Early Faunal Circulations and the Opening of the Leuser Frontier

Early Faunal Circulations and the Opening of the Leuser Frontier

This undated map, probably from the early-1930s, outlines the boundaries of proposed nature reserves in relation to the range of orangutan populations in northern Sumatra. The map spans parts of present-day Aceh Province and North Sumatra Province. The region that I refer to as "Leuser" is roughly contained within the gray and red shaded areas that contain lines (not dots). Koetaradja (Banda Aceh) sits at the northern tip, while Deli and Medan are located near “Oostkust van Sumatra.” From the Stadsarchief Amsterdam collection, KLAB08888000186.

This map from 1935 outlines the boundaries of proposed nature reserves in relation to the range of orangutan populations in northern Sumatra. The map spans parts of Aceh and North Sumatra. The region that I refer to as “Leuser” is roughly set within the gray and red shaded areas that contain lines (not dots). From the Stadsarchief Amsterdam collection, KLAB08888000186.

The transnational circulation of Sumatran wildlife can be traced back centuries. In the earliest times, the trade mostly dealt with elephants that were valuable for labor. The chronicles of Arab traders who passed through Sumatra in the thirteenth century mention that the Kingdom of Aceh, which was based near present-day Banda Aceh on the northern tip of the island, had a wealth of elephants and rhinoceros and that these animals were important to the Sultan for trade and, with regards to elephants, labor.[1] Nicolaas de Graaf, a Dutch traveler in Aceh observed the first rhino recorded in captivity in 1641.[2] While less is known about rhinoceros in Aceh from this period, the prominence of the elephant in the Kingdom of Aceh has been documented. Together with agricultural products and textiles, elephants were a main staple of the export economy of the various sultans of Aceh.[3] They were commodified and sent to the Middle East, China, and other locations in Southeast Asia. Elephants were also gifted to build or maintain political ties with polities throughout the Indian Ocean world. Originally writing in 1783, Marsden reported a “considerable traffic” in live elephants from Aceh “to the coast of Coramanel or kling country, and vessels were built expressly for their transport.”[4] Sultan Taj al-Alam of Aceh sent eight elephants to an envoy from Gujarat and in 1678,[5] among regulations imposed by the Dutch East Indies Company, was the requirement to charge dues of 10% on elephants bought in Perak “for the purpose of exporting them to Bengale or Coramandel.”[6] The ritualistic, spiritual, and economic importance of the elephant in the Kingdom of Aceh continued up until the fall of the sultanate in 1873, when the Dutch captured the palace at the beginning of the Dutch-Aceh War.[7]

The products of wildlife were also traded, including rhinoceros horns and organs and elephant tusks and teeth. There are no indications that orangutans, tigers, tapirs, or other species that would dominate the trade in the 20th century were yet on the international market. This might be attributed to the habitats of those species being located in the southern highlands and valleys of Aceh that were only reachable by foot until the early twentieth century with the arrival of the Dutch. The preferred habitat of the elephants, on the other hand, were in the lowlands, and only with the growth of human populations, agricultural expansion, and seasonal weather events, such as floods, did they head for the hills.[8] Once the remote southern terminus of Aceh was assumed into the Dutch administrative system at the turn of the twentieth century, the rainforest frontier was opened to the world and character of the wildlife trade changed and expanded.

The Dutch first arrived in the Leuser region in March of 1904. The Dutch army (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger; KNIL) had been engaged in warfare with the Acehnese since 1873, culminating in a battle that would last more than forty years. In March, the Dutch sent the KNIL on a mission led by General G.C.E. van Daalen into the mountainous interior. There were numerous goals for this mission: 1) to scout for the construction of a road network from Peusangan on the coast up through the Gayo highlands, 2) to survey for the presence of minerals and oil, 3) to gather knowledge of the Gayo and Alas indigenous groups living in the region, and finally, 4) to carry out “the heavy-handed task of suppressing rebellious indigenous populations.”[9] After arriving in the northern and central highlands without encountering much resistance, the troops continued on through the southern highlands. From March to May of 1904, it is estimated from eyewitness reports that more than 1,500 local people were killed in the battle.[10] The Dutch “conquered” Gayo Lues and the Alas Valley, the heart of what would become Leuser, in June of 1904.

