In this my third and last blog from my trip to Sumatra I will show you and go through a day I will never forget for as long as I walk this earth. These images have been held back until now due to national coverage over the last several days. The company that is tearing up this forest landscape is a member of the round table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry group which regulates certified sustainable palm oil according to a set of principles developed by palm oil companies.
These dramatic images have been released as evidence in time for the RSPO annual three-day conference in Singapore. Some of my images formed the evidence to support the case against this company. The following links will show you the full story- The Sun and the Daily Mail.
Orangutans are found exclusively in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo and are one of the most loved animals in the world. Yet at the hands of humans they have and are been slaughtered, reduced to a few thousand individuals, trapped and encircled by palm oil plantations. Orangutans are afforded the highest protection in law but sadly due to hunting and the pet trade along with habitat destruction many meet sad and horrific ends to their lives.
With their habitat being eroded weekly they often are seen moving at the edge of their forest, close to plantations and large open areas. In turn they become easy prey to poachers who can make huge earnings from the black market pet trade.
One of the shocking and direct consequences of this poaching is the death of the mother who is killed in the process of poaching a younger Orangutan. 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 that’s too small as they grow. Even writing this makes me sad for those Orangutans you see reduced to this life in books and on TV.
This situation is tolerated and considered normal in Sumatra and Borneo, keeping one of these guardians of the forest 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 witnessed many rescued Orangutans during my time in Sumatra, my guide Darma knew everyone of them. Most have forgotten the pain they went through and forgiven their jailers but just hearing their individual stories sent shivers down my spine and filled me with such sadness.
From the moment we received the rescue call, the days plans changed instantly. I really didn’t know what was waiting for me, as we drove north to the providence of Ache. All I knew was that a mother and her baby were trapped, and we were heading in that direction as fast as will could. When we arrived all I saw was mile upon mile of this horrific landscape. Walking through a tattered landscape of barren red earth and alien palm oil trees, where once one of the finest rain forests in the world stood, is just impossible for me to describe. They take the best rain forest in the world and change it into a sole less landscape of palm oil within a matter of weeks, with brutal efficiency. Anything in its way gets crushed, killed and discarded.
It wasn’t until I arrived the following day that I witnessed such a shocking and inhospitable place. The wasted landscape surrounding me looked like something from a film set, it wasn’t real I said to myself. Surely humanity couldn’t do this to something so beautiful I asked myself. The colours of the palm oil crop tinted with the Orangutans blood within its deep red colours as shown in this image above.
Every way I faced and looked this landscape was looking back at me, somewhere at the base of this god forsaken land there was a tiny pocket of primary forest left. Inside were Sumatran Orangutans desperately clinging to life, encircled and cut off by palm trees. It was a site I just could’nt believe I was seeing.
There was little time for my thoughts as the HOCRU – (Human Orangutan Conflict Rescue Unit) team kicked in, led by a kind hearted man called Krishna who the night before we had all shared jokes and laughed over our evening meal. We all slept on the floor as the vet got his equipment ready for the following day.
Once we arrived the kit was checked and the vet loaded up the tranquilizers just before setting off to find the mother and baby Sumatran Orangutan. Looking around though it was unbelievable anything was living in this sad looking place.
Desperately they started searching for the mother and her baby Orangutan. HOCRU was created by Panut Hadisiswoyo, the Director of the Orangutan Information Centre –OIC. It was set up as a direct response to the Orangutans that get stranded along the east and northeast areas of Sumatra.
The team go through their well practiced drills and I’m desperate to help in anyway. I stand back and admire these young guys going off into this hostile landscape, with soaring heat and humidity which seems worse here with little or no tree cover to shelter in.
The landscape was tough, with vast steep sides where once forest grew, now just bare orange coloured mud, making our searching for these Orangutans torturous. A well worn track, in and out, curling like a corkscrew, visually showing you the path they took when they bled this land of its riches. A muddy, toxic-looking stream replacing the fresh water that had once flowed here.
At the base of this valley was the tattered remains of the original forest, supporting life in its minimal form. I stayed at the top as the team and their spotters had located the Orangutans. The shooter also stayed up high, hoping to get a clean shot with the tranquilizing dart. They communicated with each other well and soon word came back they had found another Orangutan there too. “It is a male” they shouted. He had joined the mother and baby here. There was just one problem! We only had one cage.
The next several hours I watched and listened to the guys making noises, mimicking the Orangutan to hopefully get her into a place where the shooter could get a clean hit. Its hard to explain as I write, I don’t really know the words to write and express how I felt watching this event unfold before me. I knew they were going to be cared for and moved but watching and hearing the Orangutans call and become so stressed that their fur stood on end is perhaps the most upsetting and emotional moment I’ve ever witnessed in nature. At times when I saw them I’d shout out loud “go down please, just let them dart you”. It was so upsetting it is beyond words.
