30 TH December 2004, Medan, Sumatra.

Dear all,

Not really “SOCP news” this time but want to get this information out to as many people as possible. Attached with this is a copy of a press release from PanEco and also details of some accounts (one in Switzerland and one in Indonesia (YEL’s account) that can be used for donations to Aceh and Nias. All of us at SOCP are working flat out on this effort and we can assure you that 100% of any donations sent to either PanEco or YEL’s accounts will be spent delivering aid into the hands of the people who need it most. We are also here, in the thick of things, and already have teams going in and out of the worst affected areas. We are well informed and up to date and can adapt and change as priorities change. See the end of this letter for further details of PanEco and YEL’s accounts.

Having said that, am sure you all know what happened on the 26 th. What you may only just be realizing though is something that all of us here knew right at the start. Aceh is by far and away the most devastated region. Predictions of the death toll in Aceh are now getting closer to what some of us thought at the beginning too….more than 100,000 is not unlikely. Some of our staff have been into Aceh already and there are horrific reports of massively infected and untreated wounds, and farmers performing amputations with machetes, no sutures, no pain killers or anaesthetics and no antibiotics! Dysentery and Cholera are also now setting in and are going to escalate the problem dramatically in the next week.

Despite the above I (Ian) am extremely pleased to say that almost all (SOCP) are safe and the orangutans are all fit and well (after being just a bit startled by the tremors that day). All of us have lost friends and some have lost family, but I am just as happy to report that none of the direct SOCP staff has lost a wife or child (as far as we know). The same cannot be said of many of our colleagues though. Many of the staff of the Conservation Department in Banda Aceh have gone (including Yusuardi who often transported orangutans to us in Medan) and Pak Andy Basjrul, the head of the department, has lost his entire family. Our deepest condolences go out to him and the survivors among his team.

The Quarantine centre and office in the Medan area, Ketambe research station in central Aceh (far from the coast) and the Reintroduction centre way down south in Jambi were all completely unaffected. We did lose the four orangutan cages we had built for Pak Andy in Banda Aceh but luckily there were no orangutans in them at the time. The most heavily destroyed areas are all in Aceh and the islands off the west and northern coasts (including Nias, Simelue, the Pulau Banyak islands and Pulau Weh). Some low lying islands have actually disappeared. There was small scale damage (in other circumstances it might be regarded as major) and a scattering of deaths along the east coast of Sumatra as far north as Lohksumawae and Blangpidie on the west coast of Aceh, but north of these major towns the picture is truly mind numbing.

Meulaboh on the west is 80% gone, along with 80% or more of its population (estimated ca 15,000 deaths on the 29 th). We were lucky enough to see some of the very first aerial photos from this area (courtesy of the Leuser International Foundation). Around 20 or 30 people could be seen in the central part of Meulaboh. Further north from Meulaboh there was nothing except 4 tiny buildings around a telephone mast on a hill, with about 10 or 20 people, in what used to be Calang. I have travelled these roads in the past and they used to have shops, houses and large villages on both roadsides pretty much continuously all the way to Banda Aceh. Now all that remains is the occasional white square where the concrete floor of a house can still be made out. What surprised me most was that there isn’t even any debris! Pictures from Banda Aceh and other big towns show tons and tons of timber, cars, corrugated iron roofs etc littering the landscape. There is none of this up there on the west coast. It really has ALL gone, and all of the people with it. Even the road has gone. The occasional 100m stretch of road you can find is either buried in mud, no longer has asphalt on it or has disappeared under the sea. Once we saw these pictures we knew immediately that the estimates of deaths and missing being circulated by the press and media at the time were tragically underestimating the scale of the damage and losses in Aceh. After returning home late that night on the 27 th and putting on the TV, seeing the rows of dead young kids (jaws tied up with string to keep the flies out of their mouths) being stacked up in Banda Aceh (with my own young kid soundly asleep in the next room) and realising that only a handful of people had watched this video just 20 minutes ago, I found tears trickling down my cheeks. Sadly, the rest of you are only just now gradually waking up to what those few people in that room knew then.

The reasons why the scale was so badly underestimated are basically twofold I think. Firstly, there were virtually no foreigners in the province at the time and overseas media naturally showed greatest interest in Thailand and Sri Lanka where most of the tourists were. The second reason is because there really was zero information out of Aceh on the 26 th and most of the 27 th. Communications were blacked out throughout the province (no electricity so no telephones, including mobile phones) and the only news we had was from anyone who had managed to drive out. There was therefore, genuinely just a trickle of information reaching Medan passed on by distraught people.

The relief effort has been slow to get started. International aid was hampered in the first 48 hours by the legal status of the land. Aceh has been in civil war for several years now and for the last 18 months no foreigners have been allowed in without special government permission. Unbelievably, this was still legally the case on the 26 th, 27 th and most of the 28 th as far as I could tell. Only yesterday did I see in the papers that the border controls on foreigners had been officially lifted (though naturally, anyone trying to get in does not seemed to have been told they couldn’t before that date). I think this problem did hamper overseas military teams getting in for a day or two though, including US Marines among others.

