Kambangan Island

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Nusakambangan map.png
Kambangan Island is located in Indonesia
Kambangan Island
Kambangan Island (Indonesia)
Location South East Asia
Coordinates 7°45′S 108°55′E / 7.750°S 108.917°E / -7.750; 108.917
Area 121 km2 (47 sq mi)
Province Central Java
Regency Cilacap
Population Around 3000 natives, and several hundred inmates
Ethnic groups Javanese

Kambangan (also Nusa Kambangan, Nusakambangan or Nusa Kembangan) island is located in the Indian Ocean, separated by a narrow strait off the southern coast of Java island; the closest port is Cilacap in Central Java province. Dubbed as the "Alcatraz of Indonesia",[1] the island is notorious for its maximum security prisons, home to convicted murderers, terrorists, drug dealers and those convicted in high profile corruption cases.


The south coast of Noesa Kambangan. 1920-1940

The island was made into a prison island during the Dutch period. The colonial government built a high security prison on the isolated island to exile criminals and political dissidents. The prison on Nusakambangan was opened in the mid-1920s by Indonesia's former Dutch colonial rulers and was once considered the harshest penal institution in South East Asia. The island was declared off-limits in 1905 by the Dutch.

Its usage as a prison island continued after independence. During the rule of former President Suharto, hundreds of political dissidents were imprisoned on the island. Most were political prisoners, members of the banned Communist Party of Indonesia or sympathizers. These political prisoners were never brought to trial, and many of them died from hunger or illness.[citation needed]

In 1996, the island was finally opened to the public as a tourist destination.

The island has also been involved in refugee handling. About 140 Afghan refugees were detained on the island after their boat, which was en route to Christmas Island, Australia, sank in rough seas on August 17, 2001.[2] However, more than 90 of these refugees would later escape on September 19, 2001, sailing away in small fishing boats and are believed to be have headed for Australia.[3]

The island was also affected by the 2006 Pangandaran earthquake and tsunami, when a 7.7-magnitude undersea earthquake occurred off the coast of west Java. At least 11 villagers disappeared and 8 people were killed in the ensuing tsunami, two of which are prisoners at one of the Permisan prisons.[4] And at least fifteen inmates on the Nusakambangan prison island near Pangandaran were also missing.[5]

Geography and nature[edit]

Javan Lutung, one of the primates found in Nusakambangan

Nusakambangan is separated from the island of Java by the narrow Segara Anakan strait. Being isolated from mainland Java, the island is relatively under-developed and less inhabited and the wildlife is better preserved.[6] The eastern side of a bay is a nature reserve area where an old Dutch fortress is located on the Karangbandung beach. As a lowland tropical rain forest, Nusakambangan is biologically diverse.

More than 71 different bird species, 14 reptile species and various mammal species are found in the island. Twenty-three bird species are in classified as protected, including Kuntul Karang (Egretta sacra), Black Egret (Ciconia episcopus), Bangau Tongtong (Leptoptilos javanicus), white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), elang bondol (Haliastur indus), and elang bido (Spilornis cheela). Several other protected mammal species include the black-spotted leopard (Panthera pardus), Javan Muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) and Javan mouse deer (Tragulus javanicus). Four of six endemic primates in Java, namely Javan Lutung (Trachypithecus auratus), the crab-eating Macaque (Macaca fascicularis), Javan Surili (Presbytis comata), and kukang (Nyctibus sp.), have been reported to live on the island.


The island population is 3,000, excluding the prison inmates and staff; most inhabitants are Javanese. Their main occupation is fishery and some work in rubber and teak plantations. However, illegal logging activities, mostly conducted by outsiders, threaten the island environment. Such activities have resulted in a vast critically threatened land area of approximately 30 km².[7]


Detailed map of Nusakamabangan, circa 1950, (made by US Army Map Service)

There are nine prisons built in the island, four of which are still used:

  • Permisan prison, built in 1908,
  • Batu prison, built in 1925,
  • Besi prison, built in 1929,
  • Kembangkuning prison, built in 1950.

