Why You Shouldn’t Visit It
The Main Activities in Tangkahan: Elephant Washing & Riding
The elephant sanctuary is a popular destination for travellers in Sumatra because of its proximity to Bukit Lawang – one of the best gateways in Sumatra to see orangutans. You can visit Tangkahan from Bukit Lawang on a day trip. While they are only 20 km apart from each other, the bumpy journey easily takes 2 hours.
At the Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary you can bath the elephants, ride the elephants or do both. These tours are offered twice a day: starting at 9:00h and at 14:00h.
The site positions itself as an ecotourism destination. And while it has actually started with good intentions to end illegal logging, it is not a true sanctuary in our view. The label is only used for greenwashing to cash in on people’s willingness to spend money in the name of environmental protection.
Elephant washing sounds innocent but requires physical and psychological “crushing”
Seemingly innocent interactions with elephants could already be very problematic. According to World Animal Protection the bathing is oftentimes stressful for the elephants, especially when dealing with groups of excited people.
But the real horror is the torture required to bring the elephants into submission to safely interact with tourists: A technique called “elephant crushing”. This includes forcibly taking elephant babies from their mothers, chaining and cruel beating to tame them.
Visitors can wash elephants in Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary. As beautiful as the selfies are, as brutal is the abuse it takes to get elephants into submission to show unnatural behaviour such as being washed by humans.
Elephant riding can cause permanent spinal injuries and depression
As strong as elephants look, their spines cannot support the weight of people. Doing so frequently can lead to permanent spinal injuries. There are further complications from having a chair attached to their backs which painfully rubs on their backs and cause blisters that can become infected.
Moreover, elephants are a lot like humans: They socialize, have families and friends, feel pain and happiness. When they are in trekking camps, they are separated from their herd and can get depressed.
Visitors can ride elephants in Tangkahan Elephant Sanctuary. This can cause permanent injuries on the elephant’s back as it is too weak to carry things.
Animals in a real sanctuary live in freedom with little human contact
Ethical wildlife sanctuaries care for animals that have been rescued from abusive situations. The end goal should be to release them again in the wild (as has been done with many orangutans around Bukit Lawang). And when the animals are too traumatised or injured to ever return to the wild again they should live in the camp in as much freedom as possible with little human contact.
As there should never be any physical contact between visitors and elephants, ethical elephant camps work on an observation-only model. This still provides jobs and a valuable income to local people while it genuinely helps elephants in need.
Do proper research before visiting a wildlife sanctuary
Unfortunately there are a lot of shady sanctuaries like in Tangkahan. But that doesn’t mean there you can’t find an ethical sanctuary to visit.
Do your own research and make sure your once-in-a-life-time elephant experience is not based on a lifetime elephant torture. Ignore the self-labelling and beware that even tour agencies do not always know. There are many genuine orangutan tour companies in Bukit Lawang that offer tours also to Tangkahan simply because it is the thing to do and they just never thought of the unethical side of elephant riding and washing.
The first and easiest step is to check if the elephant sanctuary you’re thinking of visiting is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. If it isn’t it does not yet mean that it is shady. Read reviews and contact the sanctuary with a lot of questions. One yes to these questions could already be a red flag:
- Do the elephants perform for visitors (such as painting or standing)?
- Can visitors feed, wash, ride or touch elephants?
- Are the baby elephants separated at times from their mother?
- Are the elephants chained (usually at nights)?
- Are the elephants bought (instead of rescued)?
- Do they use bullhooks against elephants in any circumstances?
But despite a thorough research you may still end up in an unethical sanctuary. In that case, help fellow travellers by leaving a review and posting photos or videos. In some cases it will even motivate the camps to improve their practices.
A British family enjoys a photo shoot with juvenile elephants at Lucky Beach on Phuket, Thailand. Many travelers, unaware of the training the elephants endure, view such picturesque experiences as the highlight of their trip. Source: National Geographic Channel.
A final word: Spread the word & Share
We have written this article because we belief in the power of ecotourism and it hurts to see greenwashing attempts undermine the true ecotourism concept.
