Over the past week, a team from the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Sumatra has rescued six orangutans from oil palm and rubber plantations.
The first of the rescues was on July 11. A mother and baby were evacuated from an oil palm plantation in the village of Kampung Batu in Bakongan, south Aceh.
“The rescue took place in very challenging conditions under heavy rain,” said the director of the OIC, Panut Hadisiswoyo. “It was made even more difficult because the orangutans were constantly swinging from one tree to another.”
The OIC team from the centre’s Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) finally managed to get the orangutans to come down into lower trees.
Assisted by members of the Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), the HOCRU team was able to release the mother and baby into the Gunung Leuser National Park on the same day.
On July 13, another mother orangutan and her baby were rescued, again with the help of the Aceh BKSDA and staff from the Gunung Leuser National Park. The orangutans were isolated in a rubber plantation inside an oil palm plantation in Aceh Tamiang.
Again conditions were very difficult and members of the HOCRU team had to battle their way through the jungle on muddy roads in a rain and lightning storm, at one stage getting stuck for an hour.
“Again the orangutans were swinging from one tree to another,” Hadisiswoyo said.
“The OIC vet finally managed to sedate the mother, but the baby continued to swing through the trees.
“The team split up and we were able to get the mother into our vehicle. Half an hour later, we managed to rescue the baby and reunite him with his mother.”
The mother orangutan was estimated to be about 30 years old and her baby was aged about one year.
“We were saddened to find three bullet wounds on the mother’s face, and she was blind in her left eye,” Hadisiswoyo said. “Despite this, both orangutans were in good health so we released them into the Gunung Leuser National Park the same day.”
The team had received reports of a third orangutan being present in the same area, but were unable to locate him on the day of the rescue.
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On July 14, the HOCRU team rescued a female, estimated to be about thirty years old, who was isolated in a rubber plantation inside an oil palm plantation in the Langkat district in north Sumatra.
The rescue was conducted in the Pancasila sub-village in the village of Mekar Makmur, in the Sei Lepan sub-district.
Given the presence of old nests, it was thought that the orangutan had been on the plantation for some time.
The OIC vet, Ricko Laino Jaya, found twenty wounds from air rifle bullets in the body of the orangutan and she was blind in one eye, but the team decided that her general health was good enough for her to be released into the Gunung Leuser National Park.
Again, the HOCRU team was assisted by the BKSDA, and also by members of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“This orangutan was in danger of being injured again by local people who consider the animals as pets,” said Hadisiswoyo.
Today the HOCRU team rescued a male orangutan, aged about 20, from an oil palm plantation in south Aceh.
Hadisiswoyo says that orangutans end up on plantations looking for food. “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.”
Plantations, Hadisiswoyo says, 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.”
The OIC, which is based in Medan, now has two rescue teams working in the field. One operates in Aceh and the other further south. Previously, one team had to cover huge distances at very short notice, conducting rescues in both Aceh and other areas of Sumatra.
Hadisiswoyo (pictured left) says the OIC only relocates orangutans as a last resort, for instance when they are isolated in small patches of forest surrounded by plantations or farmlands, and have no access to large forested areas.
“When they are in life-threatening situations; when they are starving or risk being shot because they have been raiding crops or are in danger from poachers who kill mother orangutans and sell the babies, then we have to take them to safety.”
Helen Buckland, who is the director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), which co-founded the OIC, says the rescues are vital, but if orangutans are to be protected in the long term, their habitat has to be preserved.
So far this year the HOCRU team has rescued 14 orangutans, 12 of whom were evacuated from plantations or other unsuitable locations and two of whom had been kept illegally and were confiscated.
Last year, there were 28 rescues, 17 of which were evacuations and 11 confiscations. Of the 29 total rescues in 2015, 19 were evacuations and ten were confiscations.
Since the beginning of 2012 the HOCRU team has rescued a total of 124 orangutans. Eighty-five of the rescues were evacuations and 39 were confiscations.
The Sumatran orangutan has now been classified as critically endangered and there are only about 14,600 left in the wild.
“The relentless destruction of Sumatra’s rainforests has pushed the Sumatran orangutan to the edge of extinction,” Buckland said.
One report by the SOS revealed that the rate of forest loss in Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem – which is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild – had more than doubled in recent years
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.
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 teaches farmers and plantation workers various ways of preventing human-orangutan conflict, 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.
Update on 5/8/2017.
On August 4, a team from the Orangutan Information Centre and the Aceh BKSDA rescued a female orangutan who had been chained to a tree outside a house in east Aceh for two years.
The orangutan, who is believed to be about six years old, was rescued in the Paya Ketapang village in the Sungai Raya sub-district.
The terrain in Sungai Raya was challenging and the rescue team had to trek a total of ten kilometres along extremely muddy tracks to get to and from the village.
OIC director Panut Hadisiswoyo said it was devastating to see the condition of the orangutan. “I immediately gave her some of the fruits and water that I always have with me during rescue operations.
“Most orangutans kept in illegal captivity have insufficient access to food and water.”
The orangutan was taken to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme’s quarantine centre for a further medical check-up and rehabilitation.
On July 29, a malnourished and dehydrated female orangutan, estimated to be one and a half years old, was rescued in the Aunan village in southeast Aceh by a team from the OIC, the Aceh BKSDA, and the Leuser Conservation Forum.
“The local resident who surrendered the baby orangutan claimed to have found her on his farmland,” Hadisiswoyo said. “It is most likely that the mother was killed by poachers.”
The baby orangutan, named Fiona, was also taken to the SOCP’s quarantine centre for rehabilitation. She also received a full medical check-up.
Hadisiswoyo says it is probable that the mother of the female orangutan rescued in east Aceh was also killed.