Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem is a magnificent place. One of the largest intact forests left in Southeast Asia, the Leuser covers 2.6 million hectares and is the only place in the world where four important key species co-exist in the wild—the orangutan, tiger, elephant, and rhino. 

It’s the place of Mowgli and the Jungle Book—and it’s essential for the survival of these critically endangered species and for regulating the global climate.

If you want to learn about conservation in the Leuser Ecosystem, Bukit Lawang is the place to do it.

Bukit Lawang as the Sumatran orangutan viewing centre

Ecotourism has huge potential to help preserve mega species of wildlife and plants, as well as to provide a sustainable livelihood for local people that live around the protected area. Each year, data from the Gunung Leuser National Park (GNLP) shows an average of 15,000 visitors to Bukit Lawang, one of the earliest ecotourism areas in the Leuser—and one of the easiest to access.

Established in 1973, Bukit Lawang began its story as a rehabilitation centre for orangutans confiscated from illegal captivity. To this day, the rehabilitated orangutans live there with their offspring. 

Wild orangutan observation- Leuser Ecosystem. Photo: Nayla Azmi
Wild orangutan observation. Photo: Nayla Azmi

Numerous tourism companies claim to be “the only place in the world that can guarantee you to see orangutans in the wild”. But this promise can downgrade the value of ecotourism. While the orangutans in this area are habituated to the presence of humans, orangutans usually avoid human contact. Many of these companies offer practices like illegal feeding and taking selfies in very close range, which are a major threat to the sustainability of orangutans in Leuser.

So that brings us to the main question: is visiting to see orangutans in the wild still relevant to conserve this amazing species? 

If you plan to visit Bukit Lawang, consider taking it slow. Visit some of the other local places around Bukit Lawang to ensure you’re making the most of your contribution to conserving the Sumatran orangutan and its habitat.

Village tour: Timbang Lawan 

Bukit Lawang sits between the villages of Timbang Jaya and Timbang Lawan. The communities are mainly comprised of farmers—so it’s no wonder that the area is surrounded by beautiful paddy fields! Take some time to enjoy them and get to know the villages. 

  • Tofu and Tempeh home industry. Photo: Nayla Azmi
  • Making Tempeh and Tofu. Photo: Nayla Azmi

Through the Nature for Change community organization, Timbang Lawan community is providing homestays so that visitors can live in the community rather than a hotel in Bukit Lawang’s central tourist area. You’ll see how the communities live within the buffer zone of the Leuser Ecosystem and learn about their perspective towards the forest.

Trust me, living like a local with the farmers will be a life-changing experience.

Timbang Lawan offers lots of activities based on local wisdom and knowledge, including lessons on how to make palm sugar and tempeh. Both industries are important for the community and seeing the processes in their entirety allows you to develop a deeper connection with the local people and their environment.

Making sustainable palm sugar. Photo: Nayla Azmi
Making sustainable palm sugar. Photo: Nayla Azmi

Ranto Panjang Eco-Retreat 

Ranto Panjang Eco-Retreat is one of the emerging ecotourism spots—and an initiative from the local people in Timbang Lawan. It’s actually quite far from the community, located next to the Leuser Ecosystem and a rather small but beautiful river called Sungai (river) Landak. Here, you’ll be able to experience a homestay or campsite with stunning views of the Leuser Ecosystem and plenty of peace and quiet.

The area has lots of locally owned plantations, most of which are durian or jengkol, so animals tend to visit during the fruit season from July to August. Don’t be surprised if you see orangutans, macaques, Thomas leaf monkeys, and more—without even trekking!

Ranto Panjang Eco Retreat - Leuser Ecosystem. Photo: Nayla Azmi
Ranto Panjang Eco Retreat. Photo: Nayla Azmi

You’ll learn about the crop-raiding conflict that causes tension between humans and wildlife in many communities. Thankfully, this community has a high tolerance towards sharing space with wildlife.

There’s also a wildlife monitoring spot to see wildlife from afar and walks to see wildlife around the river. Ranto Panjang is the perfect place for a wildlife photographer. 

Slow travel as a solution to conserve the Leuser Ecosystem

More often than not, local people are left out of important Leuser Ecosystem conservation projects. Ecotourism emerges as one of the most effective alternatives because it provides opportunities for the local people to live with the forest standing. 

That said, mass tourism tends to degrade conservation efforts and turn into eco-exploitation. So it’s important to look at conservation and see the bigger picture.

Bukit Lawang isn’t just a place to see orangutans—the area offers an opportunity to spend time learning about (and from!) the local people. How do they see conservation? How do they demonstrate their deep caring and high tolerance towards wildlife?

If you can support the community and forest conservation at the same time, isn’t that fulfilling travel?

Cover: Paddy Fields in Timbang Lawan village. Photo by Nayla Azmi