Orangutan rescue teams confront danger, cruelty, and illegality

Profile of Panut Hadisiswoyo, who has just won the 2015 Whitley Award for Conservation in Ape Habitats, and the Orangutan Information Centre in Medan, Sumatra.

By saving orangutans, we are saving the forests, and the forests are life.”

As director of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan, Sumatra, Panut Hadisiswoyo faces a host of complex daily challenges. Not only are he and his team working to rescue and protect orangutans, they are also restoring habitat in the national park, fighting encroachment, helping to build up local sustainable farming, educating children about conservation, and producing books.

Members of the OIC team are also creating a register of local plant species, monitoring flora and fauna, promoting ecotourism, mapping forest areas with the help of drones, and teaching locals how to prevent conflict with animals who are being driven into populated areas because their forest homes are being destroyed.

There is now almost zero encroachment around the OIC’s forest restoration site in the Sei Betung area, Hadisiswoyo says. “There are even former illegal loggers who are now supporting our project.” There are former illegal loggers now involved in an eco-tourism project in Tangkahan.

P1080232 (480x640)Hadisiswoyo at the OIC restoration site in the Sei Betung area.

Hadisiswoyo points to deforestation as the main cause of human-orangutan conflict. The deforestation triggers poaching, and the primates get pushed on to farmland. “All these things are related,” Hadisiswoyo said, “but the root of the problem is orangutans losing their habitat. Their habitat is fragmented and they are captured by humans and humans sell them to businessmen.”

The OIC has rescued 65 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,” Hadisiswoyo said. “The latest rescue brought the count for this year to 12 orangutans already.

“These rescues clearly indicate that orangutans are losing their habitat at an alarming rate. While rainforests are cleared to make way for oil palm development, orangutans and many other species are being put at extreme risk; they cannot survive when their home is destroyed.”

In a rescue on April 3, the OIC’s Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) found an adult male isolated in a tiny patch of forest surrounded on all sides by oil palms. He was very underweight, and the vet found a bullet in his chest, which was removed on the scene. “It is likely that the orangutan would have starved, or been shot again if he had not been rescued,” Hadisiswoyo said. “People shoot orangutans to protect crops, to kill a mother in order to capture her baby to sell, or just for sport in some cases.”

Rescue april 2015Rescue on April 3, 2015.

rescue march 15 2014Rescue in March 2014 of a young male orangutan isolated on farmland in Langkat, North Sumatra.

Rimba Sawang rescue 466436_10150638039552511_2140855643_oRescue in March 2012 of a male adult orangutan found injured on an oil palm plantation in the Rimba Sawang village in Aceh Tamiang.

The orangutan rescues often involve risks to the OIC team and the orangutans, but the primates are in more danger when marooned in patches of forest surrounded by oil palms, so the challenge has to be met.

In trying to confiscate orangutans being kept as pets, Hadisiswoyo has put his life on the line many times. One day in October 2013, he saw an orangutan being transported in a becak (auto rickshaw) in Medan, Sumatra. With complete disregard for his own safety, he raced over to the becak, challenged the man transporting the primate, and demanded that he hand over the animal.

The man Hadisiswoyo challenged was an orangutan trader, who was most likely a middleman for a trafficker, who would then sell the primate as a pet. The most likely customer would be a local businessmen or a high-ranking police officer.

It was risky for Hadisiswoyo to try and reclaim an orangutan from a trader. “The guy said he loved the orangutan and would kill me if I took it. I forgot my own safety and jumped in the becak. I was trying to take photos. I didn’t want to jump out as I was determined to get the orangutan. I forgot that I was risking my life.”

In an extremely lucky development for Hadisiswoyo, the becak broke down. He called his team, and the forestry department, but the forestry department staff were unavailable.

“In the meantime, the trader managed to contact his friend, a big guy on a motorbike, who came and grabbed the orangutan and ran away.”

Hadisiswoyo and his team managed to detain the trader and demanded to know where the orangutan, who was young and tame, had been taken. Finally the forest rangers arrived and Hadisiswoyo managed to establish where the primate was.

The orangutan was rescued and, the next day, Hadisiswoyo filed a report, which he had hoped would enable the forest rangers to arrest the trader, but nothing happened. “The authorities didn’t want to process the case,” Hadisiswoyo said. “They don’t want to prosecute anyone involved in this trafficking. It is very frustrating.”