Now it seems anyone can get in. Road access is fortunately still possible along the east coast road all the way up to Banda Aceh itself. On the west coast, however, there is one bridge down in Bakongan, so even people in the relatively unaffected areas of Tapktuan and Kota Fajar are now cut off from regular food supplies. I am ecstatic to tell you that all my former assistants and friends near my old research site at Suaq Balimbing (near Kota Fajar) appear to be fine. Incidentally, one of them, Azhar, normally lives on the island of Simelue now but was visiting me in Medan on the 26 th…..fortunate.

So what is happening now? Basically Aid work. Everyone throughout the country is doing whatever they can from what I believe but I doubt it is enough. What happened first was that everyone was simply waiting for news or making their way home to find friends and family. Asril (quarantine manager) had no news of his family or his wife’s family. Nuzuar (Ketambe research manager) feared for his wife and 10 month old baby. Both headed up together on the evening of the 27 th and all are ok. Isa, (head of orangutan post -release monitoring) was in the field in Jambi and didn’t even know about the tragedy that had occurred for two whole days. Fortunately his family are also all accounted for. The first aid transports began to go up on the 27 th but only a handful and all carrying mostly clothing and food. On the 28 th communications via mobile phones became possible, the airport was reopened, and the message went out that clean drinking water was unavailable and lots of people were beginning to get very sick. The number of trucks, food drops and other transports went up on the 29 th as people had by then established what are called ‘POSKO’ or coordination posts to gather aid items and get hold of vehicles to transport them. There are now many of these all around Medan and I suspect throughout the rest of the world by now (I hope so)! We have one here too, our office has been taken over by boxes and bags and people!!

Only yesterday did I see that the military and government had reached Meulaboh by helicopter and small Cessna (nothing else can land as the runway is badly damaged), and I believe the first doctors are being dropped there by helicopter as I write (30 th). Aid items can only be delivered by air to this region since ships cannot get nearer than 700m from the shore and there are no small boats capable of unloading them. I also hear that a very large proportion of aid that is ‘literally’ dropped, is exploding on impact and largely wasted. We are currently trying to arrange for a French disaster relief team (Pompiers sans Frontieres) to be dropped in Meulaboh on the 2 nd. I still have no idea if those few people around the telephone tower in Calang have been contacted yet! We had a phone call from Asril yesterday in Banda Aceh. Please send medicines he said. When asked what kind he said medicine for amputees and people with fever (meaning Dystentry and Cholera are getting going) and severely infected wounds. I asked who had done the amputations and if they had any medicines at all and was told “just anyone, basically, and we don’t have anything”. No antibiotics, no sutures, no anaesthetics, nothing for cleaning or dressing wounds, just nothing at all, even in Banda Aceh.

People are now slowly beginning to send medicinal supplies but I suspect the overwhelming majority of aid from Indonesians is still food (rice, noodles), water and clothes being delivered by trucks. I was at the air-force base in Medan last night and they too are still sending out a lot of these items. True, they are certainly still needed, but we really need to increase the numbers of doctors, paramedics, nurses, medicines and equipment as soon as possible. Thankfully, I was told that priority is being given to doctors and others with medical expertise for any transports capable of conveying people to the worst areas, but it isn’t enough yet. PanEco/YEL sent the first of many truckloads of aid this morning, complete with some intravenous saline drips and medicines for cholera, dysentery, and large rotting wounds. Disease is likely to kill a large number of the survivors and we must get these things to them as soon as humanly possible. Another problem I foresee is that the Indonesian general public’s concepts of what constitutes important medicines and my own concepts differ somewhat. When they do start sending medicines we could easily see boxes and boxes of drugs to treat what are merely symptoms, and that will do very little to solve real problems, although they may be worth it if they make people at least feel better for a while after what they’ve been through. Asril himself asked for anti “masuk angin” (basically wind or indigestion) and headache and eye medications.

So, please do whatever you can to help. You have never seen a disaster like this and you never will again. If, like me, you normally think that one person doesn’t make a difference and everyone is contributing so I don’t really need to, then wake up. One course of an antibiotic like tetracycline, ciproxin or ceftriaxone could save someone. Likewise, a few bags of saline solution and a drip. A few masks and gloves can prevent a doctor getting sick and unable to work. Trucks still have to be rented (alas, some people still get their profits out of these things) and although the military (both Indonesian and from abroad as well) are doing their utmost to get the most important people and things into the most desperate areas, they are woefully under achieving so far. I can’t believe that there could be anyone out there that is not donating something but if there is, this really is the big one and your gonna’ regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t! So do SOMETHING!!

What about GAM?

