Gunung Leuser NP, Sumatra

I recently took a 10 day trip to Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia with the hopes of catching a glimpse of either a Sunda clouded leopard or a Sumatran tiger. As a conservation student involved in a thesis research project on mainland clouded leopards, I am well aware of the minuscule chance one has when attempting to see wild felids (especially on foot). Regardless, I have been rewarded in the past with intimate encounters on foot with ocelot, lion, and caracal, so I wanted to give it my best shot.
I flew into Medan via Bangkok and was picked up by a private taxi to transport me the ~8 hour drive to Ketambe from where I could begin my trek. I hired a famous guide in the area named Johan. Johan felt that the best way of seeing cats in Gunung Leuser was to keep our itinerary flexible. We took with us 1 porter as well. Our first camp was located on the bank of a river within the confines of Ketambe Research Station (a largely off-limits system of trails open to scientists and government workers only) only 3 hours hike from his guesthouse in Ketambe. Johan was surprised I knew the research station was off-limits and he failed to provide me with an adequate explanation for how he has permission to use the trails. At the time, there were no scientists or workers at the station and it was not being protected by rangers. In fact, I saw many use-signs from locals who were using the trails to reach fishing areas within the park and we even passed 2 poachers on the trails who were carrying rifles clearly with the intention of shooting large game of some kind. This was a bad early sign.

The good part about using these trails, legal or not, was that it provided ample opportunity to go on extended night hikes, spotlighting with our head torches. Unfortunately, 5 straight nights of this were rather unsuccessful as we only were able to see lesser mouse deer and various small rodents (admittedly I am unsure of what species). Although the flora in this area appears to be largely intact and undisturbed, I believe that many of the larger inhabitants are hunted out or have moved on due to human disturbances. The research station is quite near to the main road that bisects the NP.

Expressing an interest in moving on, Johan directed us to a platform he had built in the trees as a night-hide. It is well located on the top of a ridge next to a game trail that gives animals only one primary way of moving from one hill to the next. Johan claimed he was afraid of heights and left me with a guide and 2 porters in his place. Why I needed 2 porters and a guide to sit up in a tree with me, I don’t know. After Johan left, these younger guys were not taking things seriously and were very noisy in the tree-hide ruining any chance for an animal encounter throughout the night. I tried to stay up all night to listen intently, but my porters insisted on making random peacock calls and grunts for unknown reasons. They also were too unorganized to take shifts during the night to keep watch and I quickly found myself being the only one awake.

During the day, we had much more success with monkeys. We saw many Sumatran orangutan, long-tailed macaque, Thomas’ leaf monkeys and heard white handed gibbons every day but were continually unable to track them down.

Johan knows the jungle like the back of his hand. He off-trails without a problem and seems to know every tree and rock. Unfortunately, he is also a bit of a bullshit artist. His claims of having seen 1000+ tiger and clouded leopards are insulting considering the other guides at Wisma Cinta Alam (his guesthouse) have all told me they have never seen either species. He also claims that you would only need 10 days to see a tiger or 15 to see a Rhino. Kind of strange considering the other guides have never seen them in many years of working in the jungle. Moreover, his cell phone rings constantly disturbing our night walks. That being said, Johan is very friendly and I did enjoy his company. I only wish that he would be more honest about where the best places to go in Gunung Leuser were to see mammals. I am of the opinion that there are far better places to mammal watch than the area around Ketambe unless you are looking for orangutan, and then you will not be disappointed as they are everywhere (and amazing!). Perhaps if you were to travel 4 or more days into the NP in one direction, you would be able to leave behind the human disturbances that I felt ruined my chances at seeing any large terrestrial mammals.



  • Jon Hall

    Tomer Ben-Yehuda and I spent a few days with Johan (presumably the one and only) last year and had a similar experience He certainly talks a good game about the chances of seeing Clouded Leopards and Pangolins but wasn’t able to deliver for us either

  • tomeslice

    I was just gonna say – I wonder what Jon would say about this, but then I saw he already agreed. In my opinion, your analysis of the situation is precise and exact. The pluses of Johan knowing the forest and the minuses that you have mentioned are all in-line with our experience.
    I, too, found the forest to be in seemingly good shape, but apart from the orangutans and the monkeys we only saw mouse deer, Lorises and flying squirrels. Actually when we spot-lit from the road through the forest between the villages, we also saw colugo, a few palm civets, lorises, and a flying fox roosting alongside the road.

    I would say that in his defense, he did participate in a several-year long research about sumatran rhinos, so I’m sure he has seen both them and Tigers. But not as often as he claims, probably. He also did mention that during the first few month in the field he never saw a rhino, until he decided to only smoke while up in the trees, and be completely quiet. And one last thing – he did send me a picture of him with a pangolin in the forest a couple weeks after we were there. I truly believe he just took a picture with it so we would know it was an original picture, and then he released it. He’s a conservationist, after all.

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