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Orangutan Rescue in the Land of the Chainsaw

This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.

Text and photos by iLCP Fellow Paul Hilton.

A bulldozer moves earth inside the protected Leuser Ecosystem to make way for palm oil expansion. Illegal encroachment is happening at an unprecedented rate all across Sumatra and without real enforcement huge tracts of protected forest will be lost forever.
A bulldozer moves earth inside the protected Leuser Ecosystem to make way for palm oil expansion. Illegal encroachment is happening at an unprecedented rate all across Sumatra and without real enforcement huge tracts of protected forest will be lost forever. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC

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.

A plam oil plantaion, Sumatra, Indonesia.  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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
A plam oil plantaion, Sumatra, Indonesia. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
The Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
The Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC

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.

Oic team members track Friday before being relocated, Sumatra, Indonesia. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
OIC team members track Friday before being relocated, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
A member of the OIC team lines up a shot, using a tranquilizing dart to bring down Friday.   Allowing the allowing the team to relocate the large male Sumatran orangutan to larger network of forest. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
A member of the OIC team lines up a shot, using a tranquilizing dart to bring down Friday, allowing the team to relocate the large male Sumatran orangutan to a larger network of forest.  Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC

“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.

The team from OIC quickly conduct a routine medical check up before relocating Friday the male Sumatran Orangutan, to a larger body of forest inside the Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia.  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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
The team from OIC quickly conduct a routine medical check up before relocating Friday the male Sumatran Orangutan, to a larger body of forest inside the Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
The team from OIC quickly conduct a routine medical check up before relocating Friday the male Sumatran Orangutan, to a larger body of forest inside the Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia.  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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
The team from OIC quickly conduct a routine medical check up before relocating Friday the male Sumatran Orangutan, to a larger body of forest inside the Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC

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.

Conservation crisis

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

The team checks Fridays cage on route to the release site, Sumatra Indonesia. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
The team checks Fridays cage on route to the release site, Sumatra Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
Friday is pictured inside the rescue cage on route to the release site, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
Friday is pictured inside the rescue cage on route to the release site, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC

“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.”

Friday's gets released some 50 kilometers from where he was rescued in the Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra Indonesia. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
Friday’s gets released some 50 kilometers from where he was rescued in the Leuser ecosystem, Sumatra Indonesia.  Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
Friday the large male Sumatran orangutan is seen in the canopy, Sumatra, Indonesia. 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. Analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC
Friday the large male Sumatran orangutan is seen in the canopy, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Paul Hilton for OIC

“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

Support iLCP’s ability to bring you important conservation stories like this one.  Click here to support our work.

Comments

  1. Charlene
    USA
    February 1, 12:41 pm

    Humans have to stop thinking with greedy minds and $$$; what happens in one part of the world eventually affects us all. The hard part is getting other countries and our own to start coming to an understanding and/or thinking this decade and beyond and getting rid of old traditions/fallacies and working toward treating this earth as one big home to us all. EXTINCTION AND MASSIVE DEFORESTATION IS FOREVER WITH FAR-REACHING CONSEQUENCES.

  2. Charlene
    USA
    February 1, 12:39 pm

    Humans have to stop thinking with greedy minds and $$$; what happens in one part of the world eventually affects us all. The hard part is getting other countries and our own to start coming to an understanding and/or thinking this decade and beyond and getting rid of old traditions/fallacies and working toward treating this earth as one big home to us all.

  3. Andrew Wyatt
    Washington, DC
    December 3, 2015, 11:57 am

    This is an interesting related article from the Tiger Tales blog entitled Palm Oil: Heart of Darkness http://wp.me/p6ZHZi-2D

  4. A Smith
    Florida
    August 20, 2015, 5:34 pm

    There are many other sources of oil besides palm oil. Let’s amend our buying habits when in the store.
    If nobody buys palm oil, there won’t be any need to do this.

  5. Dr William M Smith Jr
    Florida, USA
    August 20, 2015, 10:45 am

    BOYCOTT PRODUCTS WITH PALM OIL!

  6. Dorothy Hall
    USA
    August 20, 2015, 9:25 am

    Too many people in the world, we are the invasive species.