It is not uncommon that animal camps that chain and abuse animals label themselves as sanctuaries to lure more visitors. Unfortunately, it is a very simple and successful strategy that unaware travellers easily fall for.
Could you help us spread the word, protect travellers from a big disappointment and help them choose true ecotourism destinations to support environmentally friendly initiatives? You help a lot by sharing this article with your network.
Palm Oil Deforestation
What You Can Do About It
A brief introduction to Palm oil
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the palm fruit, which grows on the Elaeis guineensis or simply African oil palm. Palm oil trees grow naturally in tropical forests, and originate from west and south-west Africa.
Palm oil trees were introduced by Dutch colonists to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th century and have been planted extensively to satisfy global demand. Now, Indonesia and Malaysia together make up over 85% of global palm oil production.
Especially in Indonesia palm oil production has soared in recent years. It is a significantly more profitable commodity for farmers than traditional farming and has helped lift many people out of poverty. According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Industry, the palm oil industry employs 4.5 million people, and is the single biggest export product of the country.
Why is Palm Oil an issue at all?
Palm oil destroys rainforests and kills orangutans
Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhino. In Indonesia alone, a forest area the size of Belgium is lost every 2 years (let this sink in).
While the deforestation directly contributes to the population decline of orangutans, the good news is that orangutans are resilient and can adapt to some level to new environments such as palm oil plantations. However, deforestation severely deteriorates the orangutan population indirectly through the increased killings by farmers protecting their harvest and through the new infrastructure making it easier for poachers to get further into the rainforest.
A recent study from 38 international institutions found that nearly 150,000 orangutans were killed in the period 1999 – 2015 in Borneo. In the last 75 years, the population has dropped by 80% to an estimated population of 104,000 orangutans on the island. And according to the researchers it will further fall by at least 45,000 by 2050 due to habitat loss alone without fresh efforts to protect them.
Palm oil is a major source of CO2 emissions
In preparing rainforest land for palm oil plantation, the most valuable trees are cut down and removed first. What remains is burned. Tropical deforestation is currently responsible for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC, and the plantations to produce it account for 10% of permanent global cropland .
Palm oil facilitates child labor and inflicts local conflicts
The USA ranks the palm oil industry as one of the worst for forced and child labour , where children “carry large loads of heavy fruit, weed fields, and spend hours every day bent over collecting fruit from the plantation floor” for little compensation. The Indonesian government claims that “thousands of communities are involved in conflicts with companies, the state and each other” consequent to the industry.
Palm Oil and Tanjung Puting National Park
While Central Kalimantan has one of the fastest rates of oil palm expansion in the world, an unaware visitor to for example Tanjung Puting National Park – where we offer Borneo orangutan tours – may not even notice this.
If you look closely, though, you will see that as you cruise through the Sekonyer river that the Tanjung Puting National Park is on one side where you will have all the activities, while the other side is private land with palm oil trees.
We have noticed that some of our clients in Tanjung Puting National Park tend to blame “palm oil farmers” for the harmful effects of this industry to the rainforest destruction and the killing of orangutans.
While we understand this sentiment, we also recognise that local farmers simply try to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. Moreover, harvesting palm oil on private land is not an environmental issue if that land was already used for agriculture.
But then whom to blame? Well, it’s a complex issue, but instead of pointing at farmers, we think it is better to increase scrutiny on the following players:
The big industries – such as BW Plantations in Kalimantan – that expand their activities through deforestation and stealing land from native communities.
The village of Tanjung Harapan on the Sekonyer river in Tanjung Puting has over 100 families who are actively opposing the palm oil plantation and its expansion and demand the rights of the Sekonyer community to be returned.
Your political representatives that have not yet advocated the mandatory labelling of palm oil in your daily products to enhance customer awareness
The consumer. Let’s face it… in the end the palm oil industry just has a demand to meet… While blaming ourselves is inconvenient, it also means that we hold the key to solve the issue.
Then Why Is Palm Oil Used?
