has lost 50% of its forests, and the Leuser has lost 20% of its lowland forests in the last five years alone. To combat this, an international coalition of organisations are currently running a campaign to raise global awareness about the region. You can donate and find updates on their site and search for #LoveTheLeuser on social media.
How on Earth?
Covering nearly 8000 square kilometres, Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the best places to visit if you want to experience the Leuser Ecosystem firsthand. You can download an extensive, if slightly dated, guidebook here.