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Cruelty and illegality

Hadisiswoyo tells one heart-rending tale after another: stories of orangutans found riddled with air rifle pellets, and the tale of an orangutan called Jack, who died a week after he was rescued from an amusement park in Aceh, his stomach horrendously bloated from a parasite infection.

Jack’s case was not an isolated one. Hadisiswoyo found another orangutan chained by the neck in another Aceh amusement park. “I tried to rescue it, but didn’t succeed and wrote two letters to the authorities, but still nothing happened. The orangutan just stayed there. The park had no licence for this animal. I cried when I saw her. She was being given garbage to eat.

“They also had civets, monkeys, and deer; and three sun bears, who are supposed to be protected, who were being given fried rice with soya bean sauce to eat.”

The same day as he discovered the orangutan in the amusement park, Hadisiswoyo found another one, about five years old, being kept as a pet. The owner refused to hand over the primate. “The wildlife authority didn’t want to take it. In Aceh, many of these businessmen have the backing of former separatist combatants, who are still very powerful. They still carry guns.”

OICR-03 (640x427)Hadisiswoyo with an orangutan rescued from an amusement park near Medan in February this year.

On another occasion last year, Hadisiswoyo went with his rescue team to confiscate a male orangutan, aged between 12 and 15, who was kept in a tiny cage in a backyard in Aceh on the property of a high-ranking police officer. The primate had been kept there for more than a decade.

“The police officer started banging the table, insisting that he was the lawmaker,” Hadisiswoyo said. “He said I shouldn’t try teaching him what was legal or illegal. He got very stressed and emotional and kept telling me how he loved the orangutan like his own son.”

Hadisiswoyo tried to explain that the orangutan would grow to a serious size and could even escape and kill someone. “He is someone who is supposed to prosecute the people who are keeping orangutans, but he himself was keeping one.

“It is completely illegal to keep orangutans as pets, but people think of them as a status symbol, something to show that they are above the law. It is especially shocking when it is members of the police force that keep orangutans as pets, but unfortunately this is not uncommon.”

Eventually, the police officer asked for money to give up the orangutan, arguing that he had spent a lot of money keeping the primate. The forest rangers arrived, but did nothing to help, and actually tried to persuade Hadisiswoyo to give in to the demand for money. In the end, Hadisiswoyo and the team had to leave the orangutan behind.

A member of the OIC staff went back to the house a week later to check on the orangutan, but it had already been taken away.

The Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) did eventually intervene and confiscate the primate from the police officer, but instead of being taken to a rehabilitation centre, the animal was sold to Medan zoo, along with a baby orangutan, who had also been kept as a pet.

In yet another challenge to the wildlife authority’s own contravention of the law, Hadisiswoyo launched a petition to lobby for the release of the orangutan into the wild. He said at the time that both confiscated orangutans were in good health and would be good candidates for reintroduction to their natural habitat.

“It is the government’s own policy that all orangutans confiscated from the pet trade should be returned to the forest, yet the very agency that is responsible for making sure this happens sent these two orangutans to live out their days in a zoo where orangutans die because of the bad conditions.”

In the end, the zoo offered to release one of the orangutans in exchange for another rescued one; an exchange that Hadisiswoyo was unwilling to accept. He did, though, succeed in obtaining the release of the younger of the primates, a female who is now in the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) quarantine centre in Batu Mbelin, north Sumatra, but the older orangutan – now known as Pongky – is still in the zoo.

PongkyPongky at Medan zoo.

Hadisiswoyo believes that Indonesian zoos are paying traffickers large amounts of money for orangutans.

He tells of one case of an orangutan found on an oil palm plantation with pellets in his cheek, his gums, and his arms. After surgery, the primate survived, but there have been many cases in Indonesia in which rescued orangutans have died.

In one particularly tragic case in December last year, an orangutan was discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, with more than forty shotgun pellets in her body. The veterinary team at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) in Nyaru Menteng tried to save the primate’s life, but she died the next day.

Orangutan shot Kondisi-OU-sebelum-operasi2

In the face of such horror, it’s a struggle to ward off desperation. “If you give in to hopelessness it all becomes worse,” Hadisiswoyo said. “The problems have to be addressed.”

