From the Forest is a new feature on the Orangutan Conservancy website written by those on the front lines of orangutan conservation and research. This month’s column comes from Dr. Ian Singleton of the PanEco Foundation: Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. OC helps to support Dr. Singleton’s work.
From the Forest: Jantho, Aceh Besar, Sumatra 2011
by Ian Singleton, Ph.D
Conservation in Indonesia is always an uphill battle and it’s often difficult to know if you are ever achieving anything at all in reality.
The opposition, namely crony politics, massive corruption in every level of society and government, and the disproportionate influence on everything here of a relatively few extremely wealthy and powerful individuals and companies, means that a few dedicated conservation NGO’s, with relatively little money and overstretched resources, are always going to struggle.
In fact, it once occurred to me that many of the people we see and read about in the world, hard working and dedicated to their companies as they are, normally get to see the results of their toil directly, whereas we usually don’t.
Think of a large company CEO who is lucky enough to get a contract to build a major new airport. For sure he will be working just about 24/7 for several years, but then one day the job is done. He then gets to cut that ribbon and drink a swig of champagne, followed by a well earned rest before the next multi-million dollar contract comes along.
We in conservation, on the other hand, also work 24/7 for years on end – often for half the salary that a “proper” job might provide us – but we never get to cut that bloody ribbon! In fact, we may not see anything on the ground that we can definitely say is the result of our own labor, and even if we are lucky, we may in reality only be slowing down the inevitable.
Despite this rather depressing outlook, there is the occasional reason for hope that does get us out of bed (or wakes us up in the car half-way across Sumatra) and keeps us going. Just such an event happened to me earlier this year.
In 2009, a decision was made by the Aceh Government stating that they wanted all illegal pet orangutans confiscated in Aceh to be released there in the wild. This was after several decades of a separatist struggle in the region. Since 1998, a civil war raged on, which only ended after the tsunami of December 2004 devastated much of the province. Shortly after, Aceh Province was granted special autonomy status, which gave the provincial government considerable sway over the conservation of its own resources, including protected areas and wildlife conservation.
Given that directive, we began to look for a suitable site for orangutan release. We soon found it in the lush foothill forests of an area known as Jantho, near the northern tip of Aceh, and of the island of Sumatra itself. The site is a protected area of exceptionally rich lowland forest, with an unusually high density of fig trees, one of the orangutan’s staple foods. There is also a river at the edge of the forest that can normally be crossed by people on foot, but is at the same time an effective barrier to all but the most belligerent orangutans. The surroundings of the reserve are also largely open savanna-like areas with no local agriculture. The risk of orangutans released there coming out and raiding farmers’ crops is minimal. In the other direction, the forests are part of the immense Ulu Massen forest block (circa 750,000 ha) and ultimately connected to the vast Leuser Ecosystem, in which around 85% of Sumatra’s remaining wild orangutans reside. Jantho, in 2009, though, did not have any wild orangutan population, and may not have for several hundred years. We therefore considered Jantho the perfect site for the new project and began to build a simple site in the forest with accommodation for staff at one side of the river and some small cages and facilities for the orangutans at the other.
In the meantime, we were accumulating quite a number of Acehnese orangutans at our quarantine centre in Batu Mbelin, near Medan in North Sumatra. The plan was that all orangutans confiscated in Aceh would be released in Jantho, and all others would continue to be released in the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, at the SOCP site there managed by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, to continue to build up the new orangutan population already established there. So to ease numbers at the quarantine, while waiting for the new camp in Jantho to be ready, we transferred several down to Jambi and freed up some much needed cage space that way.
Finally, in March 2011, the new site at Jantho was ready to receive the first orangutans. On March 28th the Governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, the Bupati of Aceh Besar, Pak Abu head of the Aceh Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and a host of other dignitaries, local NGO’s, community leaders, and even Prof. Jean Michel Hatt, a veterinarian from Zurich and friend of PanEco, who was at the time teaching as a sabbatical at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, attended a well publicized media launch of the new centre. The Governor and the SOCP team then drove the first five orangutans into the new site and let them out of their travel crates and into the new cages. This in itself felt like quite some achievement, and it was already clear that the orangutans where highly interested in their new surroundings.
It’s important to understand that virtually all of the orangutans confiscated by SOCP and the Indonesian Government’s PHKA are illegal pets. Most of these are kept in atrocious conditions. A few lucky ones may be loved for the first few days or weeks by their owners, but the vast majority of owners soon get bored, and the orangutans end up crammed into small rusty old cages or chained by the neck or waist to a tree, often with no shelter whatsoever from the sun or rain. Many of these individuals are kept for years in the same cage or chained to the same tree. Frequently the chains used to tie them are never loosened, such that as the orangutan grows the chain gets tighter and more painful. Not surprisingly, the orangutan gets more aggressive too. This means the owner is less and less likely to be able to loosen the chain, as he would get badly bitten. So he simply doesn’t bother! Needless to say, some of these animals undoubtedly die due to their conditions, despite every effort by ourselves to confiscate all those we know about.
For this release, we were focused on five orangutans: Kis kis, Pibi, Coconut, Sangir and Mongki.
Once they were settled in their cages I left them to relax. We agreed that they should have a few weeks of R’n’R before being released to the forest. These five were deliberately chosen as being the most suitable, in that they were a little older than most but also seemed to still be relatively wild. They’d likely make a quick transition to a life in the forest. The timing of these first releases was also planned to coincide with the onset of the fruit season. Luckily enough, this year has turned out to be a mast fruit season in most of Sumatra. A mast fruit season is a phenomenon peculiar to Asian forests, in which just about every tree in the forest, of every species, fruits at the same time. It happens on average about once every five years and is thought to be a way of combating seed predation, as seed predators (largely rodents) cannot possibly eat all the fruits of a given tree when a mast fruiting occurs!