There are also five inactive prisons:

  • Nirbaya prison, built in 1912,
  • Karanganyar prison, built in 1912,
  • Karangtengah prison, built in 1928,
  • Gliger prison, built in 1929,
  • Limusbuntu prison, built in 1935.

All of these were built by Dutch, except Kembangkuning prison, which was built after independence. Of these, Batu prison (literally meaning "stone prison") is considered the most famous.[8]

Notorious inmates[edit]

Famous people once imprisoned on the island include:

Nusakambangan has also held hundreds of members of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, but they were later released as part of a peace deal.[13]

In June 2007, 244 inmates convicted in various drugs and narcotics offences were transported to the new Super Maximum Security Prison (SMS) in Nusakambangan. These inmates came from various prisons in the country. The moving is intended to isolate them and cut drug circulation in Indonesia.[14]


From the mid-1990s, the island was intermittently promoted by local authorities as a tourist destination, primarily for its caves, beaches, and unusual wildlife that is extinct on Java.[15]

Notable attractions include Permisan beach (pantai Permisan) with its beautiful white and gray sands near the Permisan jail lighthouse, Ranca Babakan on the west coast of the island, White Sands beach (Pantai Pasir Putih), and several caves such as Queen's cave (Goa Ratu). According to the Cilacap Tourism Office, Nusakambangan was opened as a tourist destination following an agreement between the Central Java Governor and Ministry of Justice in 1996. The Cilacap government then invested some Rp 1.7 billion (around $200,000) in preparations for the opening up of the island, most of which was used on the construction of tourist-related infrastructure. A special agency was also established to manage tourism on the island, with the Nusakambangan Prison warden made head of the agency and Cilacap Tourism Office chief as the deputy.[16] No individual tourists are allowed, all of the tourists within a group of minimum 15 persons which is arranged by tourist agency then will be accompanied by security officers until maximum 6 p.m without overnight stay.[17]

One of the main cultural events is Sedekah Laut (sea sacrifice), which is held by the Surakarta Sultanate every new year in the Javanese calendar.


  1. ^ Gelling, Peter (June 3, 2008), Traveling to Indonesia's Alcatraz to meet the Bali bombers, The New York Times 
  2. ^ "Seeking Asylum". Time. September 1, 2001. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  3. ^ "Afghan refugees escape Indonesian Alcatraz". BBC News. September 18, 2001. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  4. ^ "Eleven Parmisan villagers still lost". Liputan 6 SCTV. 
  5. ^ "At least 105 dead as Indonesia's tsunami nightmare returns". Antara News Agency. 
  6. ^ "Nusakambangan: Relief for Prison Island Animals". IFAW Canada. 
  7. ^ "Enhancement of Community Management Land in Nusakambangan under A Collaborative Management Scheme". Small Grants Programme for Operations to Promote Tropical Forests in Southeast Asia, UNDP. 
  8. ^ "Mencari Makna Kemerdekaan Manusia dari Nusakambangan". Sinar Harapan newspaper. 
  9. ^ "Bali bombers execution date set". BBC News. July 26, 2006. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Bali bombers to be executed in jail". ABC News. 
  11. ^ "Tommy Suharto moved to prison isle". BBC News. August 15, 2002. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Tommy moved to Indonesian 'Alcatraz'". CNN. [dead link]
  13. ^ "Aceh rebels released as part of peace deal". International Herald Tribune. 
  14. ^ "Tuntas, Isolasi 244 Napi Narkoba". Jawa Pos. 
  15. ^ "Central Java to promote island resorts", Asia Pulse September 18, 1997. See also Agus Maryono, 'Nusakambangan "a future tourist hub"', The Jakarta Post, 13 March 2012.
  16. ^ Slamet Susanto and Blontak Poer, 'Nusakambangan, a beautiful tourist resort', The Jakarta Post, 18 December 2004.
  17. ^ "The hidden splendor of Nusakambangan". September 10, 2012.