Orangutans rescued in Indonesia as more land is cleared for oil palms

In the past week, the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) from Medan, Sumatra, has rescued three orangutans: a male from inside an oil palm plantation and a mother and baby from forest that was about to be cleared for oil palm.

The male was found isolated on scrub land on an oil palm plantation in the Aceh Tamiang region.

16178_362797397251778_6419815230765231673_n10993467_362797317251786_6766367596237614537_oThe HOCRU team from the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan tried to rescue the primate on February 21, but he hid from the rescuers, who called off their search for him when dusk fell, and returned early the next morning. After searching for two hours, they found the primate and sedated him for the rescue, which was carried out with the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Agency.

“He weighed 80 kilos and we estimate that he was about 35 years old,” said OIC founder and director Panut Hadisiswoyo. “He was found to be healthy, without any injuries at all.”

The orangutan was released into the protected forest in Aceh Tamiang and quickly climbed a tree and swung off into the canopy.

The director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), Helen Buckland, says Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered and, without urgent action, could be the first Great Ape species to become extinct. Protecting every individual is crucial, she says.

Large areas of orangutan habitat have been lost or degraded because of agriculture and logging. As a result, the primates are pushed into areas where forest and farmlands meet. With natural food hard to find, crop raiding – a key cause of conflict – becomes increasingly likely.

“As more forest is replaced by oil palm plantations, more orangutans become isolated in tiny forest patches, without enough food to survive,” Buckland said.

“They are at serious risk of starvation or being killed if they wander into plantations in search of food. We set up the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit with the OIC, our partners in Sumatra, to address this problem.”

Every rescue is a high-risk operation for both the orangutans and the team, Buckland says. “An evacuation is only carried out as a last resort when the orangutan’s life is in greater danger if left in their current situation.”

The HOCRU team has already rescued eight orangutans this year.

Two mother-and-baby rescues

mother and baby orang enhanced-13895-1424444355-16mother and baby rescue jan 15 enhanced-2460-1424443374-8On February 19, the HOCRU team evacuated a mother orangutan and her baby from a forest area that was about to be bulldozed.

The mother was tranquilised with a dart and dropped from the treetops into a net, with her baby clinging to her side.

Both orangutans were given a clean bill of health, and were transported in a cage, across deep water, to the safety of the Gunung Leuser National Park in Bakongan.

rescued mother and baby jan15 enhanced-5566-1424443648-2orang mother and baby rescue jan 2015 enhanced-2464-1424443585-8enhanced-19094-1424443529-1On January 20, another mother orangutan and her baby were rescued from a patch of forest that is surrounded by oil palm plantations in South Aceh, Indonesia. They were released into the Gunung Leuser National Park.

The primates were found isolated in Ujung Padang village on a two-hectare patch of forest that local farmers were about to clear for oil palm cultivation. Neither of them had any injuries, although the baby, a male aged about 6 months, was thought to be underweight.

10687329_350345891830262_2690387066689477698_o10350629_350356955162489_9208405961605092606_nThe rescue was carried out by HOCRU, the Natural Resources Conservation Agency, and national park office staff. “The rescue didn’t go entirely as planned,” said Hadisiswoyo. “After the mother orangutan had been sedated with a tranquiliser dart, she found an old nest and fell asleep, rather than dropping down into the net being held below to catch her.

“One of the team had to climb the tree and help to bring them down.”

Buckland says that, while these rescues are good news, there are still more orangutans in need of urgent help, and conflict between humans and orangutans is a growing problem.

It was members of the local community that alerted the OIC to the presence of the orangutans in the patch of forest in January. “Our team had been monitoring the area,” Hadisiswoyo said. “We had already rescued three other orangutans in the area, two in October, 2014, and one in August, 2014.”

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Orangutan rescued from rubber plantation

On January 7, the HOCRU team rescued an adult male orangutan, estimated to be 30 years old, from a rubber plantation in Karang Jadi village, Langkat, North Sumatra.

“Local people said that the adult male orangutan and a few other orangutans had been in their village for a long time,” Hadisiswoyo said. “The orangutan was unable to return to the forest because the forest corridor had been turned into an oil palm plantation.”

Karya Jadi villagers said the orangutan had damaged their crops and frightened local farmers when he chased them and had demanded its relocation. The HOCRU team released the orangutan into the OIC forest restoration site in the Gunung Leuser National Park.

61 rescues since 2012

The HOCRU team has rescued 61 orangutans since 2012. Thirty were released into the Gunung Leuser National Park, five into protected forest in Aceh province, five into the Jantho reintroduction programme in Aceh, two into the Bukit Tiga Puluh reintroduction programme in eastern Sumatra, and the remaining 15 are still being cared for in the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) quarantine centre in Batu Mbelin, North Sumatra.

Four of the orangutans died either in transit or soon afterwards. They had either sustained injuries from unknown assailants before they were rescued, or suffered from malnutrition and parasite infestations because they were held captive in atrocious conditions.


There are two distinct species of orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan and the species found in Borneo, who are also endangered. According to figures from 2004, there are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces.

Education and workshops

The HOCRU team runs regular educational activities and workshops for farmers, and conducts surveys to find out more about the causes of human-orangutan conflict.

The team trains farmers and plantation workers in various methods of HOC prevention such as using noise (bamboo noise cannons) as a safe method to keep the orangutans away.

The OIC helped set up the Human Wildlife Conflict Task Force Group, which brings together government officials and NGOs specialising in individual species – namely orangutans, tigers, and elephants.

Horrific killings

One of the most shocking recent cases was in December 2014 in Central Kalimantan on Indonesian Borneo. An orangutan was discovered on an oil palm plantation with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.

Orangutan shot Kondisi-OU-sebelum-operasi2

“This is one more victim of the conflict between the oil palm industry and wildlife,” BOS Foundation spokesman Monterado Fridman said at the time. “This orangutan was brought to us in a horrific condition. Both of her legs and arms were broken and x-ray results showed more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.”

orang shot more Proses-operasi-medis

Michelle Desilets from the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust (OLT) said that, as habitat was cleared, orangutans became easy targets. “Concession holders often view them as agricultural pests as they can destroy young oil palms when they consume them in desperation. In some plantations, managers offer a bounty to the workers for the head of an orangutan.

“We started seeing these kinds of cases more than ten years ago when the palm oil boom really started to take hold, especially in Central Kalimantan, where this orangutan was found. Orangutans have been discovered with more than 100 lead pellets in their bodies.”

The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, said such cases were all too common for those working to save orangutans in Indonesia. “This is the standard way that orangutan mothers and others are routinely killed here. They are shot, beaten, clubbed, macheted and speared, and a few ‘lucky’ infants manage to survive this and end up as illegal pets; and there are hundreds of those each year.

“Adult orangutans are notoriously strong and have huge teeth and four hands. The level of sheer adrenaline-fuelled violence needed for people to batter an orangutan to this degree without being seriously injured themselves is almost impossible to imagine.”

Palm oil

About half of all packaged food contains palm oil and, over the past 25 years, the total area planted with oil palms has tripled, with current global estimates of more than 15 million hectares.

It was revealed in June last year that forest clearance in Indonesia – the world’s biggest palm oil producer – had for the first time surpassed the clearance rate in Brazil.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), oil palm plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, who together produce close to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

rescued mother and baby jan 2015 enhanced-2401-1424443439-6enhanced-11305-1424444194-1The Orangutan Information Centre
The Sumatran Orangutan Society