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Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.
I’m back in the Leuser Ecosystem looking over a great expanse of cleared forest. Chainsaws echo in the valleys. I’m here to document an orangutan rescue for OIC (Orangutan Information Centre) and next to me is Panut Hadisiswoyo, its founder and director. His team are in the valley below following a mother and baby orangutan. OIC received a call from villages in the area about a group of men from Medan that had been asking about baby orangutans in the area and offered money to the locals for any information regarding orangutans.
Logs lay on the floor as if some kind of super typhoon has ripped through the area. Orangutan nests dot the canopy. Chainsaws start to echo in the valley once again. Sadly I’ve come to associate the sounds of chainsaws with Sumatra. Every second motorbike we passed had a chainsaw strapped to the back of it. This last patch of pristine forest will be soon cleared to make way for more oil palms.
At 6pm just as the sun is setting the team ask me to prepare my gear as they’ve located the mother and baby orangutan. As I head uphill into a small patch of forest the heavens open up. The rain is relentless, every step I take up, I slide two steps back down. After 30 minutes I get into a position where I can start trying to focus my camera. A single dart flies through the air hitting the mother orangutan in the thigh.
“In less than 15 minutes the full effects of the tranquilizer should be felt and the orangutan will be sedated. My team will position themselves with the net under the orangutan and she should just fall into the net. Stand by,” Panut shouted through the undergrowth.
The 15 minutes passed but the orangutan kept on moving away from our position. The team determined that the dart had hit a bone and not released the sedative. By now the rain had stopped but it was almost dark so we had to abandon the rescue. “ It would be far too dangerous for the orangutans and the team to proceed now,” said Panut.
At first light we started the search for the mother and baby. But we never did find her again.
Two months later, present day. I receive a phone call. It’s Panut. “ Paul can you please get the next flight into Sumatra? We have a large male orangutan that needs rescuing.”
Back on the ground
The next day we drove across a large palm oil plantation, eventually arriving at a small patch of forest, surrounded by a sea of palm oil, over 3000 hectares. We couldn’t miss the large male orangutan swinging from branch to branch. Local communities had reported the troubled ape to government authorities, who called in Panut’s OIC rescue team to relocate him.
It was Good Friday, so the large cheeked male quickly became known as Friday by the team.
“All this used to be forest, once connected to the great rainforest of the Leuser Ecosystem,” said Krisna, Field Coordinator of OIC’s Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit. “During our patrols we found the orangutan trapped in the last cluster of native trees for miles around. With no safe way out he was extremely agitated and looked malnourished so we had to act fast. Performing these rescues is a last resort as it can be dangerous for both the orangutan and our team, but as this male was surely in trouble, we had no other option than to get him out of danger and into a larger forest for his safety.”
The team prepared the tranquilizers, the terrain was easy and with no rain the rescue went like clockwork relative to the last rescue. But it was still not without it’s difficulties.
A fully mature cheek-padded male, Friday was not an easy rescue. He evaded the team for sometime before the rescue team vet was able to sedate him. “There was a serious risk of injury when he finally fell from the canopy,” Panut explained. “His body did hit a branch on the way down, but the team moved fast to get our specialised net in the right position to catch him 15 metres below. He was really lucky. Our vet checked his condition and after being trapped in such a small area of forest lacking food, he was found to be very underweight, and also had a bullet in his chest, which we removed on the scene. It’s clear that had we not been able to conduct the rescue, his future was to die starving here, or make a run for it where he could have been shot at and killed.”
Rescues on the rise
Only last month OIC rescued another adult male orangutan from the same area. Still catching his breath after overseeing Friday’s tough rescue, Panut said, “Over the last 3 years OIC has rescued 64 orangutans stranded just like this one. Adults, juveniles, mothers with babies – they end up in plantations looking for the forest that used to be here, for the fruits they need to survive. Friday’s rescue brought the count for this year to 11 orangutans already. That’s 11 in just 3 months so it’s a real concern”.
“Plantations are not safe places for orangutans. We often have to cut bullets out of the orangutans during rescues. People may try to shoot them to protect crops, to kill a mother in order to capture her baby to sell, or just for sport in some cases,” said Panut.
“With only around 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild, this iconic species is classified as Critically Endangered. Almost 80% of their remaining habitat is inside the Leuser Ecosystem – the last place on earth where orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers co-exist in the wild,” said Farwiza Farhan, Chairperson of Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA), a local conservation group which also assisted with the rescue.
“The key biodiversity conservation issue in Sumatra, perhaps in Southeast Asia right now, is the proposed Aceh spatial plan which illegally aims to remove the protected status of the Leuser Ecosystem and hand over huge swathes of forest for the development of plantations and roads. Orangutans, elephants and tigers are already being pushed towards extinction due to deforestation, but it’s not only about biodiversity, our communities here in Aceh are also suffering from the destructive floods and landslides which follow this environmental vandalism,” Farwiza concluded.
Despite the protected status of both the Sumatran orangutan and the Leuser Ecosystem under Indonesian law, a recent report by the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) revealed that the rate of forest loss in the Leuser Ecosystem has more than doubled in recent years. “Our analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. If the Aceh spatial plan goes ahead, we could see Sumatra’s iconic species wiped out in just a few years. We’re facing a true conservation crisis,” explained Helen Buckland, Director of SOS.
Disregarding the strong warnings and lobbying by conservationists and scientists, the Aceh government is still trying to push ahead with their proposed spatial plan which will open up even more of this highly sensitive area to oil palm, logging and mining.
A second chance for life in the wild
“At dawn the following morning the team drove for more than one and a half hours through miles of uniform oil palms until they finally reached open forest,” Krisna said, describing the release back into the larger forested area of the Leuser Ecosystem. “As soon as Panut lifted the door of the crate, Friday’s massive hand emerged to hoist himself up the nearest tree. Within seconds he had scaled it and was looking down on the rescue team, shaking branches and vocalizing to drive us out of the forest.”
“This was a very successful rescue and relocation thanks to the hard work and expertise of the team” said Panut, “However, rescues are really a last resort. These evacuations carry major risks for the orangutans and for our team, and relocations don’t solve the larger problem driving this growing human-wildlife conflict. To protect orangutans, we really need to ensure their habitat is safe, and the Aceh spatial plan must be revised to ensure the Leuser Ecosystem remains protected as required by Indonesian law.”
As I leave Sumatra I can’t helping thinking about the plight of Indonesia’s great apes and all the other 130 species of mammals that co-exist in the Leuser ecosystem Rainforest. We are racing toward extinction for so many of these iconic species but we still have time, to make things right. We need biodiversity and all the services these animals provide. We need to recognize that this is far beyond mere economic value, it is of fundamental value for life on this planet.
To support frontline conservation programmes, including orangutan rescues, and campaigning for the protection of the Leuser Ecosystem, please donate via the Sumatran Orangutan Society’s Ape-ril campaign www.Ape-ril.org
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