Then from nowhere the mum and her baby came level with me. The image above shows her standing up on the highest branch, with the encircling palm oil trees seen as her backdrop, imprisoning them in this most shocking man made landscape. Mum and her baby were right in front of me. After a few fleeting looks at me she moved back into the remaining trees.
Then to my right another Orangutan stopped on a branch level with me. This must be the male I thought, he looked at me, his eyes going straight through me as he called and called. Heart breaking, so heartbreaking to see these peaceful animals so highly stressed, not understanding that we were there to rescue them, so that they could be in a better, safer place.
Putting the Orangutans through this is the very last resort for the HOCRU team and they try every other options before this. The male kept coming level with me as I was on higher ground, and he climbed to the highest point, surrounded by this broken landscape, each time giving me a distrusting look I’ll never forget. He was calling the female, as they had separated, looking out for each other even in tough testing times like this, putting a real human edge to the proceedings.
The male Orangutan disappeared and would be stressed from the event. It is believed that he is still in the area and hopefully the team will be able to track him so that he can be rescued also.
Soon the noises stopped and word had come back that they’d managed to dart the female. I managed to locate the team and when I arrived I could see them with the net spread out below her. Incredibly she was hanging on, I could see the dart in her body, her eyes looked over at us all and I could just sense she was hanging on to save her baby that was clinging to her. As it’s a mum’s most basic of instincts to protect their child.
That basic instinct a mum has to protect her child, fueling her to just hang on and not give into the tranquilizer. Heartbreaking is a word I’ll use a lot in this story but no other word really conveys what I witnessed. I was praying she’d just let go so they could receive help. But her will went on for around fifteen minutes. By this time it was almost too hard to watch, the team all the time moving and watching them just to make sure the net was in the right place, as she could fall at any time.
By now though you could see she was becoming slightly clumsy, missing branches that she was trying to hold onto. Then she went to just one arm, and then she just fell into the waiting net below.
The team scrambled up the steep hillside. Separation is a term these guys give when they take the baby away from the unconscious mother at the first available chance. I managed to capture that incredibly moving moment with this image, as the mother is carried off in the net she fell into, while one of the team give the signal to where they have to go.
I followed the team back to the top of this tough and testing landscape, by now my eyes were stinging and full of sweat dripping from my brow, the heat was just so intense and the humidity so bad I couldn’t cool down. By running behind the team up hill I created a little cold air on my face. It was just that hot.
Once at the top of the hill, the vet took over in a well drilled, well planned execution of their skills and also great passion to help and get the job done. They had around 40 minutes before the sedative wore off and good percentage of that the Orangutan had fought, hanging in the tree. Time was tight and the vet took blood, checked her teeth, bum area and general health. It was so sad to see but I knew these guys were helping her.
While I took this images the baby was being held by one of the team so that they can check over the mother. This is the safest way. All the time they were apart the baby struggled, trying to bite his handler and screaming. That scream I can here now, the tone went through you, the pitch could have broken a glass it was so high and shocking to hear.
I carried on taking images so that I could tell and capture this story no matter what. I had the mother looking straight at me with an indescribable emotional stare, and in the background the little baby screaming. The mother was slightly under weight but she was fine otherwise. The vet gave her the antidote which brings the Orangutan around by counter-acting the tranquilizer.
At that point fresh leaves were put in the cage we’d brought for her. She was placed inside the cage and the baby was reunited with his mother. I didn’t really truly take on broad what I’d just witnessed and been part of until after. At the time I was just on auto pilot.
I had a photograph taken with the team just before we left, an amazing bunch of young men, the last line of defence for the Sumatran Orangutans.
We loaded the mother and baby into the back of our vehicle then drove to the release site which is part of the national park. The cage is taken down a slope and tied off with rope and the slide door is slowly opened by the vet. It was amazing to see them both slowly appear, the mother climbed up with her baby and within a few minutes they had vanished into the dense forest. The team named the baby “Craig” after me which was a great honor and very touching. I hope he keeps that fight in his belly that he displayed when he was separated from his mother as this will stand him in good stead for the uncertain future that awaits these Sumatran Orangutans.
These guys do this week in, week out, rescuing stranded Sumatran Orangutans before they are either killed by the plantation staff or die through being cut off from the forests. It’s a shocking job but so important. The team at the moment know of around sixty other Sumatran Orangutans in this same position. Getting access, the correct paperwork and permission takes time.
The male they couldn’t rescue has not been seen yet. He is in my thoughts a lot as he came level with me in the tree canopy so many times, as you can see from the images I have shown above. I hope the team can find him. He saw the female and baby removed from this area which may have caused him so much anxiety that he may have moved on further putting himself at risk of being killed.