Palm oil simply serves the global demand for vegetable oil, accounting for about half of all packaged products in the supermarket according to WWF.
Compared to other vegetable oils such as soy, rapeseed, coconut or corn, palm oil has a superior yield and it produces up to 3-8 times more oil per unit area! Its high melting point make it smooth and easy to spread and it is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine.
FIGURE 2. A comparison of the land efficiency for different vegetable oils relative to palm oil.
Which Products Contain Palm Oil?
Well, the better question is which products do NOT contain palm oil. Fifty percent of all packaged products in the super market contain palm oil according to the WWP.
It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. It is widely used in tooth paste, frozen meals, sauces, oat meal and cleaning products. The below illustration gives you an impression of how you consume palm oil on a daily basis.
FIGURE 3. A Day in Your Life with Palm Oil, based on a design by Philadelphia Zoo (edited for readibility).
Yet, most consumers are not aware of their immense palm oil consumption, and even if they want to be more conscious about it they struggle because palm oil is rarely clearly labeled in the ingredients list.
Ingredients list for palm oil
Many products that use palm oil aren’t clearly labeled. Palm oil and its derivatives can appear under many names. Here are some of the used synonyms for palm oil according to the WWF.
INGREDIENTS. Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol
CONTAINS. Palm oil
How Can You Fight Palm Oil
The most effective solutions come from the demand side as suppliers are going to keep clearing forests until consumers force them to stop. Consumer awareness is needed about the link between the purchased products and the environmental disaster they’re causing. Beyond these generalities, here are 4 concrete actions you can take:
1. Consume Less Palm Oil
The most effective measure is simply to reduce your palm oil consumption. Use fresh ingredients for your meals as opposed to frozen dishes or processed food and switch your hand soap, tooth paste, shampoo or brand of biscuits to a sustainable alternative.
With such small changes to your shopping habits, you reduce your palm oil consumption and influence directional changes for global corporations.
2. Look for the RSPO Label
Major palm oil producers, consumers and the WWF established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which is a certificate for palm oil that is produced in a sustainable manner.
There are still some issues with the RSPO label. It does not rule out the clearing of the rain forest, climate protection is ignored, compliance with the criteria is not consistently reviewed, and violations are rarely punished. Greenpeace even considers the RSPO to be “little more than greenwash”.
Nevertheless, it is the strongest certification for sustainable palm oil. Moreover, the RSPO management recognises the criticism and tries to address them with the help of NGOs.
If you aren’t sure whether a company uses sustainable palm oil as an ingredient, use the rating tool of the WWF.
Fortunately, there are many bright conservation organisations, activists and communities fighting the palm oil industry and rehabilitating wildlife suffering from it. Think of International Animal Rescue, Rainforest Action Network, Friends for National Parks Foundation and Save our Borneo.
However bright they are, this is a fight between David and Goliath and they depend on kindhearted volunteers and sponsors. Make a difference by financially supporting them.
4. Promote Eco-Tourism
You may think “Isn’t the most sustainable way of travelling, not to travel at all”? Mass tourism has severely impacted Indonesia, with fresh water reserves cemented for hotels, beaches littered with debris from revellers, and wild animals captured and displayed for entertainment.
While not travelling has the least direct environmental damage, the indirect damage could be much worse as it forces local governments to find other income streams and further strengthens the palm oil industry.
Instead, we advice to travel sustainably. Ecotours incentivise locals to conserve the rainforest and not destruct it. Choose a tour operator that genuinely cares about the environment. Read more about the importance of ecotourism in this post.
It’s surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on earth.
– David Attenborough –
A Final Word
We have written this article to enhance costumer awareness about the devastating effects of our daily lives on the beautiful rainforests and wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia.
We realise that we only reach a very small audience and that our contribution is tiny. But if we all would make a tiny contribution, couldn’t the sum add up to something immense? Couldn’t we make the difference together?
We only reach a small audience. Please help us spread the awareness and share this article with your network.
