Two orangutans were rescued in northern Sumatra this week. The first, rescued on April 18, was a large adult male, who was trapped in a small pocket of forest in the Tripa peat swamps that is surrounded by encroaching palm oil plantations.
The second was a 2-year-old orphan, kept illegally as a pet.
The adult male was found in a small forested area that measured less than 1 hectare and was bare of fruit. He was already showing signs of malnutrition.
“We first saw this orangutan about three months ago and it looks like he’s lost around 30 percent of his body weight since then,” said veterinarian Yenny Saraswati from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP).
“If we hadn’t rescued him he would eventually have starved to death. We’ve rescued several orangutans like this in Tripa over the past few years. We don’t like doing it; it’s risky for the animals as, after they’re darted they fall from the tree and can get serious injuries, like broken bones. It would be much better for them if they could simply stay in the forests, but if the forests are disappearing, we have to try to do something.”
The SOCP, Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (the Foundation for a Sustainable Ecosystem), and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s nature conservation agency in Aceh province worked together to carry out the rescue.
Indrianto, a field worker with Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL), said: “In these situations, it really is a race against time. Many orangutans get killed or captured by plantation workers, some ending up as illegal pets. The orangutan we rescued today had already begun eating the shoots of oil palm seedlings nearby, as he had nothing else to eat, and he would almost certainly have been killed for this if we hadn’t intervened.”
On April 20, staff from the SOCP, along with police and field staff from the nature conservation agency confiscated a two-year-old orphaned Sumatran orangutan. It was being kept illegally as a pet in a village close to the Tripa peat swamp forest and had been tied by the leg to the outside of a small shop on a dusty road.
Saraswati said the orangutan was suffering from malnutrition. “His skin is very dry and he has a wound on his leg from the rope he was tied up with, obviously from trying to get it off.”
The SOCP’s director of conservation, Ian Singleton, said: “We have been forced to confiscate about 15 orangutans in this part of Aceh over the past few years. All of them are now effectively refugees from forests that have been cut down by plantation companies.
“This is the second orangutan from Tripa to be saved this week and another example of how urgently action is needed to protect Tripa’s unique Sumatran orangutan population. We all really must urge the Indonesian government to halt all forest clearance and the setting of illegal fires in Tripa as soon as possible if these animals are to have any chance of surviving the year. Offenders need to be prosecuted and Indonesia’s laws enforced, or we will lose them forever.”
“The Tripa peat swamp forest supports the highest density of orangutans anywhere on earth, but is still being cleared by palm oil companies who think they are beyond the reach of the law. The situation is urgent and requires action, not words, to save Tripa’s remaining orangutans.”
A spokesman for the Coalition to Save the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest added: “Right now Tripa’s peat swamp forests continue to be cleared and drained. The swamps are criss-crossed by a vast network of canals draining this unique wetland ecosystem 24 hours a day, threatening to drain all life out of the remaining forests.
“An immediate order needs to be made from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to cease all land clearing activities and palm oil operations while the Environment Ministry and the national police gather evidence for prosecution.
“The companies need to be ordered to cease all activities immediately, and the drainage canals need to be blocked as soon as possible.”
According to Indonesian law No 5, 1990, it is illegal to capture, kill, or trade orangutans in Indonesia; the penalty is up to five years in prison and a 100 million rupiah fine. In a case in North Sumatra province in February this year, an orangutan trader was sentenced to eight months in prison . This was the first ever successful prosecution for illegal possession of an orangutan in Sumatra.
Photos: Paul Hilton/SOCP/YEL