I have relived my two week trip to Sumatra extensively since my return within these blogs. Over the last few weeks I have visited this place in my dreams, through my images and talks I’ve presented. I wanted to get the whole story out into the public domain and now this last blog has been finished I feel better within myself. I wanted to give these Sumatran Orangutans a voice through my photographs and I hope I have achieved this. I’m only the photographer it’s the experts that need to save and change things in this part of the world.
I witnessed so much in Sumatra, it has been an emotional roller coaster with so many ups and downs, looking into an Orangutans eyes and seeing yourself in parts has filled me with so much joy at the same time sorrow. I have loved these enduring animals since childhood and now as an adult helping them is a blessing for me.
I have met locals, poachers, so many people just trying to survive with no help from the Indonesian government. I’ve listened, I’ve watched and had amazing behind the scenes access. One of the main things I kept hearing was that the government fails to protect the national parks, these areas that contain so many endangered flagship species of wildlife. The same government that hands out licensees to palm oil companies letting them play god with some of the richest forests on earth.
I visited schools, villages and watched with great delight the OIC team give out free books and presents films in order to educate them all into looking after, caring and keeping safe the wildlife of their country.
My Closing Thoughts –
Long term initiatives like reducing corruption, massive changes in management regimes and actions, long-term institutional change, as well as monitoring trade and prosecuting criminal behaviour will take to long to develop to an effective level to halt the immediate crisis. Without direct intervention in the national parks the Orangutans along with other forest-dependant wildlife- like the Sumatran Tigers and Elephants will become progressively scarcer until their populations are no longer viable.
Given the rate of deforestation in the past several years, and the recent widespread investment in oil palm plantation’s and bio diesel refineries, calculations suggest that 98% of lowland forest maybe destroyed by 2022. The incentive to log the protected areas will grow as timber companies run out of supplies outside of the parks, in turn they will start to degrade the national parks. These areas have to be protected and many times during my visit to Sumatra I heard and was told by locals that the government is letting everyone down by the lack of enforcement here.
There are some 2155 field rangers at the last count that patrol an area of 108,000km square. They have no access to helicopters, aeroplanes and necessary arms or military patrolling skills that would enable them to prevent illegal activity. Logging companies use bribes and are better armed and equipped than most rangers. If the rangers had the necessary training, communication, transport and arms then they’d be better placed to protect and prevent these illegal acts against the protected forests. They Indonesian government does have such a small force in the shape of their SPORC -rapid response ranger units. However their impact and presence is too small and they lack the mandate, training and equipment to prevent illegal loggers from operating inside the protected areas.
The removal of illegally grown plantations such as the one above, with mining and agricultural development inside the national parks is another major thing that needs to be implemented.
Reducing the rate of deforestation over Indonesia as a whole will also have a dramatic impact on the regional carbon dioxide emissions and thus help to prevent dangerous levels of global climate change. If the logging of national parks continues unchallenged it could under-mine the protected area concept worldwide. The Indonesian initiatives to strengthen the protection of their parks therefore urgently need substantial support from the international community if the Orangutan habitats and national parks are to be rescued from this growing state of emergency that’s happening there now.
I have really enjoyed my time in Sumatra and I would like to thank Helen from SOS, Panut from OIC and the rest of the people involved in helping me on this trip. I am returning next year to live and work alongside the Sumatran Orangutans again. I am also putting together an 8-9 day trip there for nature lovers and wildlife photographers. Where a percentage of your money from this trip will go directly to the Orangutan charities SOS and OIC. The trip will visit some of the projects and work I have mentioned in my previous blog posts.
This trip will show you what these guys are doing on the ground in Sumatra to save this special place. I will have more details for you shortly. The images I have donated to SOS will be available in their online shop soon. There will also be some limited edition prints coming out also, all the money raised going to this charity to help this beautiful creature survive.
One magical day I spent with the Sumatran Orangutans is covered in this slideshow below. I used a ION Air Pro Wi-Fi camera attached to my head to film some of the trekking scenes. The camera was kindly donated to SOS by Wex Photography. A massive thank you to them and soon I will be doing a blog covering this peace of kit and showing the stuff I captured in Sumatra with it.
Make sure you watch both slideshows in full HD for the best results.
I hope you all have enjoyed my Spotlight Sumatra blogs, the talks and the images. For me as a person it has been a dream come true to see these amazing animals in their own habitat. I will now build on the work, the images and continue to help the Sumatran Orangutan Society to highlight the plight of these animals.
After everything I’ve seen during my time in Sumatra there is still hope, a lot of great work is being done on the ground there by these two charities. I’d like to finish off my amazing journey on a real positive note with this short slideshow.
It seems strange I am leaving this place now through my blog, but I hope I have done these Orangutans proud, many thanks.