Harry Hilser PhD

In 2014, SY’s Programme Director Harry Hilser embarked on a long and colourful journey to explore the relationships that local communities have with the natural world. Supported by The Wild Planet Trust and based at The University of Exeter, Harry focused his part-time PhD on connectedness to nature. He shares here a few words about the experience:

After a decade of living in North Sulawesi, I have come to learn how important the social sciences are for conservation. Environmental challenges are human behaviour challenges. I have spent much time trying to understand what nature means to local communities, the values that underpin these relationships and cultural drivers of behaviours and practices related to the natural environment. After connecting deeply with many different highly social communities, I became particularly interested in the links between the prosocial (the strong social ties and helpfulness) and proenvironmental (looking after nature) behaviours of rural communities in North Sulawesi.

Through an immersive ethnography (living as the local people do on all levels), I discovered rich insights about the cognitive and spiritual histories of the Minahasan and Bolaang Mongondow ethnic groups. I learned how belief systems and social norms control the expression of certain attitudes and values, and have been able to shine light on ways to nurture more positive relationships between people and place.

I submitted my thesis in January 2021 and successfully defended my research during the viva examination in March. The ethnographic study was such an incredible, immersive, and eye-opening experience, certainly one that will be with me always. It has truly enhanced our understanding of the socio-cultural conditions and the stories which underpin the local communities’ relationships with nature; thus offering insights into how we can work together with them to empower and enable them to become more caring and ecocentric. 

I carry such deep gratitude for all the wonderful people who shared their lives throughout this remarkable experience, and everyone who supported me and helped make it possible. I hope the findings of my research and the strategic theory of change developed as a part of the process will help strengthen SY’s conservation approaches and therefore offer a brighter future for the Yaki.

You can read Harry’s PhD thesis here. Note, it is quite a substantial document so perhaps just the abstract and a few ethnographic accounts may be of interest.

GROAAAR! Festival

Spreading the Yaki conservation stories on the other side of the globe, one of our sponsors Mulhouse zoo in France organized an annual comic-book festival to raise awareness and collect funds for the Yaki. The festival took place in mid-June 2021 with more than 30 artists including comic strip artists, illustrators and graphic designers that have worked with Mulhouse zoo to create the comic book, of which the proceeds were donated to Selamatkan Yaki! Merci #Yakisavers in France!

Approaching Market Sellers in Tomohon

The illegal wildlife trade for bushmeat consumption is one of the biggest threats to the world’s biodiversity including Macaca nigra (yaki). Multiple challenges remain in the consumption of endangered species in local markets, including social norms of animal consumption, lack of awareness of issues, unclear regulations, and insufficient law enforcement. Selamatkan Yaki has developed a holistic strategy to tackle these issues, which emerged as the result of a key multi-stakeholder meeting we facilitated in January 2020.

Aimed to reach a total target of 10 big markets in North Sulawesi, we carefully structure the engagement meetings from building interest and triggering the sense of pride of large numbers of unique wildlife in North Sulawesi and the importance of their role in the ecosystem, to sharing the threats they are facing to build a collective demand and an urge to get involved in protecting it. By the end of the meetings, the sellers sign a declaration, and publicly recognized to be certified for not selling wildlife as part of the efforts in wildlife conservation. First market to start with is Tomohon traditional market!

As a strategic first step, a Roundtable discussion was initiated in November 5th 2020. The aim of this meeting was to specifically address the role of the traditional markets in preserving various animals. As we are aware, these markets in Minahasa remain a place for buying and selling bushmeat, a persistent threat to the species and other endangered wildlife. Local and national elections were happening in Tomohon at the time, raising the Tomohon market as the focus of attention because the market has been known for its “extreme market” stigma due to the sale of its diverse bushmeat and the attractions on display. This is addressed through a long-time approach by Selamatkan Yaki, which is seeing the shift of association and identity away from an identity of consumption of wildlife to one on pride.

