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Day 8: Tangkoko Nature Reserve
Author: Wong Wei Jian
Editor: Dawn Lin, Joel Tan

Famous for the “monkey selfie” that went viral a few years back, Tangkoko Nature reserve is situated east of Manado, and is one of the remaining sanctuaries for wildlife on Sulawesi. It hosts a myriad of different wildlife (some species unique to Sulawesi), and we couldn’t be more excited to explore this place! We were up bright and early, for a hearty breakfast before Bemo picked us up at the hotel lobby. It wasn’t a particularly long ride, but the shifting landscape made it clear that we were travelling out of the city. En route, we saw Mount Klabat, and we learnt from Bemo that it was no longer active.

As we were approaching the reserve, we made a stop at a minimart where we were encouraged to buy some long socks as a precautionary measure -- the reserve is reputedly infested with microscopic mites known to bite visitors on their feet. We bought the socks, and tucked the legs of our long pants into the socks, hoping it would keep the mites out.

At the entrance of the park, we were welcomed by a young man named Ateng and his partner, our guides for the day.

The reserve was filled with wildlife – millipedes as thick as pencils littered the forest floor, lizards of all shapes and sizes were visible on many tree trunks, we even caught a glimpse of a few birds and wild boars in the distance. Yet, the sad truth is that many of Sulawesi’s natural habitats are being destroyed, and reserves like Tangkoko are the little pockets of nature that are protected by the government. As we embarked on this journey to bear witness to such biodiversity, we were thankful for the opportunity we have to observe and learn about these species while they still abounded.

The group of us, exploring the reserve

We followed Ateng as he manoeuvred through the dense forest with ease. It was clear that the duo was experienced in what they do. Their strategy involved a moderate amount of walking (30-45 minutes), before asking us to stop for a short break. Meanwhile, they would scout ahead and alert us if they spotted any wildlife. Thanks to them, we managed to spot a couple of Sulawesi bear cuscus (albeit high up in the trees) as they went about with their daily routine – moving slowly but gracefully along the branches, stopping occasionally to peer down at us. Knowing that their numbers have dwindled over the years, I was extremely excited to see these animals in the wild.

A highlight of the entire trip was the family of five Tarsiers which lived in strangler fig. This tree was what the local rangers called the BBC Tree, as the BBC had previously filmed a documentary about Tarsiers at this very tree. These small primates were nocturnal, and resembled the slow loris. We learnt that these little primates have made this tree their home for several generations, a state of affairs only possible due to the efforts of the rangers keeping this area safe for them. As for the tarsiers, they were more curious about their new visitors than afraid, and soon enough they decided we weren’t a threat and climbed out of their little maze to rest on a vine. We spent a great deal of time observing the tarsiers, mesmerised. They also moved with great agility, hopping to a branch a couple meters away to grab the grasshopper bait Ateng used to lure them out so we could get a closer look.

Tarsier, living in the strangler fig tree

As we headed towards the beach for lunch, we spotted countless black macaques, sat on the ledges of a pavilion, some of them stood on all fours, staring through a window. Ateng explained to us that the alpha of the group was staring at its own reflection, thinking it was another monkey that wanted to fight, and thus was intimidating it. The fight, of course, never happened, and we headed towards the beach for our lunch. The beach itself was beautiful, with washed up corals, some coloured, in various shapes and sizes. Our lunch was delivered to us in reusable plastic tupperware, along with metal cutlery. After our very scenic lunch, another two clans of black macaques came extremely close to us, allowing for a closer look into how they behaved. One of them even came close enough to touch, and reached towards my leg! I stepped back, however, as Ateng said to not let them touch us. The monkeys saw us pull out our camera phones, and some of them sat up on a nearby log, almost posing for the camera. They actually seemed to be enjoying the human company.

A black macaque, sitting on a tree

Yet, it wasn’t all fine and dandy for the macaques – we saw a couple of them who had their limbs injured, likely caught in a snare. One of them had had its hand caught in a snare, a length of barbed wire still wrapped around it; as a result, its slightly gangrenous hand now hung limply and uselessly, and it could only walk with three limbs. One of the injured ones was just a young macaque. As much as Tangkoko is a reserve protected by park rangers, the threat of poaching still exists. Our guides confirmed this, although they added that instances of malpractice have declined significantly after the government’s decision to impose harsher punishments. However, with only 5 rangers protecting all 8,718 hectares of Tangkoko Reserve, it seems more must be done to keep these beautiful creatures safe.

We also had the privilege of spotting some other rare wildlife, which included a Red Knobbed Hornbill whose wingspan was probably a metre wide (we heard the wings flapping of its mate nearby, even though we couldn’t see it). In addition, we also saw the fruits of the Rafflesia plant, which was an incredible find. As we walked through the forest, we also saw a kingfisher swoop right by us! Other species of birds, spiders with bodies as big as my palm, and towering fig trees kept our eyes and cameras busy. There was certainly a whole lot to see and admire.

While we were waiting for everyone to be ready to leave, a friendly dog came up to me and let me pet it. This dog was a vastly different from the ones we saw at the Tomohon market yesterday, and was really friendly towards the humans. It only led me to wonder how much of a sanctuary Tangkoko must be to these animals. However, this façade of peace belies a veritable warzone. The authorities working against poachers, the rangers doing their best against pollution and waste management, and the animals who are fighting for their survival. Yet, I trust that the rangers are doing the best they can, and I hope Tangkoko Nature Reserve will become the true wildlife sanctuary that it used to be, and continue to house the amazing wildlife that we had the privillege of observing today.