An orangutan who was rescued from an oil palm plantation in Indonesia, and was found with 74 air rifle wounds, blinded eyes, and fractured bones, underwent surgery yesterday (Sunday) to repair her collarbone.
The primate, who is about thirty years old and has been named Hope, was rescued along with her baby on March 10 and was operated on at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme’s quarantine and rehabilitation centre near Medan, North Sumatra.
The rescue was carried out by one of the Orangutan Information Centre’s Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) teams, working with the Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
When the orangutans were found, isolated in an oil palm plantation in Aceh owned by a local villager, both of them were in a deeply traumatised state. The mother also had wounds from a sharp object.
The baby (pictured left), who was about one month old, was so weak and malnourished that he didn’t survive. His mother was too injured to feed him and he died on the way to the quarantine centre.
The chairman of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) foundation, Panut Hadisiswoyo, said that the case of Hope and her baby was one of the most tragic he had ever come across. The OIC is putting together a police report about the case.
“Our understanding is that there were at least two attackers, one who shot Hope and one who tried to take her baby from her by force,” Hadisiswoyo said.
“We heard that Hope fought to keep her infant and that the person who tried to capture the baby did try to return him to his mother, but, by then, the infant was already dying. Our vet says that the air rifle bullets had been in Hope’s body for a while by the time we arrived.”
In many cases, orangutans are killed by poachers who capture their babies and sell them.
“Hope’s attackers must be prosecuted. If not, this will set a bad precedent for the future of orangutan protection in Indonesia,” Hadisiswoyo said.
The surgery on Hope was carried out by the SOCP’s veterinary team and a Swiss specialist in human orthopaedic surgery and traumatology, Andreas Messikommer, who has assisted in several of the more demanding operations on orangutans at the SOCP centre over the past 15 years and was a volunteer surgeon in Aceh after the tsunami in 2004.
Hope’s operation took more than three hours, and, during the surgery, it was discovered that her broken collarbone had pierced her throat sac, which had become infected. The vets had to remove infected bone and tissue before inserting a pin and six screws to fix the end of her collarbone back in place.
The SOCP’s senior vet, Yenny Saraswati, said: “During the operation we did not remove any of the numerous air rifle pellets still scattered throughout Hope’s body as we had to prioritise her broken collarbone and the risk of infection in her shoulder.
The operation went as well as we could have wished, though, and we hope that her recovery will likewise go smoothly and without complications. It’s still early days.”
The SOCP’s supervisor for rehabilitation and reintroduction, Citrakasih Nente, added: “For Hope it’s sad that, even if we are successful in patching her up after her ordeal, she will never be able to be released to the wild as she’s now totally blind after being shot in both eyes.
“As such, she will be a candidate to be cared for, for the rest of her days, at the SOCP’s new Orangutan Haven that we are developing in North Sumatra.”
Messikommer and the SOCP team also operated on another orangutan yesterday – an infant named Brenda, who is about 3 months old and has a broken humerus in her left upper arm.
Brenda was handed over to a soldier in Aceh just over a week ago. The soldier alerted the authorities and Brenda was collected by a team from the SOCP and representatives of the Aceh BKSDA. She was brought to the quarantine and rehabilitation centre for intensive care on March 12.
The SOCP vets say Brenda is expected to make a full recovery, and, when she is old enough, it should be possible to reintroduce her to the wild.
The SOCP director, Ian Singleton said today: “The fact that so many people are still wandering around with air rifles and shooting at wildlife is a major problem for conservation in Indonesia.”
Singleton said that Hope’s condition was still very serious and the veterinary team still had a lot of hard work to do if she was to survive.
“It’s always extremely sad to come across cases like this one, but what’s most depressing is the fact that she is not the first to be shot so many times like this,” he added.
“We’ve had several orangutans arrive over the years, still alive, but riddled with air rifle pellets. It’s hard to comprehend that, in 2019, there are still people out there capable of doing this to such and incredible and non-threatening creature like an orangutan, in such a brutal way, apparently without any guilt or remorse.”
Over the past ten years, the SOCP has had to deal with more than 15 orangutans who have had air rifle pellets embedded in their bodies (nearly 500 pellets in total).
Andreas Messikommer has helped the SOCP with surgery on more than 15 orangutans since 2005. “It’s extremely rewarding to see them recovering again after their ordeals. Some of the cases, like that of Hope, are very shocking,” he said.
“It’s fantastic when, later on, I hear that some of them are now living free again in the wild, and even breeding in the wild, too, meaning the poor orangutan whom we previously operated on is now contributing to the future of their species. It really is amazing to be able to contribute to something like that.”
Ir. Hotmauli Sianturi from the BKSDA in North Sumatra pointed out that orangutans are a protected species under Indonesian law and it’s strictly forbidden to kill, catch, keep, injure, or trade an orangutan.
The punishment for contravention of this law are fines of up to 100 million rupiah (about $US 7,000) and prison terms of up to five years.
Last year, in Indonesian Borneo, a male orangutan died after being shot at least 130 times with an air rifle, and apparently being stabbed and clubbed.
An X-ray showed at least 130 air rifle pellets in his body, including more than 70 in his head.
In December 2014, also on the island of Borneo, an orangutan died from her injuries after being discovered on an oil palm plantation in the Indonesian state of Central Kalimantan, with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.
The head of the Aceh BKSDA, Sapto Aji Prabowo, said the BKSDA was extremely grateful to the SOCP’s medical team, and especially to Messikommer for helping with the surgery on Hope and Brenda.
“We are committed to helping the police with their investigation into this crime and very much hope that there is a quick prosecution of those responsible for shooting Hope, and for the death of her infant.
Sapto Aji Prabowo said that Indonesia’s director-general for natural resource and ecosystems conservation had written to the Aceh chief of police about the way air rifles are being used. “We want there to be no more cases like Hope’s,” Sapto Aji Prabowo said.
Ownership of guns, including air rifles, is regulated in Indonesia under National Police Chief Regulation No. 8/2012, which stipulates that anyone wanting to buy a gun must obtain a permit from the national police.
Since 2012, the OIC teams have rescued 158 orangutans. Since 2001, the SOCP has received more than 370 orangutans at its quarantine centre. More than 170 of them have been released at the SOCP reintroduction centre in Jambi province, and 109 orangutans have been reintroduced into the forests of the Jantho Nature Reserve in Aceh.
Hope was rescued in the village of Bunga Tanjung village in the Sultan Daulat sub-district of Subulussalam city.
The SOCP says there are now only about 13,400 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans (Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmaeus) and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) – only described as a separate species in November 2017 – as critically endangered.
There are estimated to be between 55,000 and 62,000 Bornean orangutans living in the wild, split into three distinct subspecies.
Less than 800 Tapanuli orangutans remain in the wild.
Photos at the SOCP centre, © YEL-SOCP/Suryadi