Thankfully, there are success stories. Hadisiswoyo recalls one rescue in January 2012.

“The orangutan’s leg was caught in a trap. He was injured right down to the bone. He was sent to the quarantine centre for surgery and recovered, and was able to be released into the forest. It was wonderful to see.”

mother-and-baby-rescue-jan-15-enhanced-2460-1424443374-8Rescue of a mother orangutan and her baby from a forest area that was about to be bulldozed (February 2015).

Canada, and a chance encounter in the Aceh forest

Hadisiswoyo became interested in environmental issues when he was on a youth exchange programme in Canada in 1996. “I was just 19 years old. The programme was to enable young people to understand local culture and experience community engagement. I was given the chance to work in an NGO: a first-nation organisation working with children and young people.

“Then I became engaged with water and timber issues in Williams Lake in British Colombia, and this drove me to want to know more about these issues: why water is so important, how forests are being managed, and why they do selective logging. It gave me a lot of perspective about environmental issues. When I returned to Indonesia I just wanted to work on protecting the environment.”

When Hadisiswoyo came back to Indonesia in 1997, he tried to get a job with a European Union forest management project, but ended up working as a teacher and research assistant.

His dedication to saving orangutans and their habitat was sparked by a chance encounter in Aceh in 1998. “I got a job as an English teacher and was assigned to come to the forest in Aceh during the civil war. At that time not many people wanted to come to Aceh, but I didn’t have any fear at all because I liked the job and the fact that I would be in the forest. I actually felt safer than in the city because it was so peaceful.”

Hadisiswoyo collected data about biodiversity and bird and mammal density during the day, and taught English to research assistants in the evening.

“One day I was sitting on the veranda of the research camp and, to my surprise, I saw an orangutan, I think juvenile, I think female, come down from the tree, maybe ten metres away, and we had eye contact for a long time.

“I was just amazed. It was my first ever encounter with an orangutan. After that I became more curious about orangutans and wanted to know more. Wild orangutans usually avoid people. I believe that encounter was a sign for me.”

At that time, Hadisiswoyo says, there was no specific local project to help the orangutans. There were no local or government initiatives to protect their habitat and stop the pet trade and poaching. In 2001, the OIC was founded, and the campaigning began.

Starting with education

When Hadisiswoyo started the OIC, he didn’t intend it to be a rescue organisation. “At the beginning, I wanted to focus on education, but then I saw orangutans in life-threatening situations and I had to set up a rescue team.”

Hadisiswoyo wants to write an illustrated book for local children and youngsters that would be about orangutans being trapped inside an oil palm plantation and would include information about ecology and orangutan behaviour.

The OIC provides scholarships, and involves young people in its projects. “When they come and see what we are doing, and participate in our efforts, they understand more about the importance of protecting the forest. Our hope is that they then change their behaviour, and support us.” P1080223 (480x640)

It’s when Hadisiswoyo goes up to the restoration site and other forest projects that his stress reduces and he sees that much has been achieved.

“People see me saving orangutans, but what they often don’t realise is that, by saving orangutans, we are saving the forests, and the forests are life. We are saving life.

“We need to get to the point where we are no longer sending orangutans to quarantine centres. We need to focus on law enforcement, bring an end to the sources of conflict, and stop the pet trade.

Despite all the challenges on the ground, Hadisiswoyo says he hasn’t lost hope. “I keep trying to think of something new; innovative solutions for the forest. I must carry on and I want to engage young people and convince them to support what we do. I don’t want them to lose hope.”

The OIC has 12 patrol teams, but the team struggles to secure adequate funding.

There is close collaboration between the OIC and staff at the Gunung Leuser National Park, who are working together to combat encroachment within the park. The OIC shares information obtained from drone missions over the park, which show extensive encroachment in some areas. The OIC also works very closely with the SOCP. Rescued orangutans who cannot be released directly into the wild are taken to the SOCP quarantine centre.

P1130372David Dellatore from the OIC’s sister organisation, the Sumatran Orangutan Society, explains drone technology to regional national park chief Sapto Aji during a mission in April this year.

