Sumatra is Indonesia’s largest island and contains three of the country’s national parks; Gunung Leuser National Park, Kerinci Seblat National Park and the Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. Sumatra is home to 201 mammal species and 580 bird species; making it the only ecosystem on Earth where orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants live together.
Bukit Lawang is the main jumping-off point for the Eastern side of the Gunung Leuser National Park, a popular orangutan spotting area. Although this small town gets nowhere near the number of visitors as other Indonesian tourist hotspots, Bukit Lawang jungle trekking has never been so popular.
Since 2004, Sumatra’s rainforests have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, due to deforestation, Sumatra has lost almost 50% of its tropical rainforest in the last 35 years, leaving many species to be listed as critically endangered.
This deforestation is mostly due to clearing land for palm oil production. Malaysia and Indonesia alone produce 90 percent of the world’s palm oil which is then used to make everyday products such as soap, shampoo, ice-cream, biscuits and more.
The importance of sustainable travel in Bukit Lawang
In order to be more responsible travellers, let’s figure out what exactly sustainable travel is. There are many words for we can use when describing eco-travel; eco-tourism, ethical travel and green travel. However, sustainable travel is the most clearly defined and is more diverse than the other terms.
The World Commission on Environment and Development refers to this term as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
We can clearly break this concept up into three parts:
- The ecological pillar – conserving the natural environment of the place you visit.
- The economic pillar – supporting the community and smaller local businesses.
- The social pillar – supporting cultural projects.
When considering Bukit Lawang, sustainable travel actually has the potential to help save these rainforests and improve the lives of the local communities. We often have a negative connotation when we think of the impact of tourism on an area; however, if monitored carefully, tourism can actually benefit the lives of many and encourage a government to protect certain areas of interest.
Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking: 7 Tips for a Sustainable Trek!
Although many backpackers want to travel more responsibly, it can be difficult to know how to do this. These are the main points that you should consider before arranging your Bukit Lawang jungle trek.
1. Choose a responsible trekking company
With scores of companies advertising jungle trekking to the Gunung Leuser National Park, it can be confusing knowing which organisations are responsible and sustainable. To figure out whether your Bukit Lawang jungle trekking company is operating responsibly, you can ask a few key questions.
- Are they offering really cheap treks?
Grabbing a bargain might seem great but ask yourself, who is losing out? Almost all the prices for trekking in the Gunung Leuser National Park are set by the Indonesian Tourist Guiding Association (ITGA). This helps ensure that guides are compensated fairly, the national park fee is paid, an additional support team are involved so the guide doesn’t need to carry everything and that the fee is paid to support the Indonesian Tourist Guiding Association (ITGA).
- Do they mention sustainability or fair employment on their website?
If not, you should contact them before you book to check. Ask them if they have any sustainable projects or in which way they help to support the local community.
- Do they have photos of them feeding the orangutans?
Orangutans and humans are so close in their DNA, that they can give each other diseases. This is why it is strongly suggested not to touch or feed orangutans. Whilst it is true that many semi-wild orangutans live in the national park surrounding Bukit Lawang and are very familiar with humans, these orangutans have been rehabilitated and returned to the wild. If they are fed regularly, they will lose the skills needed to survive independently in their natural environment.
If you witness guides feeding the orangutans during your trek, feel free to speak out about why you disagree with this. Unfortunately, the feeding of orangutans is usually done due to the pressure felt by the guide for guests to see an orangutan up-close or to get a good photograph to go on their social media.
Whilst the desire to get the perfect photo from your jungle trek is real, some experiences are better captured by memory. If you can’t bear the idea of not having photos to remember your trip by, invest in a good camera with a decent zoom.
SEA Backpacker – Recommended Trekking Company?
If you’re looking for an ethical trekking company that’s doing great things in the local area, we highly recommend Sumatra Orangutan Discovery, run by Welsh traveller Ellie and her Indonesian partner, Teson. The team run a variety of good value for money jungle treks for backpackers in Bukit Lawang, from half day tours to 3-day adventures, where you are taken into the jungle with an experienced local guide to spot orangutans and other wildlife, in an eco-friendly and responsible way.
2. Shop around and join community tourism projects
Now that you’ve found the perfect sustainable trekking company, here is our second piece of advice. Shop around and don’t do everything with one company. Sustainability relies on the distribution of money throughout the community. Consider buying some things during your trip from small local run businesses or street vendors.
