BAWA rushes to save animals beneath clouds of hot ash
UBUD, Bali, Indonesia––More than 4.2 million people, 350,000 dogs, and perhaps a million other animals from monkeys and chickens to goats and cattle, plus wildlife, are looking over their shoulders at a 30,000-foot column of steam, smoke, and ash boiling out of Mount Agung.
Simmering on the verge of eruption since September 22, 2017, Mount Agung is expected to explode within days, if not hours.
Indonesian military personnel at this writing have reportedly begun forced evacuations of as many as 60,000 of the estimated 150,000 residents of the Mount Agung slopes and foothills. While about 90,000 people left the exclusion zone within six miles of the crater voluntarily, tens of thousands of others remained behind to look after livestock and working animals and dissuade looters.
No transportation & nowhere to go
For most, their entire family fortunes are invested in their animals, fields, and homes, typically built within small walled courtyards shared with relatives. Few had any means of taking more downslope to safety than would fit on a motorbike, many had no motorized transportation at all, and just finding somewhere to go was problematic on an already crowded island where almost every square inch is claimed through heredity, and has been divided and re-divided countless times.
Now hundreds of thousands of poultry, hoofed animals, dogs, cats, and miscellaneous other pets are on their own. Because this is the rainy season, most will find some water. Because most animals in Bali roam free to forage, at least some of the time, many will find some food.
But any who have been left tied or confined are most likely doomed, and many others will suffer from breathing sulfuric ash, even if able to out-run or stay above the anticipated tide of scalding mud.
Hard times ahead
The human evacuees are themselves facing hard times.
Bali is politically and culturally divided into eight traditional regencies, plus the capital city of Denpassar. Coming from Klungkung Regency, the majority of evacuees will have to find accommodations either in Denpassar or in one of the other eight regencies, where they will be strangers and outsiders.
Hoping to be able to return home soon, the refugees could be stranded for weeks, months, or even years, depending on the severity of the anticipated eruption.
Mount Agung last erupted in 1963, officially killing about 1,600 people and forcing tens of thousands, about 85% of them Balian Hindus, to relocate to other islands, mostly majority Muslim, some majority Christian.
The official death toll from the 1963 eruption is widely believed to have been an underestimate. But the exodus of displaced Balians to other islands may have contributed to civil war which within the next few years killed as many as three million.
Civil war fueled by ethnic rivalry is less likely in modern Indonesia. But as the Mount Agung region is now much more densely populated in 1963, the death toll and numbers of refugees from a similar eruption today could be ten times higher.
An eruption of the size of the 1963 eruption, however, might be the least of what could happen. An eruption of the magnitude of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington, in 1980 could send hot mud and lava cascading out over an area four times the size of the present exclusion zone, surging to the outskirts of Ubud and Gianyar, at the western edge of the Denpassar region.
Meanwhile, the plume of volcanic steam, smoke, ash, and volatilized lava from Agung has kept aircraft from landing or taking off from the Denpassar airport since November 25, 2017, causing flight cancellations until at least December 3. More than 59,000 tourists and more affluent refugees are reportedly stranded at the airport. Ferry boats are only able to take a few hundred people at a time from Bali to other Indonesian islands.
“Had not thought of Ubud not being safe”
“We had not thought about Ubud not being safe for the animals,” Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) founder Janice Girardi told ANIMALS 24-7 on November 28, 2017. “We have been completely focused on the volcano dogs and getting them to safety as much as possible first. We have two locations in Ubud. Both seem safe, but we do not have much of a choice at this moment.
“It’s Besakih and the whole area up there we are most worried about,” Girardi said, describing the 1,000-year-old ‘mother temple’ city, actually a complex of 23 temples that together form the most visited location on Bali.
When the Indonesian government issued a top-level eruption alert on September 22, 2017, Girardi recounted, “We opened three shelters very quickly, at Rendang village, not far from Besakih temple but outside the 11-kilometer exclusion zone. People who evacuated dropped off their dogs and we picked up puppies and other dogs, as we had capacity, to keep them safe. We had many hundreds very quickly.”
“Things seemed to calm down”
Then, by mid-October, Girardi said, “Things seemed to calm down. Most people went back to their homes and picked up their dogs, or we delivered them. Then everything changed again very quickly. People started rushing their dogs back down to us, and of course we already had over a hundred who did not have owners. Or people evacuated and left their dogs again. We rushed to try to find or make safe spaces for them.
“Now we are trying to get them out of that location and to safer places out of the line of fire so to speak,” Girardi explained. “But no one knows where that is. And there are so many many more up there whom we really need to save. We only could do what we had the capacity to do and now it’s too late to get to most of them. My heart is crushed,” along with the BAWA purse.