Restoring the forest

Since the OIC’s restoration project began in 2007, the team has reclaimed about 500 hectares of land that was illegally planted by palm oil companies. More than 10,000 oil palms have been removed.

The OIC is now securing a new 200-hectare area in the Langkat district, where there is still illegal cultivation. “We want to do community engagement there,” Hadisiswoyo said. “However, it’s risky for the staff, dealing with people who will do all they can to grab land.

“It’s gangsters who are cutting down the trees, and selling off cheap plots of land. And sometimes the land mafia are backed up by the military. It is a complex situation. The park rangers don’t have the capacity to protect the area properly and are not getting the support they need from the government to stop the encroachment.”

Since 1990, more than 22,000 hectares of forest have been encroached in the Langkat area, mostly for oil palms. More than four hundred families are involved in encroachment in the Gunung Leuser National Park. The first step is illegal logging, then the land is illegally planted with oil palms or rubber trees.

Panut says he is optimistic about what he can do to make a difference, but not about the government’s management of Indonesia’s forests.

“They still want to triple palm oil production. If they keep sacrificing the forest to do this, it will be an even greater disaster. The policy at the top needs to support the people on the ground.”

Education and training remains a top priority for the OIC. There is now a well-stocked library and a learning centre near to the main restoration site. Local university students teach children English and there are also lessons in conservation. More than fifty children, aged between six and 11, have come to the classes since they started in January this year, and some of them come by truck all the way from the border with Aceh, about an hour away.

The restoration project provides employment for local people and there are numerous visitors. This brings added income for villagers, who provide accommodation and food.

It is astonishing how quickly the OIC has managed to create a thriving forest that is again becoming home to native species. The centre has a 24/7 presence in the restored forest, but needs more camera traps to monitor which species are now present; it currently has only six to cover three different sites.

P1080206 (480x640)OIC team member Darsimah Siahaan spots an interesting plant species in the restored forest.

It is not just orangutans who are returning to the restored forest; elephants, sun bears, gibbons, and other animals – and birds – are also being attracted back. “The elephants have often destroyed our trees and thousands of our seedlings, but we are nevertheless very happy that they are coming back,” Hadisiswoyo said.

Since the restoration project began, the OIC has planted about one million seedlings. “We plant twenty species on one hectare,” Hadisiswoyo says, “but then, because of natural regeneration, more than fifty species are actually recruited by the birds and mammals that disperse the seeds.”

P1020790 (640x480) P1020793 (640x480)Work in the nursery at the Sei Betung restoration site.

P1020825 (640x480)Clearing imperata grass.

Members of the local community are very proud of the success of the project, Hadisiswoyo says, and have formed a group called “Protectors of Leuser” to assist in the restoration and forest protection work.

The restoration project is funded by UNESCO, Lush UK, Rainforest Rescue Australia, Tropical Forest Conservation Action (TFCA) in Sumatra, and American ReLeaf.

In the past, restoration projects in Indonesia were conducted by the government, which hired local companies to do replanting. The survival rate of the trees was very low.

In 2011, the OIC established its Community Agroforestry, Reforestation and Education (CARE) programme in the Ketambe region of Aceh province, where agricultural encroachment was a primary driver of deforestation. The aim now is to expand the network of conservation villages to include Bukit Mas.

“Through our CARE programme in Aceh, eighty farmers received training in agroforestry and organic farming practices and 25 cocoa farmers have been awarded organic certification,” Hadisiswoyo said.

“We are supporting them in achieving international export of their products, which will provide a premium and improved income. Twelve farmers, who have been trained as facilitators, continue to be advocates for the development of agroforestry systems, spreading the learning throughout the region.”

The eighty farmers in the programme have stopped using pesticides, and the quality and weight of their cocoa bean output has increased by 25 percent. “Through raising local farming capacity and output, the programme has allowed farmers to start intensifying production on existing land rather than seeking out and clearing new plots, without there being any decline in local subsistence or income,” Hadisiswoyo said.

The CARE programme has been responsible for deforestation being avoided on 160 hectares of forest. Each of the eighty participating farmers had previously planned to (illegally) expand their croplands by two hectares, but have now pledged to focus on their existing properties instead. An additional ten farmers have stopped working as illegal loggers and are now employed as cocoa bean traders, fruit vendors, and coffee bean sellers.