The discussion was attended by the Tomohon city government, related agencies from the North Sulawesi Government, business actors, media, observers, and practitioners. Together they produced several specific and detailed recommendations both in the short and long term. All of them agreed to move together to do their respective parts so that the extreme stigma against the Tomohon market could return to being a traditional market that is environmentally friendly and even more proud of North Sulawesi’s unique wildlife. Tomohon Market is famous and can be a role model to others, so there will be a movement of change to other markets in North Sulawesi. Together we care about the condition of wildlife and to promote the new campaign message of change “Bekeng Sulut Bannga” (“Make North Sulawesi Proud”) along with branding in a broad campaign across all the markets.

Visit to meat section stalls in Tomohon traditional market

After several intensive meetings with traders in their stalls, an agreement was obtained to fully support the efforts to bring Tomohon Beriman Market as a green market to not sell endangered and protected species. Agreeing to let go of existing stigma, namely Tomohon Market as an “Extreme Market” and together fostering changing views and feelings of pride the traders were active and supporting with their involvement in the efforts of the campaign: Bekeng Sulut Bangga; Bangga nyanda bajual deng konsumsi satwa liar terancam dan dilindungi (Make North Sulawesi Proud; Proud not to sell and eat the meat of endangered and protected wildlife). In addition to being attended by 11 bushmeat traders, this activity was attended by Assistant 2 of Tomohon government, Ir Enos Pontororing and representatives from the North Sulawesi Regional Police, Head of the North Sulawesi Natural Resources Conservation Center (BKSDA), representatives from related agencies in the Tomohon City Government such as the Health Office , Department of Industry and Trade, Office of Tourism, Office of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry of Tomohon City, the Association of Indonesian Tour Guides (HPI) North Sulawesi, Ibu Khouni Lomban Rawang as Yaki Ambassador Indonesia, staff of the Market Regional Companies and 3 local media. The event was heralded by all as very significant, with the permanent installation of the signboard in the meat section as a commitment of the sellers to take action in the Wildlife Trade Mitigation Strategy.

Hunter : Role Model Roadshow

Despite the second wave of the pandemic that has caused various restrictions in the area in North Sulawesi, we have made significant progress with all project activities. We kicked out the engagement to local people through a role model roadshow (RMR); bringing an ex-hunter to give a talk and testimony about the positive change to pro-environment. The concept of the Role Model Roadshow (RMR) is to build upon our previous positive lessons and social diffusion approaches to influence a crucial target group of hunters across North Sulawesi, to stop hunting protected species, in particular the Yaki. The province has been toured with several specially selected hunters, whom have become aware of the importance of not hunting all species and regarding the need to protect the Yaki. The role model hunters sign a declaration of pride, stating they no longer hunt protected species and are trained how best to engage others. They then lead socializations and focus groups in multiple villages across the province, to discuss key aspects of hunting and campaign to other hunters about the importance of avoiding hunting protected species.

Although experiencing delays and several changes in schedule due to the pandemic, RMR was finally able to be implemented in 2021. The RMR model aims to build a sense of pride in hunters of wild animals, by avoiding hunting species that are threatened or protected. This activity also develops a forum that empowers hunters who have become aware of and have switched professions to protect wildlife. There were three speakers who were involved and have now become active ambassadors in their villages. RMR activities were carried out in three key areas in North Sulawesi, namely North Minahasa, South Minahasa and Bolaang Mongondow districts with a total of 19 villages and the reach of 152 villagers, namely 68 hunters and 64 villages officer with a majority representing as village officials or the highest leaders in the village.

We distributed questionnaire sheets at the beginning and at the end of each meeting to measure people’s knowledge of threatened and protected wildlife, and how much they were interested in socializing wildlife.

RMR is carried out with a relaxed discussion-sharing method by first completing questionnaires before and after activities, followed by lighthearted games, sharing discussions and finally preparing joint declarations. The joint declaration contains a statement of pride for the wildlife in North Sulawesi and a joint commitment to safeguard and protect threatened and protected wild animals.

