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by Wally Van Sickle

We whizzed along at what seemed like warp nine. Three of us and our Indonesian taxi driver, Arvin, were all driving across the middle of Sumatra in a small compact SUV while green images blurred by one after the other. At times we were looking at beautiful second growth rain forest and at other times at miles and miles of oil palm plantations. Ragged karst formations covered with primary forest occasionally dominated the skyline. Distant volcanoes invited exploration.

Sumatra is the sixth largest island on the planet. It sits just above Australia and to the west in the long chain of 18,000 Indonesian islands. Sumatra has a lot of big things living on it. Big trees, big elephants, big Sumatran rhinos, big hornbills, big tigers, and big flanged male orangutans all live in Sumatra. Clouded leopards with their large canines, proportionately the biggest of any cat since the saber toothed cats, also live on the island. Sumatran forests have the world’s biggest flowers and big king cobras slither beneath them. Big rivers, big volcanoes, and big swamps dominate many parts of the island. And, of course, Sumatra has big earthquakes and big tsunamis. Sumatra is the “Wild West” of Indonesia and still has some of the largest tracts of forest left in Southeast Asia.

Our goals were to introduce IDEA WILD to various universities with conservation biology programs and deliver equipment to several projects. Conservation opportunities abound on this island and when I looked out the window I imagined the future Costa Rica of Southeast Asia. Sixteen hours later we arrived at our destination. Arvin still had a big smile on his face.


Like many in Indonesia, Wilson Novarino and his eight siblings, grew up tending the rice paddies that kept the family fed. The family farm in west Sumatra, happened to be near a significant patch of forest and young Wilson spent much of his spare time exploring the forest with a special eye for birds. Even though his parents were poor they managed to raise the money necessary for Wilson to attend Andalas University West Sumatra in Padang. The Japanese covered the cost of his master’s degree, which he received from the same university in 1998. He is now finishing up his Ph. D. and the research activities associated with his graduate degrees center around bird community structure, behavior, and ecology with an emphasis on conservation. To this day, Wilson still realizes his greatest satisfaction when he is in the field looking at birds.

In 2004, the Indonesian Ornithologist Union was created. Wilson was one of the founding members and helped organize the conference. He even managed to find a spot in an already overfull agenda for us to present IDEA WILD to the first ever gathering of the ornithologists of Indonesia. Over one hundred predominant bird lovers and researchers from all over Indonesia were in attendance.

Wilson not only keeps busy finishing up his Ph. D. but also works as a lecturer at Andalas University where he teaches general biology, mammalogy, biogeography and, of course, ornithology. Like many who have taught before at Andalas, he has many protégé eager to follow his lead. The biology department at Andalas is the oldest in all of Sumatra and almost every other biology department in Sumatra was formed by graduates from Andalas. Thanks to Wilson, the tradition continues and is quite possibly more important than ever.

Wilson also conducts field work for the Sumatran Wildlife Mammal Survey. Three large conservation organizations have divided the island up into grids with different people involved in surveying each grid. Camera traps are used to document the mammal species found in each grid. Wilson is in charge of several grids and has captured photos of tiger, tapirs, clouded leopards, and many other species.


We traveled a very long way to meet Wilson. He was our contact person in Sumatra and helped us set up IDEA WILD presentations at Andalas University and arranged logistics for us to travel to other universities. He also volunteered to take us to one of his field sites where he conducts bird banding. The site is on the slopes of the magnificent Kerinci Volcano in Kerinci Seblat National Park. This enormous park is almost 200 miles long.

Several other bird banding sites are located along the Barisan Mountain chain that forms the back bone of the island. Wilson wants to know how the community and population dynamics of bird species is affected by loss of lowland forest and seasonality. Lowland forests are the first to go, especially with the continual expansion of palm oil plantations. Because of these plantations, Indonesia, after the U.S., China, and Brazil, has become the 4th largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Wilson collects all sorts of data and photographs every bird he captures before releasing them. IDEA WILD provided Wilson with a digital camera so he could get the photographs he needs. Data from his research and other ornithologists will be influential in protecting the habitat necessary to conserve the many bird species found throughout Sumatra. The human species will also rely on these forests to help keep the planet cool. I look forward to his success.

Project Cost: $100
Project Sponsored by the Moore Family Foundation