Quest for the Simeulue Serpent Eagle
Rick Watson— January 2012 — in Asia-Pacific Share
I landed at Medan international airport on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, not knowing what to expect, but knowing I would be in for an adventure no matter what. I am on a quest to find the Simeulue Serpent Eagle. Depending on which taxonomic opinion you accept, it is either a race of the Crested Serpent Eagle, or a unique species in its own right. Either way, it occurs only on one island, Simeulue, about 120 km west of Sumatra. Simeulue is the northern-most of a chain of islands along Sumatra’s west coast that starts with Mentawai in the south; the chain continues beyond Indonesia northwards to the Nicobar and Andaman islands off the coast of Burma. The chain is geologically older than Sumatra, and is thought to have species with a unique evolutionary history, which gives rise to the idea that the islands’ Serpent Eagles may be separate species with their own unique lineages. The Simeulue Serpent Eagle is smaller than the Crested Serpent Eagle, and has different detail in the plumage (darker hindneck, richer purplish-brown upperparts, narrower tail-band, more barred underparts) which adds to the argument that it is different. If the Simeulue Serpent Eagle is a species then it may be at risk of extinction as the island’s forests are cleared for plantations of oil and coconut palm, cloves and other agriculture, and establishing protection for the species might protect some of the other species found only on this small island.
My introduction to this part of Indonesia began at Medan airport while I stood in line to pay for my visa on arrival, then stood in another line to be finger-printed and photographed, and then stood in a third line to pass through immigration, where I was finger-printed and photographed again, and given a 30-day entry stamp in my passport. Once outside, I looked around for the domestic air terminal, but finding no sign of it I asked a taxi driver, one of several who were badgering me for their service. He assured me it was too far to walk, and offered to take me there for 40,000 Indonesian Rupiah, about US$4, which seemed reasonable; that is, until he dropped me at the door of a building that was all of 300 m away! I knew I was a naïve target, but figured it was a cheap lesson on which to build my Indonesian experience!
Susi Air operates a fleet of small aircraft throughout Indonesia, and I had booked a seat on their afternoon flight to Simeulue. I made my way through a throng of people milling about the domestic terminal entrance, very aware that I stood out from the crowd, and could be a target for pick-pockets. The taxi driver’s advice as I climbed out of his taxi to "be careful" had put me on edge. Once safely inside, I checked the monitors for Susi Air’s check-in counter, but found no mention of it until a helpful young lady pointed me to counter-4, on top of which was propped a dog-eared 5x8 inch card printed with "Susi Air check-in." From there, things improved as they sent me to the JW Executive Lounge to wait for boarding, rather than the general waiting lounge that serves the larger airlines, like Garuda Indonesia, Lion Air, and Air Asia. Our flight was on a Cessna Caravan, with capacity for only 12 passengers and two pilots who also served as cabin crew. Seated directly behind the pilots, I enjoyed my vantage point by watching as they navigated around the cumulonimbus clouds that had built up through the day and now provided a bumpy ride for the small plane. Below, the city’s sprawl gave way to lush green plantations and flooded rice fields, and then, as the ground rose toward the mountains, rain forest blanketed the ground. I imagined the amazing animals that must be below me at that moment, which could include the orangutan, and Sumatran rhino, tiger and elephant. A little more than an hour later we touched down at Lasikin airport on Simeulue, retrieved our checked baggage, and a few of us hitched a ride in the Susi Air van to Sinabang, the main town about 11 km east across the other side of the island.
In Sinabang I was dropped at the door of Losmen Simeulue, the only "hotel" to answer their phone to make a reservation. A deluxe room with air conditioning ran 200,000 Rupiah, or about $20 per night. The en-suite bathroom was basic; a cold water faucet and bucket to wash in, and a toilet without a cistern…the bucket served dual purpose! The proprietress, a kindly old lady, spoke no English, and since I speak no Indonesian, a fellow guest came to my rescue with some basic English…enough to help me sign in to my room, and ask for a rental car and driver for the next day. Her adult daughter showed up a later, and speaking a little English, she introduced herself as ‘Lia’, and confirmed the car/driver hire—her husband’s business.
A stroll around the village center revealed a generally shabby appearance, with small eating establishments at frequent intervals, but all empty of customers, and with aged morsels of greasy foods in glass cabinets suggesting I may have missed the main meal of the day by several hours. I felt like a fish out of water, and obviously looked it too; people gazed with interest at me, some waved and smiled, two of them stopped to talk, but quickly found my handicap…no Indonesian…while a handful of children shouted "hello mista" with mischievous grins and squeals of delight when I waved and replied "hello" back to them. Back at the hotel, I found that there was no dinner here, so I retreated to my room to write my notes, just as the call to evening prayer in the mosque next door got underway…at full volume.
