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The Leuser Ecosystem: At the frontlines of extinction


This blog comes to us from Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian who worked on the covert operations for Racing Extinction. 

You have likely heard of the Amazon or the Congo, but the lesser-known Leuser Ecosystem on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, is just as biologically diverse, just as important to the continued survival of species, and just as important for our global climate.

Stretching over 6.5 million acres, the Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on Earth where rare species like Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos, elephants and sun bears live together in the wild. It provides habitat for at least 105 mammal species, 382 bird species, and 95 reptile and amphibian species. If we lose the Leuser Ecosystem, we risk losing many of these species forever.

The Leuser Ecosystem is not only important for the unique plants and animals that call it home, but it’s also necessary for millions of people that depend on it for a clean, steady water supply. Globally, we all depend on it: the Leuser Ecosystem plays a critical role in helping to regulate our global climate by absorbing carbon pollution and storing massive amounts of carbon in its lowland rainforests and peatlands.

Despite the importance of this critical biodiversity hotspot, vast areas of its rainforests and peatlands are being destroyed for new Conflict Palm Oil plantations.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is found in roughly half of all packaged goods; everything from cookies, chips, and instant noodles to lipstick, shampoo and detergent. As the cheapest vegetable oil in the world, the skyrocketing demand for this commodity has driven industrial-scale plantations deep into the rainforests of Indonesia. The forests of the Leuser Ecosystem are no exception and are increasingly being targeted for palm oil expansion.

How can I know which products containing palm oil are truly sustainable?

The vast majority of palm oil found in our household products is known as Conflict Palm Oil as it is linked to the destruction of rainforests, climate pollution and human rights abuses. Right now mainstream companies are not using palm oil in their products that is truly conflict-free. Consumers are being misled by labels on products that say “sustainable palm oil,” which is a term that has been diluted and overused as a greenwashing tactic to the point that it is no longer a useful term to distinguish good palm oil from bad. This is why there is a growing movement calling for truly responsible palm oil, which adheres to a higher standard of production and does not contribute to deforestation, species extinction, high greenhouse gas emissions or human rights violations.

Why not boycott palm oil altogether?

Palm oil has become the most widely used vegetable oil in the world and demand continues to climb in major markets such as in China, India, Pakistan, Europe and the United States. The pervasive nature of palm oil is also why boycotting products that contain it would be nearly impossible. Instead this growing movement must, first and foremost, demand a transformation of the way palm oil is produced globally. This approach is already proving successful as each year more and more of the companies that buy, sell and use palm oil in their products have adopted responsible palm oil commitments. But we must hold these companies accountable and turn these paper promises into real change on the ground in the forests of Indonesia where it matters most.

What can I do?

Given the scale of the climate and biodiversity crisis, we must act now.  

We all have a role to play in the palm oil story. We can #StartWith1Thing and demand that companies cut Conflict Palm Oil. Using our consumer power, we can drive a change in the way palm oil is produced.

In the fall of 2015 I had the opportunity to visit the Leuser Ecosystem and witnessed first hand its beauty juxtaposed with its destruction. We can’t afford to lose this priceless ecosystem for an ingredient found in our snack foods. That’s why I need your help today.

Join our friends at Rainforest Action Network in calling on the biggest palm oil companies in the world to halt the destruction of the Leuser Ecosystem.

New Video Calls for Urgent Action to End Conflict Palm Oil


Image: Paul Hilton Photography

On the heels of the recent release of the highly acclaimed major film RACING EXTINCTION that dramatically exposes the hidden world of the global extinction crisis, the team behind this groundbreaking project has released a new short video highlighting the critical importance of protecting one of the world’s most high priority landscapes for conservation, the extraordinary Leuser Ecosystem.

You have likely heard of the Amazon or the Congo, but the lesser-known Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia is just as biologically diverse, just as important to the continued survival of species including orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants. The extraordinary Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia needs your action today.

Stretching over 6.5 million acres, Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem is the last place on Earth that can support, together in the wild, viable populations of rare species like Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinos, elephants and sun bears. It provides habitat for at least 105 mammal species, 382 bird species, and 95 reptile and amphibian species. Scientists consider Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem to be among the most important forests left in Southeast Asia yet we’re losing it for Conflict Palm Oil.

Palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil on the planet, found in more than half of all packaged goods in an average local supermarket (such as chips, cookies, instant noodles, ice cream, frozen meals, shampoo, lipstick and pet food). The blind growth in demand for palm oil has recklessly pushed massive, industrial-scale plantations deeper into the heart of Indonesia’s rainforests, including the Leuser Ecosystem. If we lose this biodiversity hotspot, we lose many of the unique species that call it home.