Bukit Lawang Orangutans
Because of the past orangutan rehabilitation initiative in Bukit Lawang, some orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park at the side of Bukit Lawang are semi-wild and live peacefully aside humans.
The Ultimate Guide to Bukit Lawang
While the rehabilitation centre has been closed in 2002, the reintegrated orangutans and their offsprings are still monitored by rangers. These semi-wild orangutans usually have names; the wild orangutans that live deeper into the jungle and who are harder to spot, usually do not have names.
The Orangutans around Bukit Lawang
While its kindness towards humans is touching, it is sad that he has become semi-wild and that some visitors or guides feed orangutans for a nice picture or for a better tip, resp. At Local Guides it is prohibited to feed orangutans. Instead we educate visitors about the dangers of feeding or touching orangutans.
The Ultimate Guide
History of Bukit Lawang as Rehabilitation Center
In 1972 a Swiss based organisation initiated Bukit Lawang as the center for orangutan rehabilitation. Its main purpose was to preserve the decreasing population of orangutans due to hunting, trading and deforestation.
In the rehabilitation phase, rangers taught survival skills to the rehabilitating orangutans. Thereafter, the orangutan was released to their natural habit for reintegration. However, the orangutans that have been released in this area are still being monitored by the rangers.
Over the course of time Bukit Lawang became increasingly visited by tourists, and consequently the orangutans were increasingly exposed to human interaction. Unaware visitors touched and fed orangutans, which made the orangutans sick, food poisoned, and dependent to humans, and which jeapordized the objectives of the rehabilitation center.
The rehabilitation centre closed in 2002 as the place got too crowded and unsuitable for animal rehabilitation, but the role of Bukit Lawang as the centre of ecotourism to see the semi-wild orangutan keeps going on until now. In order to minimise the human impact on orangutans, local guides explain to travellers why it is forbidden to get near or feed orangutans.
What to do in Bukit Lawang
The must-do activity around is the Bukit Lawang Jungle Trek in Gunung Leuser National Park. You will be trekking through the jungle, spot orangutans and other animals, and stay overnight in jungle camps. We recommend to do at least a 2D1N Bukit Lawang Jungle Trek to experience a magical night in the jungle. However, visitors enjoy the 3D2N Bukit Lawang Jungle Trek even more because of the full day in the jungle. For trek lovers with more time, we also offer longer jungle treks to get deeper into the jungle.
Day-to-day-itineraries for all Orangutan Treks
(for the itineraries, click on the tab above the image slider)
Below is the day-to-day itinerary of the 3D2N Bukit Lawang Jungle Trek.
Itinerary for 3D2N Bukit Lawang Jungle Trek
Day 1: Start in Bukit Lawang: All-Day Jungle Trek
We start around 8-9 a.m. after breakfast at your hotel. We walk for around 6-7 hours into the Gunung-Leuser National Park and will along the way see a lot of wildlife, such gibbons, leaf monkeys, longtail and pigtail macaques, flying squirrels, Sumatran peacocks, hornbills and of course orangutans.
Our guide will show some natural medicinal plants and explain how to use them in practice. After a nice lunch in the afternoon, we continue towards our campsite where we will rest, get a hot drink and take a refreshing jungle bath in the clean stream.
We will end our day at dark with a well-deserved diner at the camp fire!
Day 2: All-Day Jungle Trek
Waking up in the middle of the jungle is a magical feeling. You hear the morning sounds of the birds and the excitement of the gibbons in the distance as you breath the fresh air.
After a good breakfast, we get ready to leave the camp and walk for 5 to 6 hours in the jungle towards another camp site (usually “Aras Pinang”). Along the way, we enjoy the nature and wildlife, try all sorts of ‘jungle-food’ and how to recognize them and use them. We have lunch in the jungle somewhere half-way.
At the camp we can relax and swim in a clean jungle river. We end the day with dinner at campfire.
Day 3 – Return with Rubber Tube Raft
The following morning you can choose to either do a short jungle trek or to simply relax at the campsite.
After lunch we head back to Bukit Lawang with a exciting tube raft on the river through the jungle! Alternatively, we can return by foot (depending on your personal wish or for safety reasons)!
