The Orangutan is one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, sharing 96.4% of our DNA. Indigenous people of Indonesia and Malaysia call this ape “Orang Hutan” which literally translates as “Person of the Forest”. They are intelligent, friendly, and very gentle and spending time with these animals gave me so many wonderful memories which I will treasure. These animals are native to Indonesia and Malaysia, and their survival is seriously endangered by illegal logging, forest fires including those associated with the rapid spread of palm oil. Over the last few years timber companies have increasingly entered the last stronghold of the Orangutans, the protected national parks. I’ve seen this first hand travelling around Sumatra.
The situation is now so acute for both the Borneo Orangutan and the Sumatran Orangutan, both of these species are classed as endangered and critically endangered respectively by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and are listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
After my first week in the jungles of Sumatra I was sad to leave Darma, but equally I was very sad to leave the Orangutans that I had seen and spent some wonderful moments with, watching and capturing with my camera. It felt like I’d lost someone as during the intensity of those days trekking through the dense jungles looking for these guardians of the forest I became very close to these Orangutans. I hope they will remain safe, I will be returning to these amazing jungles next year. Here are some images of the Orangutans I saw and left behind in Sumatra, these moments were special.
I have named the image above “Hope”. Hope is a great thing, without it you can become crushed, you should always have and believe in hope. The Sumatran Orangutans are in a fight for their lives and need every bit of help. This image, of a baby Sumatran Orangutan playing with her mum sung out that word to me. Her mum is called Sepi and again she was rescued from a vile world you couldn’t even imagine, many years ago and has been given a second chance in life. The baby is called Casa and is a year and a half in age. Born in the rainforests of Gunung Leuser National park, she represents the future. Watching her cling to her mum here, acting shy just like a human baby. She saw me and tried to hide behind her mum’s fur.
After I left Darma we drove north to the providence of Ache where I spent two days with the HOCRU team– (Human Orangutan Conflict Rescue Unit). I will be telling you this story in my next blog and not here for reasons I will explain in good time. After two tough and exhausting days I spent the rest of the second week with the OIC team, witnessing the wonderful work they do in the community and the re-forestation areas with replanting programmes in order to give the land back its rain forests. I spent two days at the Re-forestation site, which is on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park. Its a small, self contained house where workers spend time replanting the forest in different areas in the neighbouring areas.
Since 2005 they have been involved in the reforestation of degraded land through tree nursery and replanting projects, and have planted over half million trees to date. This project involves the regeneration of illegally cleared forest land in the Besitang region of the Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP). The programme is the first of its kind in Sumatra, with OIC being the first and only NGO granted permission to conduct restoration work within the national park. Working in close collaboration with the national park government authorities and local communities, the project aims to undo damage caused through illegal large-scale conversion of forest into oil palm plantation agriculture.
I helped the team out during my time there, often they spend three to four weeks at a time here away from their families doing this work. It was amazing what they have achieved in just a few years through hard work, passion and a belief that things can change running through all the team members. I also planted some trees that fingers crossed will become put of a new rain forest in the future, another wonderful moment for me on a personal front.
In addition to the forest rehabilitation, the project also provides sustainable alternative livelihood schemes for local people living adjacent to the park. They benefit from the restoration of natural ecological services, having previously suffered droughts as a result of high water uptake from the illegal planting of oil palms, and also receive business development training. There is a strong educational element to the project too, with training and skills development on tree nursery management and replanting seedlings. Indigenous tree species are planted to hopefully put back what was taken with the illegal actively conducted in these areas before these projects were set up.
I also visited some of the offices the team has, where classroom based education and training goes on within the communities. All building awareness of the plight of the Orangutans and their habitats which in turn are the homes of those people that they try to educate about what’s happening to Sumatra.
After a wonderful few days seeing this brilliant and committed work that is going on I headed North to Ketambe, an area within the province of Ache. I was going to be staying with the Ketambe Reforestation and Ecotourism Development Initiative team (KREDI) which is part of OIC/SOS. The organisation works at the grassroots level in northern Sumatra to raise awareness of the critical importance of the sustainable use of natural resources and ecosystem conservation.
For the first few days I was invited to a two day workshop put on by OIC. The local communities turn up along with Ministry for National Park delegates in the region. Regional commanders from the police and military. They are invited to voice their concerns about the problems in the area mainly caused by the large scale de-forestation. Slideshows, talks are put on and everyone is encouraged to talk about their issues while still trying to help and save the forests and the Orangutans. However, people have to make a living and people there were saying and in the absence of any real help from the government, people are left to just do whatever thay have to in order to survive and feed their families.
Travelling around this area of Aceh I witnessed many areas of the Gunung Leuser National Park (GLNP) cleared bare and the fringes of this protected rain forest habitat slowly being eroded away with small to large de-forestation and illegal logging and forest clearance. At times the smoke from the fires would block out the suns rays and fill the air with that heavy smoke smell you get from burning. Seeing this on such a large scale was truly shocking and nobody was doing anything to stop it. It goes unchecked. Panut the founder of OIC told me around 1.5% of the GLNP is lost each year this way and is shrinking at an alarming rate.
On the surface the country is driving itself into a brick wall as fast as is humanly possible, because the carbon emissions, the green houses gasses the air population is everywhere in Sumatra. The whole area of Indonesia produces so much green houses gases from burning, it now has such a major role in the global weather patterns and the fast changing weather we are all seeing.
Through translators I heard many members of the public who had turned up for this two day workshop say the government of Indonesia does not protect the forest, they allow large scale illegal logging to go on unchallenged . Sitting at the back and hovering around with my camera I was met with a little suspicion at first, until I was introduced as a friend from England just on holiday, that was my remit and I said nothing.