If you chose to take part in other activities, consider ones that support the local community and local traditions. Taking part in a Village Life Tour is a perfect way to not only learn more about Sumatra’s local life and customs but it also helps keep traditions such as brown sugar making and small scale tofu production alive. Other great activities to support locals could be an Indonesian cooking class, wood-carving workshop, jewellery-making workshop or visits to local eco-farms.
3. Eat local
We don’t just mean eating from street food vendors; however, this is also a good choice! We are also referring to the type of food you order.
Remember, if you are ordering Western dishes, much of the ingredients will be imported. Eating pasta and pizza in Sumatra is never going to be as good as at home, and it requires a lot of imported products. This not only adds to your carbon footprint but also supports larger import companies rather than smaller local farmers and producers.
Eating local and seasonal isn’t only good practice when travelling, it’s also good if we try to keep it up when we head home. So give a bowl of ‘Lonton’ a go for breakfast, and opt for ‘Redang’ for dinner. Food is such an important part of a culture that it can become rooted in your memory of a place.
4. Choose eco-friendly or green-certificate hotels
It can be challenging in Bukit Lawang to differentiate which hotels are genuinely green and which ones are simply adding the word ‘green’ or ‘eco’ into the name of the hotel. Check a few details; do they have air-con in the rooms? Air-con is definitely not an eco-friendly option so instead ensure your room has good ventilation and a fan.
We advise as a general rule of thumb to avoid large resorts. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, to build the resort, many trees are often cut to create adequate space. These kinds of accommodation options can also be wasteful with daily bedding and towel changing.
5. Say NO! to plastic
Shockingly, more than 80% of marine plastic pollution comes from Asia. Plastic water bottles are a sign of wealth and status in Asia; therefore they are frequently used when they are not necessary. Be an example to others, and invest in a travel water-filter bottle. That way, you not only save money but you help save the environment too.
The links to Amazon below are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate South East Asia Backpacker earns from qualifying purchases.
Some of our top-rated water-filter bottles are:
- Grayl Geopress (Read our full review of the Grayl Geopress here!)
- SurviMate Filtered Water Bottle BPA Free.
- Brita 20 Ounce Sport Water Bottle.
- LifeStraw Go Water Filter Bottle.
Remember when trekking in the jungle, the old saying, ‘take only photos and leave only footprints’ applies.
If you travel with non-biodegradable items such as batteries, light bulbs and antiperspirant and deodorant spray, we ask that you kindly take these products home with you, where you can recycle them. Recycling in Bukit Lawang and wider Sumatra is not easily accessible, and these products could end up harming the environment if they are not correctly disposed of.
6. Avoid palm oil products
Palm oil production requires vast amounts of land. This leads to loss of habitat for the Sumatran Orangutan as well as all of the jungle’s other inhabitants. Furthermore, these plantations are monocultures, growing only one kind of tree and this results in a very low level of biodiversity.
Avoiding palm oil entirely could be quite challenging. This edible oil is used in almost all the products we buy such as; biscuits, chocolate, chewing gum, ice-cream, shampoo, washing products, cleaning agents, cosmetics, palm oil biodiesel and even animal feed.
It also isn’t clearly labelled and can come under such names as Vegetable Fat, Vegetable Oil, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Glyceryl, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Stearate, Elaeis Guineensis, Stearic Acid and many more.
However, reducing the consumption of products listing palm oil derivatives is a step in the right direction. If complete avoidance is not possible, try switching to sustainable palm oil products. Finally, if you really want to make a difference, try writing to big companies demanding labelling transparency to show palm oil clearly.
Ethical Consumer is a great website which explicitly labels whether a product is palm oil free or made using sustainable palm oil. It also highlights companies that you should avoid from an ethical perspective.
7. Contribute to legitimate conservation charities
There are a number of great organisations working to protect the rainforest and save orangutans. We would recommend Orangutan Foundation, Sumatran Orangutan Society: SOS, and Rainforest Alliance. Consider doing a fundraiser in your home country, not only to raise awareness but also to raise much-needed funds for these organisations.
If you’re looking for an ethical trekking experience in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia, check out these treks by Sumatra Orangutan Discovery who offer eco-friendly treks into the jungle to spot orangutans.