How difficult is the orangutan Jungle Trek
The jungle treks in Bukit Lawang is done by people from all ages, ranging from solo traveller’s in their 20st, to families with young children and elderly people.
The regular all-day treks take 6/7 hours with breaks in between, and the terrain is relatively easy with here and there some odd small climb. The guides tailor the trek as well as the speed to the wishes and abilities of the clients. Fit travellers may get a more challenging route with more climbs, while families with young children will do some short cuts and have more breaks with more time spent on explaining the animals, insects and the medicinal properties of the plants on route.
The jungle is relatively dry and therefore the humidity is less of an issue than in rain forests elsewhere in Indonesia.
When you book your Bukit Lawang Jungle trekking, just inform your guide of your fitness and make sure that they will adjust the itinerary to your abilities. If you book your Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking with Local Guides, you can just mention your wishes in the online booking form and we will tailor the itinerary, accordingly. We will always discuss the itinerary also just before we start the jungle trek so that we can accommodate any wishes up to the very last moment.
Is the Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking safe with children
The Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking can be tailored to wishes and abilities of visitors. In our experience, kids are among the people that enjoy the jungle trek the most. While Local Guides pays special attention to families with kids already by default, in case you book the tour with anyone else, ask the guide for the following arrangements for a carefree and enjoyable time with your kids:
- Ask for a private tour to make it easy to tailor the trek length and speed to the abilities of the children
- Ask for extra breaks for the kids to play around and rest a bit during the trek
- While kids are excited to see Orangutans, they are also excited to learn about all the insects. So ask the guide to also talk about the insects (or medicinal properties of plants) – kids love that!
- Ask your guide to choose an easy path
How are the jungle camps?
There are several different jungle camps in the Gunung Leuser Nation Park where one can have an overnight as part of the jungle trek. They are all situated next to the Bohorok river, so you can have a fresh bath at the jungle camps.
However, beware that the camping here is not glamorous! While you sleep under mosquito nets against insects, the mattresses are thin. The toilet is a simple squat toilet. So this tour is not for the glamorous traveller.
Instead, expect fun, adventure and a back-to-nature experience! You’ll never forget your night sleeping in the lush jungle, and waking up with the morning sounds of the monkeys and birds!
How is the food
In contrast to the jungle camps, the meals are of relatively good quality. All meals are freshly prepared; at Local Guides, we even send a private cook with you to the jungle.
- For breakfast, there are typically banana pancakes and tea.
- For snacks, there are a lot of fresh fruits to choose from ranging from pineapple, oranges, mangoes to passion fruit and melons.
- In the evenings, there are several options to choose from ranging from tasty chicken dishes, a traditional Sumatran fish casserole, vegetable dishes, with fried potato or rice, and with – of course – fresh fruit. Throughout the evenings, you can take biscuits, tea or water.
In case you have any dietary restrictions, just inform your guide about it in advance so that they can accommodate for when doing the shopping.
How to get to Bukit Lawang
Fly to Medan. The gateway to Bukit Lawang is the Medan, Sumatra. Fly to Kuala Namu International Airport in Medan. From Medan it is ±3/4 hours driving to Bukit Lawang.
By Local Bus (budget travellers). Most local buses to Bukit Lawang leave from a terminal at Kampung Lalang, on the outskirts of Medan. Local buses can get you here for around 6,000 Rupiah, but you may need to learn a bit of Bahasa Indonesia to survive! From Kampung Lalang, a minibus to Bukit Lawang will cost ±30,000 Rupiah per person, and the journey will take 4-5 hours. Be prepared for a lot of Indonesian music being played by the driver! Last bus to Bukit Lawang leaves at 17.30hrs.
By Luxury Bus. A more luxury option is to take a tourist bus to Bukit Lawang. These depart from near the Grand Mosque in Medan and they are relatively good quality buses (by Sumatran standards) that don’t break down as often as the minibuses. The price for a bus ticket is ±100,000 Rupiah.