After more than thirty years of fighting, the Dutch regime had finally assumed administrative control over Aceh in 1904. By 1906, laws were set in place that created formal land ownership in the highlands, accumulating indigenous territories into state possession. The capture of land by the Dutch was premised on the Agrarian Law of 1870 (domeinverklaring), which proclaimed that land not used for “settled” agriculture belonged to the state (domein van den Staat).[11] Geographic space was demarcated based on zoning for different use functions, strictly regulating local land use practices. In the early twentieth century, however, the changes in land law did not immediately impact local practice due to the inaccessibility of the region and the incredible amount of available forest combined with a low population density of indigenous Gayo and Alas people. Management plans, at that time, were mostly confined to administrative records. In the Leuser region colonial control only went as far as the soldiers in the field. In many spaces, according to Netz, “topology was always based on power being present at isolated points.”[12] This will become evident with regards to the wildlife trade, as trappers and collectors moved protected species through the East Indies with relative ease only a few decades after the Dutch first arrived through Leuser. Before we get to the 1920s, however, it should be noted that the conservation and preservation of Leuser was anything but a teleological given before 1920. Efforts to conserve the region only started after the geology expert, F.C. van Heurn, had surveyed it in great depth. He explored Aceh for oil and mineral resources between 1910-1920, but was unsuccessful at finding the minerals he wanted in Leuser.[14] Instead of venturing into mineral extraction, the Dutch turned to species conservation, the expansion of nature preserves, and land accumulation.[15]

I will discuss the expansion of nature preserves and the colonial circulation of Sumatran wildlife in future posts.

[1] Arun Kumar Dasgupta, Acheh In Indonesian Trade and Politics: 1600-1641 (Unpublished Dissertation, Cornell University: Ithaca, NY, 1962), p. 4.

[2] L.C. Rookmaaker, Marvin L. Jones, Heinz-Georg Klös, and Richard J. Reynolds, The rhinoceros in captivity: a list of 2439 rhinoceroses kept from Roman times to 1994 (The Hague: SPB, 1998), p. 149. The appearance of this rhinoceros was noted in the journal of a Dutch traveler, who was De Graaf. He wrote that the funeral procession in 1641 for Sultan Iskandar Muda of Aceh included 260 elephants and ‘enige Rinoceros’ (some rhinoceros).

[3] John Harris and John Campbell, A Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels (London: T. Woodward, 1744), p. 729.

[4] W. Marsden, The history of Sumatra (3rd Edition. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown, 1811), p. 176.

[5] Barbara Watson Andaya, Perak, the Abode of Grace: A Study of an Eighteenth-Century Malay State (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1979).

[6] R.O. Winstedt and R. J. Wilkinson, “A history of Perak” (Journal of the Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society 12 (1), 1934), p. 40.

[7] Poniran posits that there must have been a large enough population of elephants in Aceh in the seventeenth century to supply the sultans and their processions. According to Van Heurn, elephants were held in such high esteem in the Kingdom of Aceh that in the event of the animal’s death, its unfortunate mahout was ordered killed, stuffed inside the dead animal’s stomach, and thrown into the sea. See, S. Poniran, “Elephants in Aceh, Sumatra” (Oryx, 12, pp. 576-580, 1974); and, Frans Cornelis van Heurn, De Olifanten Van Sumatra (Den Haag: L. Gerretsen, 1929).

[8] Van Heurn, De Olifanten, 1929.

[9] J.C. Kempees, De tocht van Overste van Daalen door de Gajo-, Alas- en Bataklanden, 8 Februari tot 23 Juli 1904 (Amsterdam: J.C. Dalmeijer, 1905). From Kempees journal, we learn that this expedition included van Daalen, Lieutenant Veltman, Lieutenant Tolhuys, Dr. Ahn, Lieutenant Schepens, two surveyors, a mining engineer, and a photographer (H.M. Neeb) who documented the journey. The troop was comprised of a large number of Javanese and Ambonese soldiers, but the numbers are not listed.

[10] John Richard Bowen, Sumatran politics and poetics: Gayo history, 1900-1989 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 65.

[11] National Archives of Indonesia (ANRI), Algemeen Secretarie, TZG #6567.

[12] Reviel Netz, Barbed wire: An ecology of modernity (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), p. 63. While the colonial project may have had its insecurities and its powers limited in scope, it was indeed successful in at least one important way. Colonial demarcations did hold in many places and postcolonial states inherited those borders, along with the endemic political and security afflictions that came with colonial cartographies. For example, see See T. Mahmud, “Colonial Cartographies, Postcolonial Borders, and Enduring Failures of International Law: The Unending Wars Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier” (Brooklyn Journal of International Law, 36, 1, 2010).

[14] D.H.D. Rijksen and M. Griffiths, Leuser Development Programme Masterplan (Supported by the European Union, prepared by the Integrated Conservation and Development Project for Lowland Rainforest in Aceh, 1995).

[15] On the spatial production of the Leuser Ecosystem and Reserve in the early twentieth century, see Rijksen and Griffiths, Leuser Development Programme Masterplan; Paul Jepson and Robert J. Whittaker, “Histories of protected areas: internationalisation of conservationist values and their adoption in the Netherlands Indies (Indonesia).” (Environment and History 8, 2: 129-172, 2002); Peter Boomgaard, “Oriental nature, its friends and its enemies: conservation of nature in later-colonial Indonesia, 1889-1949.” (Environment and History 5, 3: 257-292, 1999); and chapter 9 from, R.B. Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin. Wild Man From Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2014).


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