Passionate about saving Earth’s tropical rainforests, I packed my bags and flew to the Leuser Ecosystem in North Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on earth where you can find tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans all in the same location. Flying over the country, I was shocked at how all the horrible images I had seen had come to life. Large brown squares of decimated forest and rows and rows of oil palm plantations blanketed the island.
“Was there any forest left to save?” I thought to myself.
Days later, I found myself in an open cabin-like structure, a “pondok” as it is known in Indonesian, in the middle of a restored forest site. Looking out from the tower, I could see the border where the plantations met the new forest. Looking around at the trees surrounding me, I couldn’t believe that this land was once a plantation too. Collecting data on local elephant and orangutan populations, I had to look twice at my map. I could not believe my eyes when I saw elephant faeces, tracks and scratchings as well as orangutan nests in restored forest that was only five years old.
That figure ran laps in my head as I thought about all the baron land I saw out of the plane. I imagined every Indonesian planting a tree and in five years time, critically endangered Sumatran rhinos, elephants, tigers and orangutans could have their habitat back and a new chance at survival.
Two years later I found myself back in Australia planting trees for koala habitat in the You Yangs region of Victoria. Forty percent of the local koala population has been lost due to climate change impacting the availability of old growth sclerophyll forest. While planting seedlings along waterways, I heard a volunteer ask my boss how long it took for a eucalyptus tree to hold a koala. I listened intently to the answer.
“Five to six years” she said.
In the time it took me to finish high school, I could have planted River Red Gums along waterways with leaves full of moisture and fewer toxins to allow for koalas to expand their home range in drought conditions. Native birds could have nested in those trees and mobs of kangaroos could have sought shade under their established branches.
This piece of information stood at the forefront of my mind as the most important fact I have discovered as a conservationist. No matter where you are in the world, in the fertile and fast growing forests of South East Asia or the hot and dry slow growing forests of Australia, it only takes five years to create new habitat for species who are running out of chances for survival.
A tree is a five year miracle for wildlife, landscapes and people all over the world. Growing up I always read that when a forest is gone, so is all hope of getting it back. Now I envision a world where in just five years, there is a new hope for forests, for wildlife and for Earth.