In the latest issue of Outdoor Photography magazine you can read an article I wrote for their Moment with Nature section. I chose a very powerful image from a rescue mission I was part of in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
For those not able to see or purchase the magazine my words from the article are written below.
“Orangutans are only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They are solitary animals,moving through the jungles looking for food. They are arboreal species which means they rarely come down to the ground from the safety of the trees. Their forest homes are encircled by the illegal logging and palm oil plantations. They are afforded the highest protection in law but sadly due to habitat destruction, hunting and the pet trade many meet a horrific end to their lives.
With their habitat being eroded weekly they are often seen moving at the edge of their forest, close to plantations and large open areas. In turn they become easy prey for poachers who can make huge earnings from the black market pet trade. Their mothers are killed by farmers and poachers, while their babies are then kidnapped and sold on the black market to become someone’s pet or trophy.
One of the shocking and direct consequences of this poaching is the death of the mother who is killed in the process. Shock for the baby is devastating and those that survive have a marked existence with so many crucial skills missing. Their lives of forests swapped for a life chained to a post or a cage. This situation is tolerated and considered normal in Sumatra and Borneo, keeping one of these Orangutans can elevate the social status of the person.
When they are rescued the road back to the wild is hard without their mother, this makes their independent survival almost impossible. I’ve witnessed many rescued Orangutans during my time in Sumatra that have been saved and had a second chance to return to freedom.
I’ve shadowed the HOCRU team – Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit many times during my trips to Sumatra. It was set up by Panut Hadisiswoyo, Director of OIC to help to rescue Orangutans on the island of Sumatra that had been cut off from the forests by deforestation and human conflict.
I spent two weeks shadowing the rescue team on this trip. On the morning of the raid we were up early, we had some breakfast, a team talk and we set off. All I knew was a young Sumatran Orangutan was being held as a pet and that we could gain access into the courtyard at a certain time with the help of the local police we would rescue her.
Once we arrived we parked up and entered the small courtyard and to my left I saw a tiny cage with a Sumatran Orangutan slumped on the floor. The smell of urine was really bad as this tiny head lifted up and made eye contact with me. In the background I saw the owner come and he was talking to the police as I lay level with the female Sumatran Orangutan and spoke to her.
She was banging her body into the cage, perhaps excited there were new people in the yard. I’d like to think for those brief moments she came alive and was happy as I whispered to her you’re okay now you will be free soon.
The atmosphere changed though as the man started talking loudly and waving his arms. I ignored him and carried on taking images. Then I heard” Craig we have to go he wants us to leave”. Once back in the car I was told the police got scared, didn’t want to take the orangutan or apply the “Law” that they have the power to do. The man holding the Orangutan told them he was an ex-Aceh rebel and was part of the mafia in that area and that if the orangutan was taken we would all disappear.
A common problem in Sumatra, is fear, corruption, bribes and a total lack of willingness to apply the rules the world have applied to these critically endangered animals. Panut and his team don’t have the powers of arrest they depend on the police to help them.
She was estimated to be 6 years old and the owner told the police he had brought the orangutan as a baby from the market. This tiny cage has been home for years and it was very upsetting to see. Efforts to gain her freedom continued and later on her freedom was secured and she was taken to the quarantine facility in Medan the capital of Sumatra.
I’d like to think for a few moments her life changed as we were there, she woke, took food and watched me. I wanted to capture her beauty despite the conditions she was living in and what she had gone through in the past. This image is dedicated to her, the traumatic events she’d witnessed so very evident in her eyes.
This was as close to the frontline as you can get, in the yard of a mafia man’s home seeing the results of the illegal pet trade close up for myself. Later that day I found somewhere quiet and cried tears of saddest and anger that this is happening as the worlds watches. The task of rescuing these crucially endangered Orangutans fails to young, native Indonesians with limited powers and resources.
I couldn’t help thinking it shouldn’t be like this though.”
This is the brutal reality of the illegal pet trade in Orangutans, which is a major factor in their declining numbers.
Thank you to Outdoor Photography Magazine for letting me highlight this very important issue with this article.