Dendi Karundeng, representing the spokesperson shared this touching testimony:

‘I am proud to be an agent of change by tirelessly inviting hunters to be wise in hunting, by being more in favor of wildlife preservation, being able to choose, avoiding threatened and protected animals so that their children and grandchildren will still see them instead of just hearing about them. In every meeting with the hunters in the village, I share that hunting was my main occupation in the past. However, when Selamatkan Yaki entered the school and my children brought the message home and reprimanded my behavior, it created a major reflection in me of the presence of wildlife.’

Finally, Dendi dared to take the decision to stop hunting and look for another job. Even now he has become chairman of the Community Forest Conservation Forum (FMKH), a forum initiated by Selamatkan Yaki with communities around the Tangkoko nature reserve, Bitung City.

Tangkoko in Frame book soft launching at Bitung Environment Festival 2020

The beauty of Tangkoko forest is indescribable. There are not enough words to tell what kind of adventures you will have in this watchful forest. This green dense forest next to the ocean offers such an amazing experience, to make you stand on the feet of Albert Rudolf Wallace when he discovered how unique the “creatures” of this place.

Through the publication of new book, ‘Tangkoko in Frame; The Green Hidden Paradise is THREATENED’, Khouni Lomban Rawung and T-FOB (Tukang Foto Orang Batuputih: Batuputih Village Photographers) guide you to explore Tangkoko forest from early morning until late at night. Featuring images by local photographers, Tangkoko in Frame attempts to show unique insights, views from the hidden parts of the forest that you might have not seen yet; the close up world of small insects to the majestic hornbills up in the sky. Tangkoko never falls asleep!

After a year from conception to bringing all the images together, the book was finally brought to the public through a virtual soft-launch at the Bitung Environment Festival on September 19th 2020. Not only to promote the tourism for Bitung, this book is also an educational tool to help people to be proud of the biodiversity inside Tangkoko, to understand the threats, and hopefully to inspire readers to take action for the preservation of this amazing place.  

The author Khouni Lomban Rawung was first amazed by Tangkoko biodiversity pictures taken by T-FOB  that were displayed at “Marijo Ka Tangkoko” (Let’s go to Tangkoko) photo exhibition facilitated by Selamatkan Yaki and Bitung Tourism Department in March 2019. There came the idea to put those pictures together in a book. Those professional images seen to be appreciated and have to be distributed wider to promote Tangkoko and also as capacity building for local photographers. The members of T-FOB itself mostly work as local guides of Batuputih recreation park, where Selamatkan Yaki has been working closely with local guides and communities. Capacity building in many aspects including photography has become one aspect in enhancing the protection of the natural habitat of the yaki.

The soft launch event aimed to get initial reviews and suggestions before the book is  shared widely. Hopefully the positive messages it carries will reach people from all around the world.

Round Table Discussion

Following the Framework for Action established for the WTMS, the pandemic situation limited us to move forward where actually the relation to wildlife trade with regard to the virus transmission from wildlife was hot in the air. Engaging with traders in traditional markets is a key objective in the strategy.

However, it was very difficult to arrange due to restrictions on market operational time and we need to form this approach with extra care as trade in protected species is a crime. Considering its infamous nature we chose to begin in Tomohon.

The team assessed the strategy in the situation and found the most accessible was to begin to approach the government first, to find out about what they actually think of illegal sale of bushmeat in traditional markets.

We found interesting information such as Tomohon government has never officially promoted the market as an “extreme market“. This led to the followup action removing the “extreme” sign a few days after the discussion. The aim was to transform the image of Tomohon market from “extreme” to traditional where it is originally promoted. This step will support our approach to the traders to be cooperative and proud to not sell endangered wildlife.

Maximising follow up of the WTMS while balancing current restrictions, survey of three top traditional market were made in December to study the impacts of the pandemic on bushmeat activities and attitudes of traders and buyers.

