Nusa Penida: A Safe Haven for the Bali Starling. The fabled mascot of Balinese fauna finds a new home
All photographs by FNPF, Ubud, Bali - Indonesia (except for Garuda Magazine Cover, map of Bali)
The rugged landscape of Nusa Penida is perplexingly different from mainland Bali. Indeed, the countryside has more in common with Blambangan in East-Java, Bukit, and the south-west of Lombok. This is not a coincidence, since this region was formed some 70 million years ago when a gigantic mass of coral was pushed up from the sea to form mounds of limestone. In this Karst-landscape refreshing tranquillity reigns supreme, hardly any traffic about, no pollution and soothing quantities of fresh air up in the higher regions. No wet rice cultivation is to be found on this ‘magic island’, where the main source of income is seaweed, maize and other crops. According to popular mythology the island is home to magical forces and the cradle of ill omens. This may be linked to its unsavoury past, the age of slavery, and eternal feuds between the radjadoms of eighteenth-century Bali.
Located to the south-east of Bali, Nusa Penida consists of three islands Nusa Gede, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan. The latter two islands are well-known with tourists as they offer high-class diving and good accommodation. Nusa Gede is the largest of the three, a hilly island that for a long time has attracted the exclusive attention of Balinese Hindu worshippers. Temples like Ped, Puncak Mundi and the Cave temple of Goa Giri Putri are of specific interest to the Hindu religious community. Hindus clad in traditional religious attire return regularly to appease the local deities. The island is about 200 square kilometres and has a total population of about 20.000 people. It is, however, a lonesome giant, compared with its two minor - but much more famous - siblings. Nusa Penida was used as a penal colony by the various Balinese Kingdoms between around 1850 and the 1930s. Hence, the island was called 'Bandit island'. Scores of criminals ranging from political rioters and cast transgressors to ordinary thieves and those who abused black magic, were expelled from Bali to serve their sentence on Nusa Penida. Most of them died there, for the conditions were harsh. Moreover, the island was once ruled by the cruel Radja Dalem Bungkut whose reign was fortified by his foremost general, Ratu Gede Mecaling. It is the latter who has become Nusa's main 'ambassador', since this fanged giant is held responsible for 'grubug' (cholera), spread over the island of Bali from the south by his army of evil spirits. In order to keep woe at bay, both Dalem Bungkut and Gede Mecaling were given temples on Nusa, located near the town of Ped. These deities have to be continually kept satisfied and are revered with elaborate offerings. Thus, it is not without reason that up until quite recently Nusa Penida was left to its own devices and, perhaps out of fear, largely ignored. Times, however, are changing for the better.
At first glance, the landscape of Nusa Penida seems to have little to offer. The hills have virtually been stripped bare of all trees, leaving behind a bizarre moon-like landscape of barren hills covered with alang-alang grass. Boulders are scattered around natural stone-walled pastures, and the tall vegetation gives off a lovely and all-pervading smell of lime. There appears to be not a great deal of adventure ahead for a true fan of unspoilt tropical surroundings. First impressions, however, are deceiving. The silence one finds on this island, the absence of noise and strangely comforting cool air in the higher regions, make the experience a special one. The views from such high vantage points as Puncak Mundi and Tunjuk Pusuh are breathtaking. There lies the island of Bali, shrouded in plumes of smoke from villages that line the southern coast, with the Badung Strait dividing the two islands. At midday, the panoramic view from the second-highest point of the island, Tunjuk Pusuh temple at some 450 metres above sea level, is awe-inspiring. One looks down on gliding green hills with terraced farming land, steeply rolling down towards the coast, underneath a blazingly blue, sun-lit sky with dramatic cloud formations during the wet monsoon. To the east, there is Lombok, quite clearly visible in fair weather. To the north, the faded contours of Mount Agung and the entire southern mountain range are visible, rendering this vista a near-magic one. After sunset, just take a minute to observe the comforting distance, and let yourself be transported by a unique feeling of detachment. Minutes before it becomes really dark, the cool evening breeze mixes with the sound of crickets chirping in the hills. One observes the twinkling lights of coastal towns such as Padangbai and, to the west, of Sanur and the crowded southern area around Kuta. One cannot help but feel elated at this sight, so close and yet so eternally far away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Bali glimmering in the distance.
After having conquered a few miles of surprisingly smooth if, at times, frightfully steep and narrow tarmac roads leading to the interior, one discovers that the hills are, after all, not that blatantly naked. There are quite a number of undisturbed, pristine pockets of forest on the island. The total size of the forest on the island is 1,048 hectares, a mere 5% of Nusa Penida. Not something to boast about, but in reality there is much village forest still in good condition, sprawled out between farming areas, such as the forests near Tembeling, Tunjuk Pusuh and Puncak Mundi. The tiny hamlet of Penida in the far southwestern corner of the island is an absolute beauty, with not only pristine forest but a freshwater pool at the beach of Crystal Bay as well. One other fine example of natural and unspoilt forest is to be found near the village of Sekartaji, in the remote southeastern corner of Nusa Penida.
