by Dr. Sunarto, Tropical Ecologist for SE Asia

July 2, 2024

Welcome to “The Permian Podcast” where we delve into the world of conservation and ecology. Today’s special guest, Dr. Sunarto, Wildlife and Landscape Ecologist in SE Asia for Permian Global.  

Dr. Sunarto: Thank you, Mike. It is a pleasure to be here, calling in from Bogor, Indonesia. 

Mike: Let’s start with your academic background. Could you tell us about your journey to being a wildlife and tropical landscape ecologist? 

Dr. Sunarto: Absolutely, Mike. I have been working on wildlife conservation since the ‘90s. Wow! I can’t believe it is already 30 years at this point. I learned about wildlife conservation in a variety of locations and environments.  

First, I studied biology as an undergraduate student at the University of Indonesia. Then, after three years of working with a New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society, I went to UK’s University of East Anglia in Norwich to study Applied Ecology and Conservation. And my latest academic study was when I did a PhD in Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences at Virginia Tech, USA from 2006 to 2011. Before and after my doctoral study and research, I worked in various organizations including Conservation International and WWF-Indonesia. My doctoral study was supported by and part of a WWF (World Wildlife Fund) program to study and conserve Sumatran tigers in forest and plantation landscapes in Central Sumatra.  

Mike: That is quite an international story! And what is your origin story as far as your career as a wildlife and tropical landscape ecologist? Was there a pivotal moment early on or a particular region or species that inspired you? 

Dr. Sunarto: I was born in a rural area in Central Java in the early 70s. In my early childhood, I had a lot of opportunities to interact with natural environments. For example, I learned to swim not in a swimming pool, but directly in a wild river. I helped my parents and family take care of the land and animals that we raised, planting various kinds of crops such as rice, cassava, fruits, and vegetables.  

At a relatively early age, I moved to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and continued my study at a junior high school in the big city. Jakarta is a megapolitan area and was inhabited by around 10 million people back then, now it is even higher.  

As you can imagine, the city was dominated by buildings. That was when I started missing my childhood world of being close to nature. In such a condition, I developed a dream: when I grow up and get a job, I would like it to be close to nature. So, that is why I chose to study Biology.   

I was very lucky that I got admitted to the University of Indonesia, one of the most highly respected universities in the country. I was initially disappointed that there was so much memorizing of biological terms, especially for taxonomy, in the first year of classes.  I almost gave up and planned to move to take a different major in another university.  

But, before long, I already had many opportunities to go to nature and visit some of the many national parks across the country. With my classmates, I occasionally organized or joined expeditions to remote areas 

I also conducted various research and spent significant amount of time in the field for my thesis. For my undergraduate thesis, I studied niche partitioning among kingfishers in North Sulawesi. For my master’s degree, I studied the impact of fires on tropical forest regeneration in Sumatra. And for my doctoral degree, I studied the ecology and restoration of tigers in forest and plantation landscapes in central Sumatra. 

Using the field data and stories from those field works, I went to conferences, and authored scientific papers, as well as popular articles. That is how I learned, shared experiences, and developed my conservation network.  

Mike: Conservation is very much at the core of your work obviously. What drives your passion for [staying focused in] conservation, both professionally and personally? 

Dr. Sunarto: Conservation is deeply personal to me. I grew up in Southeast Asia. When it comes to biodiversity, it is one of the richest and one of the most unique regions in the world. The region has also been experiencing very rapid development in the past few decades. I witnessed firsthand the rapid loss of biodiversity and degradation of natural habitats. It is too often that some forests I visited were no longer there when I revisited a few years or sometimes even just a few months later. That is unfortunately still happening until now. That is why I always bring cameras when I go to the forests, so I can document what I see, because that might be the only opportunity I have had.  

I feel a powerful sense of responsibility to help preserve these amazing ecosystems for our current and future generations. Professionally, I am driven by the opportunity to make a positive impact on the environment and the communities that depend on it. 

Mike: Your dedication is inspiring, Dr. Sunarto. Can you give us an overview of the projects you’re currently involved in? 