“We Discuss : Macaca nigra conservation in Minahasa”

We are so happy, the Yaki Pride Campaign is about to start in a new area. Minahasa! After doing our social demographic survey, assessing the result and collecting strong reasons to support our campaign activities, we are ready to kick off this campaign by inviting related stakeholders to talk about how important is this action. How lucky to have stuff moving in the middle of COVID-19 outbreak! We are allowed to hold this event with certain regulations; limited participants and following COVID-19 prevention protocols.

The education team headed to Tondano ini Minahasa around 6pm a day before, excited to prepare the venue and make sure all the preparations are set for this kick off. The journey was a bit longer than expected but all needed materials were set and coordinated well with the help of Minahasa Regency staff. We were getting lots of help and support! However, the night was a bit long where finding a place to stay that night was not as easy as usual. Tondano, the capital of Minahasa Regency itself is not a busy business town. Especially during the outbreak, many hotels stopped operating or even charged a large amount of money. The team managed to find one.

15th of October was the day! The invitation was for 8am and the team arrived a bit earlier, a bit nervous to welcome people during this pandemic but made sure everyone got the temperature checked, washed their hands, not too close to each other but still engaging. Everything was once more checked and all set. We were so ready to start this Yaki Pride Campaign!

This Stakeholder Meeting as part of the Yaki Pride Campaign is an important stage, not only to socialize about the yaki but most important is to start the collaboration with all levels of community; from high top related governments, head of traditional markets, to representatives of communities such as head of districts and villages.

It was mostly raining during the day and started a bit late but we were very lucky to get full support during the opening speech by Ir. Wenny Talumewo – Assistant to the Minahasa Regent for Regional Development that really brought positivity and optimism to start the meeting. He even encouraged the participant to commit to join the conservation effort to protect the yaki and surrounding forest. Our Education Coordinator Purnama Nainggolan then delivered the talk about the Selamatkan Yaki program and about the plan of the Yaki Pride Campaign in Minahasa. Started it by showing the result from our socio demographic survey to 400 respondents; the strong baseline of why the campaign is very urgent in the area where it shows the knowledge about the yaki is still low and more than half of the respondents had eaten yaki. Purnama also shared the success story of the Yaki Pride Campaign in previous areas in North Sulawesi to give hope that Minahasa can do the same and even more. This was supported by the talk from Dra. Khouni Lomban Rawung, MSc who delivered a talk about Stakeholder Role in Protecting Nature where she has been involved in yaki conservation efforts as an Indonesian Yaki Ambassador since the Yaki Pride Campaign in Bitung city in 2015. She shared her experiences in maximizing our own capacity to do our best in contributing to nature protection and highlighting that everyone has a different role and expertise to take part. From a scientist perspective, Dr. Saroyo who experienced research about Macaca nigra was presenting about the behaviours and threats to the yaki and most important is why saving the yaki from extinction is beneficial to humans life. We were also learning about Minahasan Culture in Biodiversity Conservation presented by Dr. Johny Tasirin shared that the culture is actually shaped by nature. At last, Mrs. Feibie Karisoh from Minahasa Environment Agency shared about Environment Management Policies where conserving wildlife is one of their goals. So she made sure that the local government in Minahasa will be collaborative in this campaign.

The day went by very quickly. The participants were still engaged and in full spirit, so after lunch we had two interactive sessions of Focus Group Discussion. First was to identify the role of each related stakeholder in supporting the Yaki Pride Campaign and the second was to choose the right message and campaign activities that can be done by them. This step is very important, not only to get the commitment but to get the sense of involvement in the whole campaign planning in Minahasa regency. All roles, messages and activities identified were compiled and will be integrated into the campaign strategies. Around 4pm when the rain stopped, the stakeholder meeting as a kick off of the Yaki Pride Campaign in Minahasa was done! 

The team was happy with the attendance, engaging sessions and mostly the support and enthusiasm. This has given us a big hope to reach more people with yaki conservation messages. We would like to say a huge thanks to Minahasa Regency government for a good start of collaboration, to the speakers and all attendance of the event, and our sponsors Wild Planet Trust, Wildlife Reserve Singapore, Dublin Zoo, Rotterdam Zoo and CERZA Conservation. We Protect the Yaki because We Care!

