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War of the primates: saving Sumatra’s orangutans

In the delicately balanced Leuser Ecosystem, Sumatran orangutans are under threat - and humans are to blame. Aiming to undo the damage done by mankind, organisations are aiming to restore orangutan habitat, and give them back their forest home.

The crisis in Sumatra

Deep in the Sumatran forest, a conflict rages between humans and orangutans. The orangutans at the centre of the battle are left helpless, as their home is removed from beneath their feet.

The Leuser Ecosystem is the only part of the world where rhinos, elephants, tigers, and orangutans coexist, yet without a forest to call home these critically endangered species cannot survive. In what was once a diverse habitat, palm oil plantations now dominate.

Demand for palm oil is rising, and it is now the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. All too often, production of the crop comes at a huge cost to nature. Healthy rainforest is being removed to make room for oil palm plantations, and wildlife is being displaced, or killed. Many of the plantations are being created completely legally, while illegal plantations are also encroaching into protected forests and national parks. Deforestation is not the only way to cultivate palm oil, and groups like the Sumatran Orangutan Society are advocating more sustainable alternatives for sourcing the material.

Other forms of agriculture also threaten wildlife. Local communities are clearing areas of one or two hectares for small-scale farms, and orangutans get trapped in pockets of farmland as the forest falls around them. The primates sometimes resort to raiding crops, and ultimately they may starve, be shot, or captured for the illegal pet trade.

There are yet more threats in the form of geothermal and hydropower plants. In a bid to embrace renewable energy, these plants are being proposed within the home of Sumatra’s wildlife. Illegal roads are also being built, damaging the ecosystem and giving better access to poachers.

Some scientists claim that orangutans are the closest species to humans, and yet the primates are becoming collateral damage in economic and agricultural development.

The human warriors fighting for orangutans

The situation in Sumatra is desperate, but it is not without hope. There are solutions to the crisis, and vital work to restore the forest and change attitudes is taking place.

The Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) is one group aiming to reverse the deforestation trend by protecting orangutans, saving forests, and supporting people on the ground. By tackling both the causes and symptoms of deforestation, SOS hopes to protect the future of orangutans.

From its base in the UK, the group works with organisations in Sumatra and around the world. Helen Buckland, the organisation’s director, explains how SOS is supporting orangutans from so far away: “In essence, we help our frontline partners develop effective conservation programmes, and find funds to keep them running. We’re always looking for ways to grow our impact.”

There are 14,600 orangutans left in Sumatra, and teams on the ground are working hard to protect them. SOS funds and supports many of these projects, as they rescue orangutans in danger, fight the illegal pet trade, and train farmers to protect their crops without harming wildlife.

“We have seen that grassroots programmes really can turn back the tide of deforestation and that people who were once illegal loggers can become serious advocates for conservation,” Helen says.

Saving forests is a crucial part of the work to protect orangutans, and SOS is supporting projects doing just that. Illegal palm plantations are being removed, and replaced with rainforest tree seedlings, in a bid to recover the home of Sumatra’s wildlife. In a step beyond treating the symptoms of deforestation, SOS supports groups that are lobbying governments and companies to protect orangutans and their environment.

While the dangers to orangutans are numerous, Helen says: “The loss of their habitat is the ultimate threat that we need to tackle to ensure the survival of orangutans. Sumatra’s forests have been falling relentlessly for decades, pushing orangutans and many other species to the edge of extinction.”

The forest may be falling, but SOS’s perseverance has resulted in a catalogue of successes. Helen and her team have supported groups in Sumatra to plant over 1.5 million trees to restore orangutan habitat, and rescue more than 120 orangutans, who were returned to safe places in the wild. Teams on the ground have also trained thousands of local people living next to the Leuser Ecosystem, and given them the tools to become guardians of the forests.

Orangutan rescue

Helen says: “No matter how many trees we plant, the most essential element of successful rainforest restoration is the true, deep engagement of the communities who live next to the Leuser Ecosystem in becoming protectors of the forest, and defending its borders from future threats.”

Now, SOS is launching a new campaign supported by Lush, to reforest 50 hectares of what was once diverse orangutan habitat.

The people on the ground

Over 13,000km from the UK, SOS’s sister organisation, the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), is working at the heart of the crisis in Sumatra.

Panut Hadisiswoyo, the founder of the Indonesian NGO, says: “Orangutans are my inspiration. I believe I was chosen to dedicate my life to help the orangutans. SOS helped me to set up OIC and now they are our lifelong partner, which works with us in achieving our shared goal: conserving Sumatran orangutans and their forest homes.”

This is another group with a list of success stories in the face of an overwhelming situation. OIC has delivered projects on the ground in partnership with SOS, including the restoration of more than 2,000 hectares of degraded forests that have become a natural habitat for orangutans; saving the lives of more than 100 orangutans stranded in plantations; and rescuing more than 50 orangutans from illegal captivity.

According to Panut, the solution to the problem lies in engaging and educating the local community, pushing the government authorities to enforce nature conservation laws, and improving local community livelihoods.

He says, “Local people are part of the problem, but they must be part of the solution. The best way to overcome further destruction is making local people key actors in tackling the problem.”

If the situation is not resolved, Panut says there is no future for orangutans.

Saving a species

The crisis in Sumatra may feel like a world away for many people, but it could have an impact closer to home.

“What happens in Sumatra in terms of deforestation issues and the loss of biodiversity can trigger climate change and thus affect the whole planet and many lives on it. We are all living on one planet and we must work together to prevent catastrophe and appreciate our own nature,” Panut says.

As organisations like SOS and OIC fight for the survival of mankind’s primate cousins, they are playing a vital role in ensuring orangutans are not wiped out. There is enough space, SOS says, for orangutans and humans to coexist. Whether orangutans can ever be at peace now lies in the hands of mankind.

Photos from top: Orangutan courtesy of Andrew Walmsley; Orangutan rescue courtesy of SOS

"Sumatra’s forests have been falling, relentlessly, for decades, pushing orangutans and many other species to the edge of extinction,” Helen Buckley, SOS.

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