  7. Merryl Goldman
    New Hampshire USA
    August 20, 2015, 6:57 am

    just before I read this article on my newsfeed there was an article on 30 elephants poached in Africa.
    I have such a hard time daily understanding the mentality og people who would destroy the world’s wildlife.
    We are so much richer for all the diversity on this earth and yet shallow, greedy, horrible people want to murder these magnificent beings and rape our earth of its rainforests.
    Man is the most dangerous animal on earth!

  8. Karen Kenngott
    New York
    August 19, 2015, 1:29 pm

    Beautiful expose, Paul Hilton!!! Thank you for enlightening us about what is happening and why. My deepest respect and admiration go to the OIC for their remarkable efforts to keep this iconic species safe from the threats that surround them. This planet is in SERIOUS trouble. Perhaps when he speaks to the world’s leaders next month Pope Francis can unequivocally impress them to take immediate collective action in addition to all the lip service being done. We can no longer afford to pander to entrenched interests, and poverty is everyone’s problem. “Sustainability” is the operative term, and should be as much a part of each individual’s daily creed as brushing his(her) teeth. We move ourselves closer to extinction with each heartbeat if we fail to take accountability for the health of the planet in general. Keep up your fantastic work, Mr. Hilton!

  9. Karen Kenngott
    New York
    August 19, 2015, 1:05 pm

    Beautiful expose, Paul Hilton!!! Thank you for showing us what is happening and why. My deepest appreciation and respect to the OIC for their dedication and hard work to help these iconic animals survive against entrenched interests. I’m hoping Pope Francis will unequivocally impress world leaders to swiftly collaborate and take action for these orangutans and the other critically endangered species that have been suffering far too long at the greedy hand of man. This planet is in SERIOUS trouble, and we need immediate collective action in addition to all the lip service being done! Please keep up your fantastic work!!!

  10. Tim Larson
    USA
    April 17, 2015, 2:02 pm

    Do you know how he is doing ?

  11. Simon Validzic
    Novi Zagreb, Croatia
    April 16, 2015, 12:02 am

    It is unacceptable that palm oil is used in many products aimed at vegans and other ethical consumers. Palm oil is often simply labelled as “vegetable oil”. Sodium laureth sulfate is a byproduct of palm oil and is present in almost all hair shampoos, shower gels and liquid hand soaps but a few brands replace it with a byproduct of coconut oil. There is no reason why other oils, such as sunflower oil, could not be used in processed foods. I have read that hydrogenation of oils does not produce trans-fats if the hydrogenation is total. In addition to harming orangutans and other native animals, oil palm plantations are responsible for violence against indigenous peoples and the forest trees that get logged have an intrinsic value themselves. I have written letters or e-mails to some Croatian food manufacturers asking them to replace palm oil with sunflower oil and to hardware suppliers asking them to stop selling tropical timber and garden furniture made from it.

  12. hazel hames
    United Kingdom
    April 13, 2015, 7:25 am

    What a glorious male orangutan. Truly magnificant. We are destroying this precious species to feed our craving for junk food and drink. STOP buying products that are over processed and start cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients…..miles better for us and the environment. Don’t buy the products from these giants, they are killing us, by killing our natural world.

  13. Taya Rochon
    Virginia Beach
    April 13, 2015, 1:20 am

    Oh, you beautiful, majestic precious soul! What have we done to you?!? I am so disgusted & ashamed to belong to the species that has done this. When humans lose their humanity they become monsters.

  14. Brenda Conlee
    New Orleans
    April 11, 2015, 7:26 pm

    These animals are too special to be lost forever…this just can’t go unnoticed. If we all could avoid using anything containing palm oil, maybe the demand would not be there and these horrible people would cease to profit off of the destruction of the Orang’s home. It’s all in the demand, kill the need and there would be no more reason to destroy the forests.

  15. Nancy
    Marathon fl
    April 11, 2015, 7:09 pm

    People need to do everything they can to keep forests and the occupants therein alive. So many other oils to use

  16. Sandra Ward
    Portland Oregon
    April 10, 2015, 10:42 pm

    Ban Head and Shoulders. Instead use coconut oil. It’s great for the hair ,and also great in the kitchen.