Participants with Dra Khouni Lomban Rawung, M.Si – Yaki Ambassador Indonesia
Opening by Assistant II for the Economy and Development of the Minahasa Secretariat, Ir. Wenny Talumewo, M.Si

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Focus group discussion to identify the role of an institution or organization in yaki conservation efforts during the Yaki Pride Campaign activities in Minahasa.

One of the participant was reading a flyer about Macaca nigra

Camera traps in the fight against primate declines

Yaki friends, check out blog post below to learn about how our research is helping to conserve the Critically Endangered crested black macaques in the wild. Led by Caspian Johnson in 2016 – 2018 has resulted in a great step forwards for the conservation of one of the worlds most endangered primates – the crested black macaque.This work, supported by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and Wild Planet Trust helped show for the first time the distribution of the species across its native range.

Surprising support for conservation efforts sparks hope for the Yaki

Working as a conservation practitioner and researcher in North Sulawesi, Indonesia for the past decade has enriched me with an abundance of vibrant experiences of nature and captivating local communities. While I have spent a great time with locals throughout my work, nothing prepared me for the depth of experience that my ethnographic field research for my PhD would yield. Exploring prosociality and connectedness to nature, I lived entirely as the villagers do, following their activities day and night for many months. I cooked with them, ate with them and hunted with them, conversed and played with them, attended religious ceremonies and worship, and planted and tended their crops and brought in their harvests. I experienced first-hand their struggles, their open and expressive joys and their colourful cultural nuances.

In my final study location, Poopo village, I recall a young wild pig hunter named Siron. Siron is a striking character – his demeanour is calm, caring, calculating and it was fascinating to engage with him about his worldviews and authentic connection to the natural world. He is a farmer but also sets traps to catch wild pigs and sell them for their meat. We first visited him to assess the condition of a mother and infant Sulawesi crested black macaque monkey (Macaca nigra, known locally as “Yaki”) caught in one of his traps. The wire snares which are indiscriminate hunting traps, endanger numerous species and increase pressures on wild animal populations globally.

Two striking things emerged from engaging with Siron. Firstly, he and his sibling explained to us the three key elements of the campaign message which we also share at Selamatkan Yaki as the foundation for our outreach programs. This includes that the monkeys are endangered, endemic (only found in the province) and protected. We were pleasantly surprised that in this remote rural village they had learned this through campaign materials installed by our foundation featuring prominent local and political representatives and persuasive messaging.

Second, was Siron’s eagerness to release the monkeys back to the wild and support our work.

Siron was very cooperative and left a lasting impression on me. I recall the dramatic and extremely sweaty final day of my fieldwork which included the release of the monkeys to the slippery sloped peak of the forested mountain hugging the village. I was exhausted after long weeks of work, but the exhaustion disappeared when I finally saw the pair emerge from their transport crates, and climb the trees once again, back in their lush and diverse rainforest home.

This act of conservation was a poignant way to bring my empirical journey to a close – bonding with a hunter to liberate the victims of our broken relations with wildlife. A Critically Endangered monkey, its existence threatened by bushmeat consumption, perpetuated by social structures dictated by norms of wildlife exploitation, yet increasingly challenged by shifting conventions and deepening awareness. Siron will now join several other hunters that share his philosophy and empower them by sharing their experiences with village communities, in a new role model roadshow approach this year.

This unforgettable experience, with its powerful lessons and indications of change, helped me boost my sense of authentic, active hope. It was a genuine sign of shifting attitudes, awareness and the eagerness of people to align with their innate compassionate predispositions.

I believe that we have, for too long, been riding an uncomfortable path towards focusing on and thus reporting the challenges of our work. It has become a normative habit manifesting itself through the unfortunately pervasive “culture of despair” in conservation. Drawing upon my experiences as a practitioner, I have made it my mission to help spread positivity in this often gloomily and pessimistic, yet increasingly brightening sector.

