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How One Conservationist Is Sparking a Revolution Among the Youth of Indonesia

On the border of Indonesia’s Kerinci Seblat National Park, conservationist Pungky Nanda Pratama is training the next generation of forest guardians.

By Joshua Parfitt


Delilah, a two-month-old rhino calf, with its mother Ratu at the Way Kambas National Park. (Photo: Andreas Putranto/AFP/Getty Images)

We meet Pungky Nanda Pratama in the village of Karang Panggung in the Musi Rawas regency of South Sumatra. As the education coordinator for the non-governmental organization Animals Indonesia, we soon learn that his job comes at a price: wherever he goes in the surrounding villages, the children never leave him alone.

Pungky and his team, Pradipta Banu and Rifanti Diana Lutfi, are teaching environmental education to five elementary schools in the surrounding villages. The aim is to counter some of the destructive practices that threaten the health of Kerinci Seblat National Park — the largest park on the island of Sumatra, with the highest population of tigers.

To the children, “older brother Pungky” is the fun teacher who shows them the pointy-nosed turtles on the riverbank and the flying dragons in the trees. To Pungky, these children hold the future of the forest in their hands.

“I wish the community would care more about their environment,” Pungky says. “If the local society is not educated, we can give any amount of money to save a rainforest, and conservation won’t go anywhere. Conservation and education must go hand-in-hand.”

Pungky is used to waking up to the sight of more bare hills than the day before — many inside the national park boundaries. He sees villagers on the roadside selling endangered species like snacks. According to him, it is modernization that has pushed the local people into finding more sources of income.

The problem, however, is that, when children grow up seeing this, they begin to take it for granted.

Pungky says that, back when he first arrived in Karang Panggung, in January of 2015, 70 percent of the kids knew nothing about the environment: “They didn’t care. They’d see a frog and kill it just for fun. After bringing in some environmental education, for example teaching kids that frogs predate on mosquitos, they begin to grasp how each animal has its own function in the forest.”

The syllabus created by Animals Indonesia is aimed at the fourth grade — ages nine to 10 in Indonesia. On each day of the week, Pungky and his team travel to one of the five participating schools, teaching 130 students in total. The syllabus itself is divided into 20 different topic areas, including: species identification, a species’ role in its respective ecosystem, and environmental destruction.

“There are no fixed exam dates,” Pungky says, “our target is not material, but how deeply the children understand the core concepts.

“Education here can be direct experience,” he explains, saying that 50 percent of total teaching time is outdoors. “We can see the surrounding hills totally logged. What, then, do the children notice if the forests are logged? The water level in the streams has dropped; the pigs and monkeys are invading plantations to look for food. It’s not complicated, they can understand it by themselves.”

This practical style of education is producing results. Pungky recalls a recent incident when a few children reported the capture of a slow loris. Pungky went to inform the trafficker about the animal’s legal status as a protected animal. He explained the creature’s role in the ecosystem, as a predator of insects that cause damage to trees and crops. Pungky, being a stranger, was ignored.

Later in the day, however, a group of 15 children ran up to Pungky and cried out: “Older brother! Let’s release it, come on, quick!” By their own efforts, the children secured the surrendering of the animal and it was given to Pungky to release back into the wild.

“Our program has really succeeded in changing the mindset of the young generation,” Pungky says. “They’re homemade rangers. They keep watch over their own parents and say, ‘Dad, you’re not supposed to capture this animal.’ If it’s from their own child, parents are much more likely to listen.”

The environmental syllabus is not part of the standard curriculum. The local department of education is interested, however. A recent meeting between Pungky, national park authorities, and the department of education granted Pungky access to three new villages in the Musi Rawas regency. “These three villages are literally touching the heart of the national park,” says Pungky, excited and grateful for the official support.

A side-project of Pungky’s, known as the “mobile library,” has also received some wider attention. The Borneo Nature Foundation recently sent the project a batch of their bilingual children’s book The Little Gibbon Who Lost His Song, which is about forest fires in Kalimantan. The United Kingdom-based organization Green Books also contributed some environmental reading material. With these books in tow, Pungky and his team travel around the villages for an afternoon of stories by the riverbank.

According to Pungky, environmental awareness is not a new concept for the community.

Pungky believes that previous generations better understood their relationship to the environment. This is reflected in certain traditional practices, such as the various methods of catching fish.

Modern chemicals and electrofishing have a destructive long-term impact, since they kill not only the target fish but also their juveniles and eggs. Local fishermen, however, have traditionally used a trap made from bamboo called a bubu gantung. The trap captures large fish while allowing smaller fish to swim free through the gaps between its thin bamboo rods. Pungky explains that such traps are sustainable fishery methods from long ago that also help preserve and protect the community’s own food. “The local people still possess some amazing local wisdom,” he says. “They used to really take care of the forest.”

Pungky’s approach to environmental education is as simple as it is profound. He likes to use straightforward language and clear examples that can be understood by both young children and government officials alike.

For Pungky, conservation is not always a question of money, politics, and national parks. For him, conservation is more about people; it’s about reviving the local wisdom of a village that never received international funding or the attention of researchers; it’s about an inspired group of children who understand the importance of frogs.

“Conservation should be the collective work of all of us,” he says. “The wider world seems to think that Indonesia is backward, and doesn’t understand. But we do. Don’t let anyone tell you Indonesia is incapable. We have conservationists. They just never reach the public eye.”

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.