“Millions of viewers have been moved to tears by the compelling portrayal of Earth’s extinction crisis contained in the groundbreaking film RACING EXTINCTION” said Heather Rally, a wildlife veterinarian who worked on the film’s covert operations. “Universally people have left this film asking ‘what can we do?’ This short film is an answer to that question.”

There are some places that are just too precious to humanity, too important to the survival of wildlife, to be destroyed for quick corporate profit. The Leuser Ecosystem is high among them. We all have a role to play. We all have something to lose.


Press Images (CREDIT Paul Hilton)

More info on Leuser Ecosystem

An Update on Lamakera


Manta Hunting Village

Of the handful of locations that account for the majority of manta fishers, the central Indonesian village of Lamakera is at the top and is considered the world’s largest manta fishing site. Villagers here have conducted traditional manta hunts for many generations, but with the arrival of the gill-plate trade in the early 2000’s, the community converted to diesel engines and transformed to a full-scale commercial fishery, landing over a thousand mantas in a single season. Since then, the fishing intensity has only increased, sending the manta population into a downward spiral. Having documented this grizzly hunt, we wondered how could we possibly mobilize action to save this vanishing species before it was too late? We had to act but needed international and domestic support first to make it happen.

Please go to to contribute, get involved and learn more.

You can also support the protection on manta rays with the purchase of a sustainable gift HERE

Manta Sanctuary

Following a landmark victory for mantas at the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and after a one year campaign in Indonesia by Conservation International and WildAid, in January of 2014 we achieved an unprecedented achievement, securing full national protection for manta rays and establishing Indonesia as the world’s largest manta sanctuary!  With this landmark legislation in place, we immediately turned our attention back to Lamakera and began planning in earnest what would become the kick off for a massive community transition program to end the slaughter of manta rays.

Lamakera Ocean Theater

Our team traveled by air to Bali and onward to Flores, then by trucks over the rugged mountains of Flores, and finally by sea to the village of Lamakera. Undeterred by scorching sun followed by monsoon downpours, together with the community we erected the massive screen and inflated our giant 21-foot inflatable manta ray. As the sun dropped below the horizon we switched the projector on, and what followed was one of the most powerful and transformative moments for not only for this community, but also for the Racing Extinction team.

Lamakerans gathered by the hundreds in the schoolyard, while more lined the fences surrounding the yard. When the fist images a giant manta lit up the screen, a hush fell over the stunned crowd, followed immediately by deafening cheers of exuberant children. The show was on! We delighted them with profound imagery, video shorts featuring stunning blue chip marine footage, and conservation stories about manta rays and the oceans. Even the most hardened of the manta hunters were transfixed by beauty of a world they had only witnessed from the other end of a harpoon shaft. Turning our gaze to the screen, we noticed a row of small children sitting, their beautiful dark wide eyes soaking up every image on the screen. For these children a seed was planted and a brilliant transformation was already taking place. Suddenly their futures presented exciting new opportunities, not as hunters, but as guides, researchers and maybe even photographers. We felt hope return and I saw a path to end the slaughter and transform the livelihoods of this remote community.

A New Day in Lamakera

Building off this spirited and inspirational community outreach event in April 2014, with support from Vulcan Philanthropy, MacArthur Foundation and private donors, and in partnership with Misool Baseftin Foundation (charity of Misool Eco Resort), WildAid, Reef Check Indonesia, and Indonesian Manta Project, and with full support from the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, we are now working within the community to make lasting change in Lamakera. Having earned the trust and respect of many village elders, we are engaging with the community at large, educating community members more thoroughly about the state of the oceans (and the inevitable fate of their industry and villages if they don’t act sustainably) and gathering wide-spread support for a community transition from manta fishing to research, sustainable fisheries, and tourism.

However, a community transition to new industries can be extremely challenging, especially in a place like Lamakera, where the manta hunt is not just a source of income for locals but also a source of pride and traditional identity. As such, we are engaging respectfully and carefully to ensure that our presence is invited and respected throughout the communities. Our activities in the villages are completely transparent, and designed to engage every interested or concerned villager in public forum. The decision to stop fishing may come from the village elders, but the vast majority of people must support the transition for it to be effective.

A successful initiative that ends the manta hunts will not only play a pivotal role in helping Lamakera find a sustainable path forward, but will also create an inspiring example to the rest of Indonesia, and the world, that we can effectively conserve vulnerable marine life, even in some of the most challenging sites on earth.


State of the Ocean: Hunting Manta Rays in Indonesia

State of the Ocean: Hunting Manta Rays in Indonesia

State of the Ocean: Hunting Manta Rays in Indonesia