The Sulawesi bear cuscus is a vulnerable animal on the IUCN Red List found in only one part of Indonesia.
In the past, farmers viewed cuscuses as pests and would hunt them. However, after receiving training from the Rainforest Alliance, local farmers are now taking action to protect this rare species.
Editor’s Note: The following was originally published on the Rainforest Alliance’s Frog Blog on October 21st, 2015. It is cross-posted here with permission.
As cocoa grows on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in the Bantaeng district on the island of Sulawesi, the rare Sulawesi bear cuscus roams freely nearby. However, until recently, rather than celebrate a harmonious coexistence between plant and animal, the local cocoa community felt nothing but mistaken frustration towards these cute and furry marsupials that are unique to the region. Farmers thought the Sulawesi bear cuscuses nibbled on their cocoa crops, but it turned out that they weren’t the culprits.
‘We only knew them as pests to our cocoa farms.’
So what’s changed?
The Rainforest Alliance is now working with many of the local cocoa farmers, who have achieved or are working towards Rainforest Alliance certification of their cocoa farms. As part of this work, the Rainforest Alliance has been running training workshops for 1,532 local farmers, including workshops focusing on protecting Bantaeng’s rich biodiversity and wildlife.
There are actually two kinds of cuscus in the Bantaeng district: the Sulawesi cuscus (Strigocuscus celebensis) and the Sulawesi bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus), which is the larger of the two species. One cuscus fact that surprises most people is that they are not actually part of the bear family. These small creatures have tails as long as their bodies and are technically arboreal marsupials. Mothers carry their often-underweight infants in pouches for up to eight months.
During these training workshops, cocoa farmers learned more about their region’s protected and endemic wildlife, as well as how to safeguard animals inhabiting the trees on their farms. This topic naturally included the Sulawesi bear cuscus, and the farmers had a lot to say when the name ‘cuscus’ was raised. Many admitted that before this training, they had been unaware that cuscuses are endemic to this region and are protected under Indonesian law. One of the attendees commented, “We only knew them as pests to our cocoa farms. It’s very useful to know that they are actually protected by the government, and have important functions in nature.” The farmers had mistakenly assumed that a cuscus will spend days attacking just one tree at a time, finishing off each cocoa pod in the tree before moving on to the next tree. In fact, there is no evidence that this species eats cocoa; a cuscus will mostly eat leaves, as well as fruits such as mangos or rambootan.
‘We caught it yesterday!’
During one of these training sessions, one participant stood up and exclaimed, “We caught it yesterday!” As he approached the front of the training session with a tied up dampasa (the local name of Sulawesi bear cuscus), the farmer explained that one of his children spotted it on their roof the day before, and decided to catch it. So with the help of his friends, that little cuscus was unfortunately captured.
The Rainforest Alliance’s training team explained to the farmers that cuscus are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and are protected by Indonesian law, and therefore need to be saved. Cuscuses also have a role in the local ecosystem, as their presence helps maintain the natural balance. Protecting biodiversity and wildlife is included in the Sustainable Agriculture Network’s (SAN) rigorous standards, which all Rainforest Alliance Certified farms must adhere to.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
The farmers learned that their cocoa was actually eaten by rats, and not by cuscuses. The Rainforest Alliance has trained this group of farmers on how to safely and responsibly protect their cocoa from rats. Additionally and importantly, farmers now know that hunting a cuscus is not permissible.
Not long after the farmer came forward with the captured marsupial, the little cuscus was re-released back into the wild. Additionally, to further enforce the SAN Standards protecting biodiversity and wildlife, the Rainforest Alliance’s team along with local cocoa farmers, posted ‘No Hunting’ signs among local cocoa farms and in the community forests as well. Bantaeng’s cuscuses can now live freely; as a result of these protective measures, the number of Sulawesi bear cuscus found on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms has increased. Some even chose to live on the farmers’ roofs!
The Rainforest Alliance believes that the protection of wildlife is essential, and the SAN Standards also reflect that. Still, the continued survival of Sulawesi bear cuscuses is threatened by poachers and habitat loss due to deforestation and forest degradation. In this case however, a local outcast has turned into a friendly neighbour.
Najemia Tahiruddin is a staffer of the Rainforest Alliance. As the Manager of Sustainable Agriculture in Indonesia, she conducts workshops and assessments for biodiversity conservation on farms.