Sekartaji is also the home of the Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. At present, there are only four of these birds on the island, and three of these birds live in a gigantic, bright-red flowering ‘Stinky Sterculia’, a sacred tree just next to one of the temples. According to the local community, in the 1980s there were still quite a few of these birds around this village. However, the numbers of cockatoos dropped drastically since the bird was considered a pest. Scarce food crops such as corn were systematically plundered by large flocks of cockatoos.
At Tembeling, a long stretch of lush rainforest meanders down through the hills, from an altitude of around 200 meters towards the sea. One can start this walk from the back of Tembeling hamlet, where a spacious release enclosure for the Bali Starling was set up. From their home perch in a tall tree, two Rainbow Bee-eaters tumble down and nimbly snatch insects in mid-air. After a walk down through thick foliage along a narrow path, it is a true joy to bathe in the cool and shaded 'temple' pond fed by fresh water filtered through the limestone.
Raptors like the Brahminy Kite and the majestic White-bellied Sea-eagle are to be admired on top of the cliffs at Banah Point, on the south-west coast. The views from the steep cliffs over the ocean, with the waves down below breaking against the rocks, are spectacular. Birds-of-prey soar alongside the cliffs, virtually at eye level. In addition, there's the Black-winged starling, once thought to be endangered, now to be found in their hundreds around the mangroves on Lembongan and elsewhere on Nusa Penida.
Amongst these birds, the Bali Starling is no doubt the most important representative of Bali's fauna. To salvage this only Balinese endemic, and critically endangered bird, the Nusa Penida Bird Sanctuary has successfully introduced a conservation programme. The Sanctuary hosts breeding facilities for the Bali Starling, and has seen an incredible rate of chicks born in captivity. Up to the time of writing, a total of 50 birds born in captivity were released on Nusa Penida where they now are breeding in the wild. The first generation of seventeen wild birds are gaily populating their new habitat. A truly magnificent project that has deliberately opted for an alternative approach in protecting this vulnerable bird species against poachers, human greed and forest encroachment. The Bird Sanctuary has, in fact, chosen a radically new conservation approach. The natural habitat of this gem amongst birds is the West Bali National Park, not Nusa Penida. Many former conservation programmes have failed to succeed in preserving the Bali Starling in Bali and numbers in the wild dwindled to about five. These deploring results have inspired Bayu Wirayudha, Director of Friends of the National Parks Foundation and Begwawan Giri Foundation, with the idea of tackling the problem in rather a revolutionary way: a fully integrated approach that combines nature conservation and community development backed up by the islands traditional ‘awig-awig’ laws. In 2005, an all-encompassing agreement was reached between the conservation foundation, the religious authorities, the provincial government to implement an adat law that ordains a total ban on hunting birds on Nusa Penida. The link between religion, adat and strongly felt support given to the population of the island, has, in other words, created the ideal circumstances for this project to succeed.
The mostly poor population of Nusa Penida is assisted in their livelihoods procurement with trees and plants from the foundation's nursery, both for production and reforestation purposes. The sanctuary donates life-stock, and schools across Nusa Penida get visits from especially trained teachers who have formulated a new nature conservation curriculum. In addition to the Bali Starling, other birds profit by these endeavours as well. The Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and the endangered Java Sparrow both get a chance of survival of this 'reinvented' natural environment. All of these feathered friends find a new and safe haven on Nusa Penida, and perhaps thanks to the Sanctuary‘s ‘holistic’ approach, the Bali Starling is again thriving. Presently, around 60 birds inhabit the island. Moreover, the birds are happy to see that the conservation programme has recently received a warm welcome by various institutions and officials, including the President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He has confirmed his personal interest in this project by releasing 12 birds last April. This way, the once ill-fated island now seems to be on its way to becoming a better place for the local community and a natural haven for the birds.
Travel and accommodation
Nusa Penida can be reached by ferry from Padangbai, with one crossing a day aboard the ‘Nusa Jaya Abadi’. It carries some 400 people and a limited number of vehicles. Alternatively, fast boats leave regularly from Sanur and Benoa to Lembongan, with further connections to Nusa Gede.
Accommodation of the island is scarce and basic with losmen in Batumulapan, Toyapakeh and the harbour at Sampalan. Alternative lodgings, comfortable if more expensive, are available at Lembongan and Ceningan. In addition, there is basic and inexpensive accommodation at the Nusa Penida Bird Sanctuary. For more information on a visit you may want to contact the sanctuary prior to departure They can be reached at via the Friends of the National Park Foundation www.fpnf.org, Jl.Bisma no.3, Ubud, phone 0361-977978, e-mail fnpf [at] dps.centrin.net.id. The staff are very helpful and most willing to assist you in finding your way around the island, arranging accommodation and transport.Godi Dijkman is a freelance writer on Indonesian culture and nature conservation based in Ubud, Bali. He began working in Indonesia in 1996 and now divides his time between Bali and Holland.
Dijkman, G. - 'Nusa Penida. A Safe Haven for the Bali Starling, The fabled mascot of Balinese fauna finds a new home', Garuda Magazine, October 2007