A few weeks later, I returned to Jantho to check all was okay and help with the release of Kis kis and Pibi. On the morning of May 2nd the cages were opened and both were given their first taste of freedom in several years. Pibi was the most adventurous, immediately entering the trees and scaling a 44 meter high tree just behind the cages, like she’d been doing it all her life. Kis kis on the other hand preferred the security of the cage’s metal bars, but he also eventually made it into the trees after a few hours. These two were released first as we thought they would be the easiest to control once out of the cages. To a large extent that proved to be the case. Both returned to their cages that night, tempted by some juicy fruits, and were let out again the next day. Pibi then showed us that she was adept at nest building and has never slept in the cages again since. Kis kis, however, still prefers the familiarity of the cage complex and on occasions returns to the cages to sleep.
Shortly after Kis kis and Pibi were free, Coconut, Sangir and Mongki were also released. These three were never particularly close to people and we wondered if they would simply head off. Despite the best efforts of the field staff, it was possible that we might lose these orangutans in the undulating Jantho terrain. Indeed they did come out of the cages quite quickly, and they immediately headed into the trees too, much as we had predicted. What we had not really predicted and fully appreciated, though, is just how well they did it.
I, along with two of the staff, followed Coconut and Sangir all day that day, and it proved to be one of the highlights of my whole career. Mongki also did fine, but she preferred to hang around with Pibi and Kis kis during her first few days of freedom.
It’s quite some years – thirteen in fact – since I spent every waking hour of just about every day for two years following orangutans around in the swamp forests of Suaq Balimbing, in South Aceh, for my PhD research. So I was keen to spend a whole day following orangutans again at the new site. I was hoping they’d stay in the trees, and not keep coming down to the ground, and that they’d be able to find and eat wild foods and build nests. Indeed, they didn’t let me down, but even I was taken aback by just how well they did.
From the moment they left the cage, neither orangutan set foot on the ground again that day, or to my knowledge ever since. Both found and ate several different fruit species and also leaves and rotan vines. We saw them eat insects too. What was perhaps most surprising was that even though when in the cages they would come and take food from your hand and interact physically, at least Sangir, both of them were clearly concerned and anxious when they came lower in the trees and were in their view too near to myself or the other staff. This was just like wild orangutans often are!
There was a point when they were sitting on a fallen, but still leaning tree, whose roots had partially lifted out of the ground on the slope of the hill, revealing a rich clay-like soil. Humans sometimes ingest this kind of soil for an upset stomach (it’s sold in chemists as kaolin); wild orangutans have been seen to eat it occasionally too, probably for the same reasons. On seeing that, I half jokingly said to the field assistants to watch the orangutans as they might try it, at which point Sangir inched her way to the soil and promptly took a mouthful before returning rapidly again to the treetop. Wow, I thought, how much more like wild orangutans could these guys be? Even I was amazed!
We then continued to follow them, recording their behavior, activity, food intake, etc. on our checksheets. It was late in the afternoon and the pair were now around 700 meters away from the cage complex. Coconut soon began constructing her nest for the night, about 20 meters up in the bough of a large tree, within sight and earshot of the river. Sangir then found himself a suitable site nearby and did likewise. They both made two nests before finally settling down. You could almost hear their brains ticking over as they did what seemed natural, but then decided it wasn’t as comfy as it could be and that they could do better, selecting a new site and new tree for the final product.
We waited for about 45-minutes more before heading back to camp in the dark for some rest before the next morning, and another day following the pair. On the way back to camp I was deliriously happy. I had just spent the day following two orangutans that had been kept in someone’s backyard for several years, followed by a couple of years in the cages at the quarantine centre, some of which was in isolation, but most of which was with each other and with other orangutans. Today had been their first day in a tree, let alone in a forest, for many years, and the last time they did that was almost certainly the day their mothers were killed. Nevertheless, despite this, I had just followed what to all intents and purposes were two totally wild orangutans, behaving as if they had never ever left the forest! I was thrilled.
What struck me most was when I thought about what their life story would have looked like had they never been confiscated.
It’s highly likely they would be dead already, or gone within a year, the rest of their short lives being riddled with worms, baking under the hot sun or shivering in pouring rain, and seriously malnourished from a diet of rice or noodles. Now these two were out there in the trees, free from people (even wary of them already) and potentially with a life of 50 years or more in the wild ahead of them, with who knows how many babies, the founders of a new population of wild orangutans to the north of the existing wild population, and complementing the new population in Jambi. I really felt great that evening, and have ever since. Kis kis, Pibi and Mongki are also doing well and a number of others have now been released to join Coconut and Sangir. They regularly meet up and hang out before parting and exploring the forest further. But it will always be those two, that day, that I remember as the time I finally achieved something tangible for the orangutans here. All those years of work, long days and nights, endless meetings, workshops, emails, proposals and reports, etc., etc., etc.
That day was the cutting of the ribbon for me. If I achieve nothing else in life for the orangutans I will always know that for those two individuals in particular, but also for all those others that follow them, all that work and stress is worthwhile.
Now where’s the champagne?
Dr. Ian Singleton is the Director of Conservation
at the PanEco Foundation: Sumatran Orangutan
Orangutan Conservancy edit by Tom Mills