Dr. Sunarto: Certainly, Mike. I was so lucky that three years ago I got connected to Permian Global, a forest restoration company whose mission is fully aligned with my passion for wildlife and nature conservation. I am particularly thankful that since then, I have had the opportunity to be part of an amazing team, working together in conserving peatland forest of Katingan Mentaya in Central Kalimantan and the lowland forests of Kuamut in Sabah, Malaysia. Both areas are filled with amazing biodiversity. While each is unique in its characteristics, both are especially important homes to the Bornean orangutans and other threatened primates, and Bornean clouded leopards as well as other rare wild cats.  We are conducting the monitoring of wildlife to better understand their habitat requirements and other ecological aspects and implementing conservation measures to protect them from threats like habitat loss and poaching.  Our biodiversity work is tightly integrated with other project components such as community work and climate mitigations.  

In the Katingan Mentaya Project, we have dedicated teams conducting systematic monitoring of orangutans by counting and observing the nest through line transect surveys. We also have camera trapping teams who set up cameras systematically in the project area to monitor the status of wildlife in the project area. The IT team have been supporting us by developing a mobile app that allows all our field staff and local communities to contribute to documenting biodiversity in the area and sharing it among the team in a real-time manner. 

Mike: Technology is a major facet of conservation these days obviously. What’s being used in the Kuamut Rainforest Conservation project in particular? 

In the Kuamut Rainforest Conservation Project, we conducted biodiversity monitoring using various techniques including helicopter surveys to monitor orangutan, camera trapping to monitor birds and mammals, and bioacoustics, dung beetle sampling and forest integrity assessments. We are now collaborating with a technology expert to develop a machine learning algorithm that can extract information and automatically identify species of interest just from the sound recordings. 

As needed to make an impact at scale, our projects at Kuamut and Katingan Mentaya are large scale. Therefore, we have large areas to cover for the monitoring, all of which are generally remote and very difficult to reach. In addition to the in-house team, we also collaborate and engage partners from universities, NGOs, students, and young professionals to join forces in conducting the monitoring, training, and exploration of biodiversity both in Kalimantan as well as in Sabah.  

In the field, we actually work together with partners and with the Katingan Mentaya project, our close partner is RMU who manages the concession. In Kuamut we have SEARRP as well as RBG and san Sabah as well as PACOS working on the community (side). So, I would like to thank the great collaboration of these teams in the field. 


Mike: It sounds like challenging and complex yet rewarding work. Looking ahead, what do you see as the future of conservation, particularly in Southeast Asia? 

Dr. Sunarto: The future of conservation will depend on our ability to address complex environmental challenges while balancing the needs of both people and nature. Collaborative efforts between governments, NGOs, local communities, and the private sector will be crucial in achieving this balance. We also need to harness technological advancements and innovative solutions to enhance our conservation efforts and adapt to changing environmental conditions. 

On the one hand, we see ever-increasing challenges and higher pressures on our environment. The triple planetary crisis that includes climate crisis, biodiversity degradation and pollution is getting closer and even more pressing. But, on the other hand, we never lack examples that if we are committed and willing to work together, many problems can be solved. That includes the problem with depletion of ozone layers due to the excessive use of CFC, and the recovery of some species that have been seriously threatened such as giant panda in China, Californian condor and other species in the US, and Bali mynah in Indonesia.  

Likewise, we now have an economic mechanism allowing forest and biodiversity conservation to be valued and generate carbon credits, that can be used to finance various management on the ground including incentivizing communities and other stakeholders who are taking part of the effort. Isn’t this a kind of ‘holy grail’ of conservation and economic solution that we have been searching for so long?  Of course, it is not a silver bullet that will automatically solve everything, but it can potentially bridge the big gap between the need on the ground and the parties across the globe that would like to take part and contribute.  

Mike: Thank you, Dr. Sunarto, for sharing your many insights with us today. Before we wrap up, do you have any final thoughts or messages you would like to share? 

Dr. Sunarto: Yes! Conservation is not only about nature. It is actually about people and very much for the people. And conservation is not just the domain of ecologists, it should be part of everyone’s mission in life. I would not see taking part in conservation as a mere obligation, it is our privilege. I would just like to encourage everyone to get involved in conservation efforts in their own way. Most importantly, it should start with our own lifestyles and habits. In addition to that, we can start or support local initiatives, volunteering, or advocating for policy change. Together, we can make a difference in protecting our planet’s precious biodiversity and ensuring a sustainable future for all. 

Mike: Very wise words, Dr. Sunarto. Thank you so much for participating today! 


Dr. Sunarto: Thanks for having me on the podcast today!



Rimba Makmur Utama (RMU)


SEARRP (South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership)


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