GAM is the Indonesian acronym for the Acehnese separatist rebels who have been fighting a guerilla war for independence from the Indonesian government for some decades. In the late 1990’s, after the fall of President Suharto from office, hostilities escalated. Thousands have been killed, largely civilians, in the last 8 years as a result of this war. One of my workmates and close friends in South Aceh, Idrusman, was killed by a machete on the throat in 1999, but we still don’t really know if it was GAM or simply rogue bandits that were responsible. GAM’s ability to endure lies in the fact that they are simply Acehnese people, able to blend in easily when in towns and villages. They also hole up in the forests, and are therefore not easy to locate and fight. Apparently a ceasefire was drawn up the other day but I already hear there were some members of the main Indonesian Electricity company kidnapped the day before yesterday in central Aceh (in the Ketambe region) and I hear unconfirmed reports of shootings already too. Such is daily life in Aceh these days.

What about animals?

I am getting more and more emails and calls asking about wildlife, animal welfare and conservation, so will put some information down here that I can then copy and paste into emails from now on, even if it may seem a bit ‘insensitive’ after the above paragraphs. I am being asked, however, and these are issues that need to be addressed.

The forests and the Leuser Ecosystem have not really been touched. The only places where decent forest reaches the coast in the north of the island is the three swamp areas of Singkil, Kluet (including Suaq Balimbing) and Tripa (just south of Meulaboh). I imagine some sea water has spilled into at least the Tripa swamps but aerial footage shows they are very much still in tact. I would be very surprised if any wild orangutans or other large terrestrial species have really been affected at all (although there was a story in the Jakarta Post yesterday about some people being saved since they grabbed a python the size of a telegraph pole as it drifted past). Animal casualties will only include those that where in settlements or on pasture land or agricultural land within a few kilometers of the coast and those being kept as pets (cage birds mostly but including monkeys, gibbons and orangutans). We knew of one pet orangutan in Meulaboh that is almost certainly dead. Thus it will largely be domestic animals that have been killed or now lie suffering where they landed. These include cattle, buffalo, goats, sheep, chickens and cats and dogs. Domestic pigs are pretty much unheard of in Aceh. For those that have no idea, the typical coastline around much of northern Aceh comprised villages, blue sea, coconut palms, sandy beaches, some rice fields, oilpalm plantations and some coniferous tree-lined beachy areas, especially near the swamps. Mangrove areas weren’t so common, though they do occur north and south of Medan.

No-one here has really been thinking about animal welfare issues much and even I can understand that. I just called someone in Banda Aceh to ask if there were any sick and dying animals lying around untreated and the impression I got was that my friend was a little offended, and I felt guilty for asking, but nevertheless he replied. He said no-one has paid much attention. He is in (what was) a large city, so mostly dead chickens here and there and a few cats and dogs. Nothing much, if anything as far as he had seen, that is in urgent need of veterinary attention. Its either alive or dead I was told, and any animals that survived but were injured have probably starved and succumbed by now. He admitted it could be different outside of town but he has no way to get there. I will continue to try and find out about this issue.

From a conservation standpoint, trying to look into the future a little. The notorious Ladia Galaska roads project must be on hold now. It would be expected that in the aftermath of this disaster priority is likely to be given to rebuilding roads that have gone, such as the coast road north of Meulaboh in the west. However, it could also be that the authorities decide that this disaster clearly illustrates a need for better overland access to the west coast from the east, since if that had been possible now things in Meulaboh at least, would have been much easier. My own feelings are that surely there will be a major review of all future development plans, and hopefully bodies such as the World Bank and IMF will have enough influence to be able to steer future developments away from dissecting critically important ecosystems, essential to the future well-being of the Acehnese themselves!

Another concern is the potential source of building materials. Aceh possesses some of the largest and most impressive forests in the world today and even within a country as biologically rich as Indonesia, the Leuser massif and the forests to the north along the Bukit Barisan mountain chain are among the very richest in biodiversity. Unfortunately, they are potentially also the easiest, quickest and cheapest source of timber for future development and housing needs. Recently, Aceh has led the way in reducing logging after a moratorium on all logging practices was imposed throughout the province a few years ago. Again, it has to be hoped that the government will choose the correct path, and not be easily persuaded to relinquish one of its greatest assets in the interests of a quick (but in the long run largely temporary) fix. The temptation could be great, however, so viable alternatives will certainly need to be sought!

Right, having read all this depressing stuff, pick up the phone or get on the internet (do it NOW) and send in some money!


As I said, you can donate much needed money to purchase medical equipment and whatever else is a priority at the time either to PanEco in Switzerland or to YEL here in Medan. Either way, the money ends up in this office and we can personally guarantee that 100% of it will reach the hands of the people in greatest need!


Account name: YEL Qq Bencana Alam
Account no:      027-01-18531-00-3
Bank address:  Bank Niaga
                        Jl. Gajah Mada
                        Sumatera Utara
                         Tel: 4151100 or 4144789
SWIFT code:




Bank Address: Credit Suisse Bahnhofplatz/PP

CH-8400 Winterthur / Switzerland


Account No: 490097-11; Note Tsunami 2004

Name of account: PanEco Foundation, Berg am Irchel , Switzerland


Other information:

Bank Clearing No 4791

Swift address: CRESCHZZ84R

IBAN-Nr. : for CHF : CH89 0479 1049 0097 1100 0

IBAN-Nr. : for EUR : CH28 0479 1049 0097 1200 1