  17. Linda McCarthy
    April 10, 2015, 9:10 pm

    How about olive oil, apricot seed oil, or Jojoba oil. No Need for palm oil.

  18. Bev. Briggs
    Illinois, U.S.A.
    April 10, 2015, 8:56 pm

    This is a sin. And hopefully the people who are destroying the rain forests will end up in hell. Can we not pass on anything this earth has given us to our future generations? As Ms. Watts pointed out, we lose a species every 20 minutes. So how many minutes do WE have left?

  19. J
    malaysia
    April 10, 2015, 7:22 pm

    The problem is some of these rich and greedy people are in positions of power. Kill the head and the body follows

    http://ens-newswire.com/2014/11/03/swiss-publisher-defies-malaysian-threats-against-money-logging/

  20. Aimee Rook
    United States
    April 10, 2015, 6:31 pm

    Friday is so beautiful.

  21. Jan palmer
    Cornwall England
    April 10, 2015, 3:47 pm

    I’m trying to email all major companies in UK but they all come up with same response – sustainable palm oil ! Why use this wretched stuff at all ? The few products you can buy that don’t contain it don’t taste inferior & who uses it at home for cooking & baking ? I am also emailing the good companies to try & encourage them to actively promote their goods stating NO PALM OIL !!

  22. kimberly leo
    San Francisco, California
    April 10, 2015, 3:27 pm

    Trying to help in my Corner of the World. Please Do the Same! … Sign and Share my Petition. Thank you. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/774/307/436/stop-using-palm-oil-trader-joes-target-safeway/

  23. David Austin
    Qld Australia
    April 10, 2015, 3:05 pm

    A great rescue, a sad story. I have seen many documentary interviews with the Indonesia government regarding this forest clearing palm oil earth tragedy, the most recent this year, the fantastic TV doco with Harrison Ford and Arnie S. called Years Of Living Dangerously, and unfortunately it is clear that the Indonesia Government simply does not care and never has. Very very sad and it’s criminal. There’s a new palm oil APP released by POI Palm Oil Investigations that scans supermarket product bar codes for those of us living consciously, best we can do is share it. Keep in mind also the popular Balinese Furniture available around the world.. All was once the home of all these amazing beautiful wildlife now on the verge of extinction. Humanity sucks.

  24. Debbie Bunn
    Gainesvillr.Fla
    April 10, 2015, 2:31 pm

    Made comment above. Just so depressing now

  25. Debbie Bunn
    United States
    April 10, 2015, 2:29 pm

    This is so disturbing. Rainforest are so important. Why they let these rich people do this I just can’t understand.Please stop destroying all the rain forests that were meant to be there. All these beautiful animals being killed and losing their homes. Just can not understand except rich people only care about there pockets even though they are secured for life.

  26. Nancy P.
    Maryland
    April 10, 2015, 1:02 pm

    Sadly, palm oil is in so very many products, including Earth Balance. Earth Balance company claims that by the end of 2015 they will be using only sustainable palm oil – as if that should vindicate them and they use .5% of all palm oil harvested, which is still a lot. I have also read that there is no such thing as ‘sustainable’ palm oil – reminds me of the oxymoronic statement, ‘humane slaughter’. No more Earth Balance for me. We must find another way.

  27. Eric DeHart
    Birnamwood, Wisconsin
    April 9, 2015, 5:45 pm

    Wow, what a story. Friday the male orangutan has to be of the most beautiful I have seen. Thank you for saving his life and giving him a second chance. I hope through global media people will receive the awarness and support the life and future of the orangutans as well as the animals they share their forest with. Thank you to all that support and desperately work so hard to save the great apes.

  28. penny watts
    Swaziland South East Africa
    April 9, 2015, 4:21 pm

    We need a world policy to halt the destruction of virgin rainforests. We have lost 50% of the worlds animals in the last 40 years or a species every 20 minutes.
    We attend Animal Welfare conferences, the latest one held last week in St Louis USA.. Let’s speak with one voice to the world and say STOP enough is enough. Within decades the face of the planet which has endirred for millions of Yeats will be iritrievabley destroyed bringing the world closer to being a desolate uninhabitable sphere.
    Penny (Swaziland Animal Welfare Society)