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Call of the Orangutan: Conservation Success Stories

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Having made it to Sumatra, the first location for my field research, I’ve endured another frustrating few weeks waiting for yet more permits to come through. However, this delay has given me a good opportunity to get some work done at the charming office the environmental group Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL) in Medan, and to learn more about its conservation efforts on the island. Partners like YEL are a vital part of conducting research in Indonesia, providing support to foreign researchers through permit letters, logistical assistance, emotional support, and, in my case, managing the field site where I will be based (when those pesky permits finally do come through).

Together in with PanEco (a Swiss non-profit foundation focused on nature conservation and environmental education), YEL runs the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), with the aim of conserving viable, wild populations of critically endangered orangutans through a range of different strategies. The program started in 1999 and today around 100 mostly local staff work on projects at locations across the island. Initially, one of the first targets was to establish a modern quarantine center for confiscated illegal pets, and to reintroduce these animals into the wild. The Batu Mbelin Care Center opened in 2002 and has received nearly 300 orangutans, which have typically been rescued from horrific conditions, tied to trees or trapped in tiny cages in the gardens of government ministers, police chiefs or military officers—the very people supposed to be preventing their illegal trade. These animals arrive at the quarantine center in a range of conditions. Some have been well looked after and are relatively healthy while others have been horribly tortured by air rifles, dogs or the beatings of palm oil plantation workers.

Nando was rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. After being rehabilitated for two years in quarantine, he was released to Bukit Tigapuluh Jambi in 2010.

Septian was only five months old when confiscated from a villager who bought him for 100,000 Indonesian (less than $9) in Southeast Aceh.

In quarantine, animals’ health is assessed and SOCP’s vets give any treatment required. Once an animal passes quarantine, they are placed in large socialization cages to get to know their fellow orangutans. Since many of the orangutans were infants when they were confiscated and didn’t have the usual childhood spent with their mother (who was most likely killed for their capture), this period is when they can learn all the skills required to be an orangutan.

Two infants in front of the "baby house" in quarantine learn how to climb a tree.

Pairs of orangutans are gradually introduced to one another to minimize stress—much like introducing house cats! First they’re allowed to smell each other, then see one another, then grapple through their respective cages, before finally being released together to play, communicate and fight, all vital for these incredibly intelligent animals to survive in the wild. Once groups of compatible orangutans have been established in the socialization cages, and they’ve been prepared for the outside world (staff at the center also provide them with naturally occurring food and nesting materials to further practice at “being an orangutan”), they’re transferred, as a group, by road or air to one of the release sites. Since 2003 more than 200 of the orangutans have been reintroduced in this way via the Jambi Reintroduction Center, and the newer Jantho Reintroduction Center, which opened in 2011. These sites represent entirely new populations of these critically endangered animals (there are only six remaining viable populations on the island) in areas that did not contain orangutans previously. Following their release, SOCP field staff continuously monitor new animals until they’re satisfied they can survive, and even long after, maintain records of progress for any individual subsequently encountered in the forest.

Dito leaving the transit cage. After being rehabilitated in quarantine, some of orangutans have benn released via the Jantho Reintroduction Center.

Sachi has adjusted very well to living in the wild following rehabilitation and reintroduction.

Leuser was a fit and healthy youngster when he first arrived at SOCP’s quarantine center. Originally rescued in 2004 at age give, he was sent to Orangutan Reintroduction Centre in Bukit Tigapuluh Jambi. He was captured again by villagers and rescued for a second time in 2006 and returned to quarantine. Having been shot numerous times with an air rifle, Leuser is now totally blind in both eyes and still has dozens of rifle pellets in his body.

Unfortunately, some animals cannot be released due to disabilities or because they pose a danger to wild populations. Leuser (see image at right), for example, is a 15-year-old male, blind in both eyes due to being shot 62 times with an air rifle; he could not survive a wild release. As a result, SOCP’s newest project is to develop Orangutan Haven near Medan (population 4 million), where these orangutans can live on specially designed islands. The general public can visit and local universities can conduct research there, providing an important education resource for capacity building.

SOCP does not just work towards reintroduction or housing orangutans; they also have a number of other projects ongoing across the island. Occasionally, an individual has to be relocated because it becomes trapped in isolated, non-viable forest fragments surrounded by an ocean of African oil palms. This is an incredibly difficult and dangerous task, involving tranquilizing the animal, which typically climbs to the top of the nearest tree, and then catching it when it falls. These animals are usually released straight away, either in Jantho or in safer forest near where they’re found, unless they’re injured in the process of being captured.

A 20-year-old wild male orangutan named Seuna'am being rescued by a SOCP team from the Tripa area in October 2012. Seuna'am was released into the wild via the reintroduction center in Jantho.

SOCP also manages all Sumatran orangutan field stations (which contain a number of other species including tigers, elephants, gibbons and siamangs), which promote habitat conservation, carry out surveys and monitor the remaining wild populations of orangutans on the island. This is where my research (and that of other international and local students) ties into the program. I was kindly invited to come and work in Sumatra by doctors Ian Singleton and Serge Wich, whom I met at a Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) meeting last year. At the conference Serge presented his fascinating drone research in Indonesia, which I’m planning to cover in a later blog post, while Ian, SOCP’s conservation director, spoke about some specific work SOCP does during a session titled “Extreme Conservation” (which you can watch below).

The session was absolutely captivating, and Ian’s presentation highlights the amazing progress SOCP has made, through Indonesian courts and media campaigns, in successfully challenging the destruction of the Tripa peat swamps by illegal palm oil concessions. As Ian says, pursuing illegal activity through the court system shouldn’t really be categorized as “extreme conservation,” yet this successful effort, still winding through a number of different court systems, represents a major breakthrough in conserving one of the last remaining habitats for orangutans in Sumatra.

I feel like I’ve barely touched on all SOCP’s efforts, which also include the sustainable production of organic Orangutan Coffee, education and outreach with the local community, and activism campaigns for habitat protection. And, I’m immensely grateful, not to mention hugely proud, to be working with such a worthwhile organization here in Sumatra, and I hope that my research can, in some small way, help the plight of the orangutan.

For more information about SOCP please visit: http://www.sumatranorangutan.org/

James Askew About the Author: James Askew is a PhD candidate in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California Jane Goodall Research Center. His research is focused on orangutan behavior, specifically the “long call” and its role in social and reproductive relationships. Over the next 18 months he will be running a comparative study of three different populations at sites in Borneo and Sumatra. Follow on Twitter @jinborneo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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