It is time to break the expectation of finding the latest depressing news to share, whilst not losing sight of monitoring real challenges. Let’s smile and celebrate the successes and goodness that so many people are achieving around the world, the complex beauty of nature and the progress being made to protect it. Pessimism inhibits motivation and productivity while optimism warms the soul and keeps you going even when it’s cold outside!

leave you with this wonderful quote from our hunter friend Siron when asked if he gets tired walking so many miles in the forest each day, to which he expressed:

“Tiredness is paid off by enjoyment when in nature. For the future of our grandchildren, we need to love nature”.


Harry Hilser

Harry has led a range of research and conservation projects for over a decade and is currently finalising his PhD in connectedness to nature. He specialises in human values and behaviour change for biodiversity conservation. As Programme Director for Selamatkan Yaki, an integrated species conservation programme based in Northern Sulawesi, Indonesia, Harry is responsible for rolling out innovative approaches to protect the habitat and remaining populations of the Critically Endangered Sulawesi crested black macaque (Macaca nigra).

Harry is also the Co-Founder of Lestari Environmental Education Consultancy (https://lestari.org/). Lestari works within the social and environmental sciences to combine education and conservation practice with sustainability, behaviour change, and principles of nature connection. Collaborating with NGOs, universities, governments and businesses Lestari delivers high-impact projects and develops innovative strategies for chang

The Critically Endangered Sulawesi crested black macaque (Macaca nigra, known locally as “Yaki”) – a unique and charismatic species. Picture: Harry Hilser
The lush rainforests of North Sulawesi support a high level of endemism. Picture: Harry Hilser
Siron, a conscientious hunter, a new generation of individuals out to contribute to more harmonious relationships with nature. Photo: Harry Hilser

Nature connect: bringing families closer to nature

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Saturday, March 14, 2020 in Pinangunian village Selamatkan Yaki held the closing ceremony for the Nature Connect activities. Attended by participants from the village of Toruakat, Dumoga Timur sub-district, Bolaang Mongondow District, together with the Pinangunian community, the Forest Conservation Community Forum (FMKH), village and sub-district officials together attended and enjoyed what was a well-attended and lively celebration.

Opened by the Indonesian Yaki Ambassador who is also an environmentalist and served as Chairman of the City of Bitung Mobilization Team, Dra Khouni Lomban Rawung MSi. She advised that the families participating in this program become an example for other families in preserving nature and to educate others to take on the role of other families. This message was supported by a visit by Li Ling of Singapore Zoo, who joined Selamatkan Yaki on the design and implementation of the programme and was able to help boost the communities spirits at the event. Attended by around 300 people, the event was a lively gathering with a blend of reflections, arts, games, Zumba, and the awarding of memorable gifts from the organizers.

Final celebration at Pinangunian, Bitung

Nature Connect is a program that aims to change the mindset of people to better respect nature as God’s creation as an important foundation for human life. Through a diversity of immersive outdoor activities, the family (father, mother, child) is given a deeper understanding of the importance of nature and how the family can play an active role in protecting it. In addition, they explore how relationships in the family are built so that families become more closely connected to one another.

Testimonies from families who took part in the program for about 1 year explained that through the exciting activities, they felt a change in the relationships between the family members. Where previously they did not pay so much attention to each other in their daily activities, now they would eat together and share experiences while at home, according to the Sandy Toleng Family. The same testimonial of gratitude and positive impact of the programme was also conveyed by other families.

Nature Connect activities

Two locations selected from this program are Pinangunian Village, Bitung City and Toruakat Village, Dumoga Timur District Bolaang Mongondow. These two locations are very close to Tangkoko Nature Reserve and the Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park. Expectations from families involved in this program are that can reduce threats and pressures on the conservation areas, namely hunting and habitat destruction. This programme is funded by the Disney Foundation and administered by the World Association of Zoos and Aquaria (WAZA). Activities were planned and implemented by Selamatkan Yaki of the Wild Planet Trust with Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

Bringing family closer and connected to the nature