Private Transfer (Recommended Option). The most comfortable and fastest way to get from Medan to Bukit Lawang is by taxi. You won’t have any hassle of finding the bus terminal and are not restricted to the timetable. If you do a Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking with us, you can book the private transfer directly with us for a price 600.000 IDR for up to 5 people. You can be picked up at your hotel or airport in Medan.
Where to stay in Bukit Lawang
A recommended accommodation in Bukit Lawang is Ecolodge . It is a beautiful facility and it also donates parts of the proceeds to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.
Another recommended accommodation is Sam’s Bungalow .
What is the best period to visit Bukit Lawang
Orangutans can be seen all year round as part of a jungle trek from Bukit Lawang.
From a weather point of view, the best period to visit Bukit Lawang is in dry season in the period April – September. The busiest period is July – August.
The wettest period is December – January: There are still mostly periods with sunshine but also frequent heavy rain falls typically at the end of the afternoon.
The shoulder periods October-November and February-March are quite good periods to visit Bukit Lawang as well. While there are rain falls in this period, these last just for a few minutes. Also there are very little tourists in this period, so it will feel as if you have the village and the Gunung Leuser National Park all for yourself!
Is Bukit Lawang a Touristic Destination
Over the past few years, Bukit Lawang has seen the number of visitors rise significantly. Together with Lake Toba, Bukit Lawang is considered the touristic hotspot of North-Sumatra. However, it is still a small village, with plenty of locals not living from the tourist sector, and compared to other places such as Bali, Flores or the Gili islands, the village feels still authentic and during the day it is easy to chat with friendly locals.
Also during the day most people are trekking in the jungle and you can relax in the beautiful village almost on your own or chat with the friendly locals. But during the main season from May to August it is likely that you will encounter other groups during the jungle trek. At Local Guides, we do our best to avoid the mass also during high season.
Do Not Feed Orangutans & Respect the Environment
Feeding orangutans is an absolute no-go. All our clients are instructed to treat orangutans respectfully, keep a safe distance, do not touch them, and do not feed them. The orangutans are wild, and should be treated accordingly.
Feeding orangutans may at first sight seem innocent or even a kind gesture, but it will make them aggressive towards humans, lazy to find their own food, or even sick.
We believe it is our responsibility to respect nature and educate our clients about the fragility of it. And we know that travellers will treat our jungle with the same respect once they understand the environmental consequences of our behavior.
Also, please always make sure you do not throw anything away in the jungle. Our guides will pick-up the rubbish they will see along the way and therefore the jungle is still very clean despite the number of visitors, but our goal is to further increase awareness and sense of responsibility among all visitors so that there wouldn’t be any rubbish to pick up at all:-)
What to bring for your Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking
- comfortable/closed shoes for the trek
- sandals or flip-flops for walking in the river
- light trousers and shirts with long sleeves
- insect repellent (DEET 40%)
- small backpack for the trek
- mobile charger for your electronic devices
Where to go after Bukit Lawang
A popular combination of destinations in North Sumatra is Bukit Lawang, Tongkahan, Berastagi, Lake Toba.
Tangkahan is ±2 hours away from Bukit Lawang by car and is known for its elephant sanctuary where visitors can wash elephants and do elephant trekking.
The popular activity in Berastagi is climbing the volcanic mount Gunung Sibayak. Especially the sunrise volcano trek is a beautiful and satisfying activity. The climb is easy and takes ±2 hours; other activities include visiting traditional villages, natural hot tubs or the famous Berastagi market. It is ±5 hours driving from Bukit Lawang.
Lake Toba has been formed by a super volcanic eruption ±70.000 years ago. In the heart of the lake the idyllic Samosir Island is located which is the place to be around Lake Toba. In addition to the pristine scenery and serenity, you can learn here about the local Batak Culture, relax at the beach, explore the island by motor bike or play with the friendly and curious children.
- Day-to-day-itineraries for North Sumatra tour packages
(for the itineraries, click on the tab Sumatra Tours above the image slider)
- Prices & Availabilities are found on the online booking form