The rescue was carried out on April 3 after local people told government authorities about the stranded primate and the authorities called in the OIC team. The orangutan – a male aged about 35 – was successfully released back into the rainforest some fifty kilometres away the next morning.
“When the team arrived on the scene, they found him in a tiny patch of forest surrounded on all sides by oil palms – plantations spanning the size of 3,000 football fields,” said Helen Buckland, the director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), which co-founded the OIC. “There was no way that the orangutan could have survived there for long, nor made it back to safe forests alone.
“Having been isolated in such a small patch of trees, he was very underweight, and the vet also found a bullet in his chest, which was removed on the scene. It is likely that Friday would have starved, or been shot again if he had not been rescued.”
The rescued orangutan was given the name Friday because he was rescued on Good Friday.
The director of the OIC, Panut Hadisiswoyo, said the organisation had rescued 64 stranded orangutans over the past three years. “Adults, juveniles, mothers with babies – they end up in plantations looking for the forest that used to be here, for the fruits they need to survive. Friday’s rescue brought the count for this year to 11 orangutans already. That’s 11 in just three months, so it’s a real concern.
“Plantations are not safe places for orangutans. We often have to cut bullets out of the orangutans during rescues. People may try to shoot them to protect crops, to kill a mother in order to capture her baby to sell, or just for sport in some cases.”
In December 2014, an orangutan discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body died from her injuries.
The field coordinator of the OIC’s Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit, Krisna, said that, when Friday was found, he had no safe way out of the forest patch so was extremely agitated, and looked malnourished. “We had to act fast. Performing these rescues is a last resort as it can be dangerous for both the orangutan and our team, but as this male was surely in trouble, we had no other option than to get him out of danger and into a larger forest for his safety.”
Given that the primate was a fully mature cheek-padded male, the rescue was not easy. “He evaded the team for some time before the vet was able to sedate him,” Panut said. “There was a serious risk of injury when he finally fell from the canopy.
“His body did hit a branch on the way down, but the team moved fast to get our net in the right position to catch him 15 metres below.”
Krisna added: “At dawn the following morning the team drove for more than one and a half hours through miles of uniform oil palms until they finally reached open forest. As soon as Panut lifted the door of the crate, Friday’s massive hand emerged to hoist himself up the nearest tree. Within seconds he had scaled it and was looking down on the rescue team, shaking branches and vocalizing to drive us out of the forest.”
The forest fragment in which Friday was found was once connected to the Leuser Ecosystem rainforest, but it now stands alone amidst 3,000 hectares of oil palm and rubber plantations.
“These rescues are vital,” Buckland said. “With so few Sumatran orangutans left in the wild, every life is precious. However, they do not solve the larger problem that is driving human-wildlife conflict. To protect orangutans in the long term, we need to ensure that their habitat is safe.”
Farwiza Farhan, who chairs the local conservation group Forest, Nature and Environment of Aceh (HAkA), which also assisted with Friday’s rescue, said that, with only about 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild, the species was now critically endangered. “Nearly 80 percent of their remaining habitat is inside the Leuser Ecosystem – the last place on earth where orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and tigers co-exist in the wild.”
Farwiza points to the danger currently posed to the Leuser Ecosystem by the spatial plan for the district of Aceh, which, he said, “illegally aims to remove the protected status of the Leuser Ecosystem” and will open up swathes of protected forest to road building, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions.
The Leuser Ecosytem covers 2.6 million hectares, straddles the border of Aceh and the neighbouring province of North Sumatra, and has been listed as one of the world’s most irreplaceable areas.
Farwiza says that not only are orangutans, elephants, and tigers being pushed towards extinction because of deforestation, the local communities are also suffering from the destructive floods and landslides that result from what Farwiza refers to as “environmental vandalism”.
Panut added: “The Aceh spatial plan must be revised to ensure the Leuser Ecosystem remains protected as required by Indonesian law.”
Forest loss increasing
A recent report by the SOS revealed that the rate of forest loss in the Leuser Ecosystem had more than doubled in recent years. “Our analysis of satellite maps confirmed the alarming scale of forest destruction in this unique ecosystem,” Buckland said. “If the Aceh spatial plan goes ahead, we could see Sumatra’s iconic species wiped out in just a few years. We’re facing a true conservation crisis.”
The SOS compared the period from the start of 2008 to the end of 2012 with the previous five years and found that forest loss in the Ecosystem had more than doubled. At least 30,830 hectares of forest were lost over the first period, and 80,316 hectares over the second.
Over the entire ten-year period, from the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2012, an area the size of Hong Kong was lost, the society says.
All photos by Paul Hilton.