It was clear to see and hear from local people that it is those that you have to work with if you’re ever going to safeguard the rainforest and then in turn the amazing array of wildlife they support. They feel helpless with a government that does not firstly protect their forests and secondly hand out licences to palm oil companies that come in and turn the whole place into a foreign landscape so far removed from the wonderful rainforest they rip up so violently.
With no safeguards in place the critically endanged Sumatran Orangutans are a flagship species, along with the Tigers, Elephants and Rhinoceros and have little chance of survival. That’s the cold and hard truth from what I heard and saw during my time there. Flying in the face of that, with passion, hope and drive are the guys from OIC/SOS that work tirelessly with the communities, schools, and local people in order to just keep that hope alive, hoping the animals that live on this island Sumatra and neighbouring island Borneo may just have some kind of future.
After being around for those two days, watching and listening to the proceedings and trying to blend in as much as possible the head guys seem to accept me and wanted to talk to me through a translator. I had to remember though I was on holiday so I didn’t really say too much just listened. At the end of the day I asked for a group photo of them all and I took the chairs out for the officials, told people where to stand and even had the front row straightening their arms out, they all took it in good faith and here everyone is.
The backdrop being that special place everyone is fighting to keep, the Gunung Leuser National Park, which I found would be the perfect background when putting together this image. I learned a lot over those two days, I had amazing access to locals, their politics, their unhappiness and their total bewilderment at a government that is failing them at each time of asking. At times I felt like I was on an undercover mission, sailing under the radar and trying to become a local if that makes sense? I applaud the whole team for their work over those two days, amazing and very inspiring seeing how doing something is better than doing nothing. These workshops are put on as often as OIC can manage and afford and from my point of view are invaluable in building trust and respect.
Over the next couple of days we visited the local schools in the area in the ‘OranguVan’, a mobile environmental library. They present conservation films hoping to raise awareness about issues such as illegal logging, the pet trade, and the dangers of disturbing the rainforest ecosystem. The van travels around North Sumatra and Aceh, visiting local communities and schools. They provide free access to books, hold discussions and debates, show environmental films and give presentations on Orangutans and the importance of conserving their habitat.
They have a cycle-powered cinema that shows a wide range of education films. A team member cycles to produce the power needed for the projector. When we drove in to the schools the kids went mad, running out of their classrooms and mobbing the van which was great to see. Staff told me they use to do this once a week but now with funding being low they only manage it once a month, sometimes more if possible which I found really sad. The classrooms were very basic compared to ours in the UK but everyone was so polite and kind, the teachers came to say hello and introduced me to the children. Through a translator I said hello and why I was there which met with cries of “ohhh and Ahhh”.
Many of the children were shaking my hand and then placing my hand on their foreheads which I found out later is something to do with their religion, it was a wonderful time.
We visited three different schools as well as visiting locals communities in the evening, presenting these films and giving away books as presents for the children, which in turn sent out a strong message to look after your environment and its animals.
Each time the children would gather round the van and the team would hand out books that contain information about the Orangutans but in a funny way, as a story, to make it easy to remember. Once the books have been given out the children then settle down to read them, either standing up or sitting down.
Some absolutely brilliant work going on and happening in this area from the OIC/SOS team. I really enjoyed my time here and the whole team looked after me during my time there. All the children posed for this final farewell photo.
The day before I was due to head back to the capital of Sumatra, Medan, I was told about a place that had recently been illegally cut down. Work had stopped as locals had seen the burning and reported this to the relevant people. However, the people that did this, cleaned many hectors of primary rainforest from the GLNP which is protected and should not be cut down by law. Below I am standing on a once proud tree now flat on the ground.
Beautiful trees littered the ground, their roots sticking up into the air where they were violently cut and felled. I was told this happened recently and to try and get rid of the trees they set fire to the whole area. A lot of the fires had gone out but a few remained. As I stood there I just couldn’t make sense of why anyone would do this.
Majestic 300 year old trees just thrown over like they were nothing surrounded by primary forests. It greatly moved me standing there, the silence only broken every so often with a single bang that echoed down this valley. A lone logger was cutting down a tree in the distance even as we stood there. I was speechless. I sat and looked around alone, plants still clinging to the tree trunks, fruits on the ground, roots sticking up into the air. This is happening everywhere on Sumatra and Borneo.
It was such a scene of devastation, and it was a really sad end to a great week. However, I witnessed lots of positive stuff and real hope for the future. The next day I travelled back to Medan which took nearly all day, my guide dropped me off at my over night hotel, only the second time in two weeks that I’d had a bed as all the other times it was the floor, the car seat or the ground that was my bed, so I was looking forward to a shower and the bed. The following day I flew back to the UK and at this stage everything I’d seen and witnessed just seemed like a blur in my mind.
On my third blog I will cover the rescue, a day that moved me with what I witnessed!
Just before I go I’d just like to remind you of a couple of talks coming up towards the end of October. I will be presenting a number of presentations and talks alongside Panut who I had the pleasure of spending time with in Sumatra. He has worked in Orangutan Conservation for over a decade and has a dedicated team in Sumatra all doing their best for this great apes survival. For more details of these talks then please click here. I will also be doing this presentation on Thursday 25th October at the Natural History Museum in London as part of their Nature Live talks.
You can see this by clicking here. I hope you’ve enjoyed my two Sumatra blog posts so far. If you’d like to help SOS with anything you can think of then please click here to be taken to their website, many thanks and I look forward to seeing you on my talks.
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