“We have to rent space, hire staff, buy vaccines, etc, etc, etc,” Girardi said, “and people just don’t donate. The large groups do not donate to operational expenses such as rent and staffing, and I’m not sure why not, since without staff the programs can’t run.”
Was anyone else on the job?
Announced the Bali Safari & Marine Park, of Denpasar, via Facebook on September 27, 2017, “With the increase of volcanic activity in Mount Agung, management and staff came together to lend a helping hand for the evacuees living in the Karangasem area. Pillows, medicine, milk, clothes and other useful support, including food for the animals in the area that were evacuated, were donated through proper disaster relief organization from the province of Bali! Our heart goes out to everyone affected by the volcano and we hope everyone stays safe!”
Other than that, ANIMALS 24-7 found little evidence of any of the constellation of other Bali-based nonprofit organizations addressing animal and habitat issues mobilizing to provide aid as the threat from Mount Agung worsened from late September onward.
BAWA meanwhile had set up the first of the two temporary dog shelters below Besikih by September 25, 2017 and was “working with local authorities to rescue as many dogs as we can from the Red Danger Zones,” Girardi said.
“Cows were still there”
Offered a BAWA staff member on October 1, 2017, “Yesterday afternoon, amid rain, Janice and the team decided to make one more dash up to a new area below Besakih where they had not reached until now. Although many homes were evacuated, there seemed to be one person at every few houses who had not left, as their cows were still there. Dogs were plentiful and very hungry,” including two dogs who had been left chained.
The highlight of the day on October 3 was finding a dog “just hanging out on the side of the road waiting faithfully for his owners to come home while enjoying a coconut, the only source of nourishment he could find there. He was not keen to exchange his coconut for the food we brought him,” BAWA reported, “but eventually we were able to get a lead on him and brought him to shelter.”
Evidence of dog meat trade
On October 5, 2017, ironically the first day of the three-day Bali Vegan Festival in Ubud, the BAWA team found a dead dog, whom locals could not identify. “His leg was still tied with plastic rope,” BAWA recounted. “We think he probably had escaped from dog meat catchers while being transported.”
While selling dogs or dog meat for human consumption is technically illegal in Bali, the clandestine trade has grown explosively in recent years, serving mostly visitors from southern China, South Korea, and other parts of Indonesia where dogs have long been eaten, especially by affluent older men as an adjunct to brothel visits and heavy drinking.
As the immediate threat of eruption temporarily subsided, BAWA on October 11, 2017 explored “areas around the crater where we haven’t been before,” Girardi posted. “It appears these dogs hadn’t been fed in weeks. They were so emaciated some could barely raise their heads.
“With information generously provided by the East Bali Poverty Project,” Girardi updated a week later, “we ventured into the area north of the volcano, the area most seriously affected by the eruption of 1963,” and therefore the first to be evacuated in 2017.
“Just a few dogs and a lot of chickens”
“The dogs and other animals have been abandoned now for almost four weeks with nothing to eat or drink,” Girardi found. “We went into many villages with no dogs. Locals said they had all died or run away. Many banjars [villages] were completely deserted, inhabited by just a few dogs and a lot of chickens.
“When people were ordered to evacuate their village,” Girardi elaborated on October 23, 2017, “they were given just moments to grab a few possessions and were sadly not able to take their animals with them. Here at BAWA,” she said, “we are providing a safe haven for the evacuees’ animals. The evacuees are able to come visit and walk their dogs. Most people have lost their incomes and have no way to care for or house their dogs. The economy of Karangasam has collapsed on all levels: family, village, banks, and government,” Girardi observed. “Aid will be needed for a long time.
“We are still making our way up the volcano seven days a week,” Girardi updated on November 20, 2017, “often to really small and deserted areas where there are still many abandoned dogs and dogs in need. We not only give nourishing meals but also worm tablets and skin medicine when needed. Healthy dogs are more likely to be accepted into family compounds. Spay/neuter is a critical part of our program. The dogs dropped at our shelters by evacuees include many un-neutered or un-spayed dogs. This is wreaking havoc, with many dogs trying to escape to have sex, including males fighting over females, and potentially spreading venereal tumors.
“Many owners do not welcome their dogs’ pregnancies, producing unwanted puppies who are sometimes thrown in the trash or abandoned on the roadside. BAWA is calling owners to get permission to spay or neuter their dogs––a service most would otherwise not be able to afford. Dogs without owners are sterilized as soon as they are deemed healthy enough.”
The crisis had almost settled down to business as usual for BAWA, the largest and by far the most active provider of spay/neuter and vaccination services on Bali for more than a dozen years, when Mount Agung on November 26, 2017 began erupting in earnest.