FEBRUARY, 2016: I’m on assignment for Wildlife Asia, heading to one of the release sites in Sumatra to free a critically endangered Sumatran orang-utan, named Chocolate.
Our 4 x 4 slides into another ditch as mud flies in all directions. The road into Jantho makes all my previous 4 x 4 experience pale into insignificance. Winching from vehicle to vehicle and then between the trees, the vehicle crawls up another hill. The journey sends my mind back to the 2012 assignment when we found Chocolate. I was part of an investigation team looking into the illegal palm oil expansion in the Tripa peat swamp, located in the Leuser Ecosystem, home to the largest surviving population of Sumatran orang-utan. I can recall at one point, I asked a group of villagers if they had seen any orang-utans, or knew where I could see one. That was all it took, as minutes later, I was asked to follow a guy on a motorbike down a narrow alleyway, before another motorbike rider appeared and asked us to follow him down a backstreet and into to a nondescript house. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I made out out a small figure sitting on the cement floor at the back of the house. The traders placed the baby orang-utan on the floor in front of us, underweight and afraid, clutching onto a small handful of rice. He wore a small leather collar around his neck, showing he was owned, and patches of his hair were missing from sleeping on hard, cold surfaces. The timid animal shied away from all of us, and it was clear to me, that this was a result of being teased and taunted by his “masters.”
You might think that those who make their living from trading in endangered species would be secretive about their business practices, but not these men, who spoke openly to us, going into detail about how they caught orang-utans.
“We identify the mothers with babies, then cut down the trees around them, leaving them with nowhere to run. Then we climb the tree and using a bamboo pole, we beat the mother close to death until she falls to the ground. Only when she is unconscious can we prise the infant from her grasp. We can sell a young orang-utan into the pet trade for about one million to two million rupiah [HK$800-HK$1,600], normally to Chinese businessmen, though sometimes to military or police officers.”
But today, they’re selling to my team and me. For 2.5 million rupiah, we tell them we’d return with the funds in a couple of days. After exchanging phone numbers, we arrange to return in two days, and then we leave, but not without noting the GPS location of our exact whereabouts, and taking some photos.
Shortly after we get back to the hotel we called the team at Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Program (SOCP), the NGO Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (foundation for a sustainable ecosystem), the Nature and Natural Resource Conservation Agency of Indonesia (BKSDA), and the police to discuss our strategy for rescuing the baby orang-utan we have now named Chocolate.
The next day, the group, including two police officers move in and surround the house, but there’s no sign of Chocolate. The traders denied they had an orang-utan.
The following day, the police phone the traders and threaten them with prison unless they bring the orang-utan to the police station. Eventually the traders give in, and arrive at the police station with Chocolate. The police take statements, and brief the traders about the laws prohibiting the capture, keeping, and trade of orang-utans, and the penalties that could apply if they are caught again with endangered wildlife. The SOCP team give Chocolate a health check, and feed him some fresh fruit and fluids, before his 12-hour journey to the quarantine centre outside Medan, and then on to a rehabilitation facility. Something tells me it will be a long time until we see this damaged but beautiful creature again, though I know that, one day, we will.
Four years later, that day arrives. The road is testing the team right now. I get an eyeful of mud as we slide around another corner, just a couple of hours into our four hour journey to the orang-utan release site, and our two vehicles are already over heating. Dr Ian Singleton of the SOCP, his field staff, and Clare Campbell of Wildlife Asia, are on a mission to free Chocolate, and another orang-utan of the same age, back into the wild. Singleton and Campbell lament the lack of resources in this part of the world which would be invaluable in the protection and monitoring of orang-utans. “If only we had a couple of helicopters for rescues and releases,” says Singleton. Campbell agrees. “And another one for anti-poaching patrols like they do in Africa.”
Gains are being made though. In March of this year, new estimates put orang-utan numbers at 14,613, a significant increase on the previous estimate of 6,600 individuals. However, the species remains under serious threat, and given the current rate of deforestation, as many as 4,500 orang-utans could vanish from the wild by 2030.
We arrive at the release site and head straight over to see Chocolate who has been in a holding cage for two weeks now, and is fully recovered from the arduous overland trek to get here. I couldn’t believe how confident he had become.
Singleton is clearly emotional at the prospect of saying goodbye to Chocolate, and spends a few last moments with him. “I’m going to miss this little guy,” he confides. “I’m not sure people really understand what it’s like to rescue, rehabilitate, and finally release an orang-utan. It’s very emotionally draining. This little guy’s lost everything, but hopefully it’s a new start for him”.
We all stand ready. The cage is opened, and the big moment securing Chocolate’s freedom is finally here.
Once he realises that, this time, the cage door is staying open, he quickly moves out of his confines, with his companion in front. Chocolate makes his way towards the forest, but with a slight detour. Prior to his release, I placed a GoPro on top of Chocolate’s cage facing the forest, and tested it several times, turning it off and on. To my surprise, Chocolate had been watching the whole time. He reaches for the GoPro, and turns it off without hesitation. He then proceeds over towards the jungle along a rubber zip line.
He finally hits the wall of green, but hesitates, jumping back along the zip line and back on top of the cage. Eventually, he sets off again approaching his once familiar habitat. Chocolate then turns, and looks towards us as the early morning sun bounces off his red fur. Too often, we as humans write off environmental issues that seem unfixable. But, watching the dawn scene play out as Chocolate swings through the trees , it’s hard not to feel that there is still hope for the orang-utans of Sumatra and the Leuser ecosystem. All they really need is our commitment.