The next day, after a 5:30 a.m. awakening for prayer in the mosque next door, I was served breakfast of a fried egg and spicy fried rice, with a cup of black, sweetened coffee. Although seated alone at the huge dining table, I didn’t eat in peace…the kindly proprietress stood at the end of the table watching me, but unable to communicate I just smiled a lot, and said "good" while pointing to the food, several times, and she smiled a lot back, but didn’t alleviate the awkwardness I felt at being watched. The car and driver, introduced as ‘Sam’, arrived about 7.30 a.m. and we set off for a day of touring and bird watching. First we circled around the south cape of the island until the nicely paved road gave way to dirt, and finally ended in a foot trail. Although the map I printed off the internet showed the road all the way round the cape, it clearly ended here!
The scenery was of spectacular palm-fringed sandy beaches, interspersed with exposed coral reefs with blue-water breakers crashing on the edge. The coral stands about a meter (3 feet) above the water level, blackened and stark, and a perpetual reminder of the earthquake and tsunami of December 26, 2004…on that day, the island of Simeulue rose a meter out of the water! The tumultuous movement of the earth sent a tsunami crashing onto its shores, and onto the shores of Sumatra, Malaysia and Thailand, and even reached India and Africa. While shoreline houses were swept away all along Simeulue’s coastline, leaving thousands homeless, the death toll was relatively small compared with Sumatra’s west coast. Simeulue’s residents have grown up with the story from 1904, passed down generations from parent to child, of a terrible earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands, many of whom ran to the beach to collect fish as the water receded, only to be swept away when the surge returned as a tsunami. This time, everyone turned and ran for high ground instead, and saved their lives as a result. They had just 15 minutes from earthquake to tsunami; precious minutes to gain high ground. The residents of Sumatra were not as well informed, and the death toll there was much higher as a result. Aside from the exposed and dead coral, the only other visible signs of the 2004 tsunami were the foundations of what were once homes on the beach, and concrete well heads…now defunct. Not far off from this evidence, houses that survived the sea surge are now repaired and inhabited once again, and vegetation has covered the raw scars on the land. As we continued our tour, I searched the trees and sky for birds, seeking the silhouette of the Simeulue Serpent Eagle…all the while keeping an eye on the high ground, just in case!
The birds were surprisingly sparse. I spotted swifts and swallows, giant kingfishers, green pigeons, grey pigeons, and the pale form of the rare silvery wood pigeon. The first birds of prey that I saw were distinctively accipiters. Then finally, the larger form of an eagle circling high on midday thermal caught my eye….the Simuelue Serpent Eagle. I watched it for as long as I could, until it disappeared from view behind a forest clad hill. Our tour continued northwards along the eastern seaboard, which is hillier than the west, with forest descending to sea level in places. About half-way up the length of the island we took a road inland, mounted the watershed divide, and descended to the western seaboard to take the road south again. By 5:00 p.m. our circumnavigation of the entire southern half of the island was complete, and my sightings of Simeulue Serpent Eagles were logged at two. Either this species was not at all abundant, or its behavior made it hard to spot. Only careful surveys over longer periods of time, and preferably during the early breeding season when birds will likely be more vocal and visible, will answer this question. Now, at least, I have the logistical knowledge I need to set up the surveys and recruit the biologists to do it.
If Simeulue was the only island to survey, it could be done in a month of careful work, if done at the right time of year. However, there are other islands in the chain, each thought to have its own species of Serpent Eagle. From Simeulue to the south they are Nias Island, and the Mentawai Islands; then Bawean Island stands alone to the north of Java. On each of Sumatra and Java there are recognizable races of Crested Serpent Eagle, while Kalimantan-Borneo and Sulawesi each have their own species. Outside of Indonesia, there are thought to be separate species on each of Nicobar and the Andaman Islands, the Philippines, and the Ryuku Islands which form a chain to the south of Japan. As I said, depending on which taxonomic opinion you use, there are either 23 races of Crested Serpent Eagle, or 14 races and an additional nine unique island species, five of which are found on islands of Indonesia. It’s complicated and needs to be sorted out. So, our surveys will start on Simeulue Island, and move from island to island until we have the data we need to resolve the question. Once resolved, the interventions needed to conserve the species will become much more evident, but we have a lot of work to get done before then.
The next stop on my trip is the town of Bogor on Java, where I will meet with Indonesian biologists who I hope will join the project team. On my last day here, my new friends at the Losmen Simeulue in Sinabang were up at 5:30 a.m. to see me off and, despite our inability to communicate verbally, they wished me farewell and a speedy return. As my early morning flight from Simeulue rose through the ground mist and climbed above the azure blue of the Indian Ocean, I looked forward to the day when I would return here for a systematic search for the Simeulue Serpent Eagle—species or race.
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