The purpose of my trip to Sumatra last year was to film behind-the-scenes of Photographers Without Borders (PWB) photographer Gita Defoe’s trip to document the work of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC). This organization is valiantly endeavouring to save rainforest and orangutans from extinction in Sumatra by doing a number of things: OIC has a rescue unit to rescue orangutans that come into conflict with humans or that are being illegally kept/trafficked; they work with another local organizations that helps rehabilitate rescued orangutans; they protect and reclaim conserved rainforest that is illegally cleared by palm oil companies; they reforest old palm plantation site and reclaimed lands; and they educate and involve local people and children in these efforts. I ended up taking a few snaps of my own along the way of documenting these activities, which you will see in the body of this story (there is also a full gallery at the end).
Sumatra is losing rainforest to palm oil plantations and animal agriculture so fast that it is estimated Sumatra will have no forest left in 20 years. Sumatra is currently home to thousands of people, as well as the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, tiger, elephant and rhino. It is a difficult issue to contend with as many livelihoods now depend on palm oil. It is not easy to boycott regardless as it is disguised in so many products as "vegetable oil" (click here for a list of everyday products containing palm oil).
What OIC does is truly remarkable and I feel privileged to have been able to meet these people, whom I like to call “everyday heroes,” who work day in and day out to see that the orangutan and its forest friends are not pushed to extinction.
Before starting we met Panut Hadisiswoyo, who is the founder of OIC and is now one of my great personal friends and heroes. He gave us an overview of the courageous work he and OIC do before we left for Gunung Leuser to track and document some of the wild and rehabilitated/released orangutans.
Once there, our first few days were spent trekking in the Gunung Leuser National Park with our guide and new friend Darma, who also hosted us at his house for a few days. He used to work at the orangutan rehabilitation clinics, so many of the orangutans that have been rehabilitated and reintroduced to the forest recognize him fondly. He even helped deliver one of their babies once and he recalls how the orangutan mother placed the baby in his arms, signifying a very strong bond of friendship and trust.
During our time in the jungle we learned that there are only a few thousand Sumatran orangutans left, and that palm plantations are rampantly and greedily chopping down pristine forest at rates that made me weep. We spent an enormous amount of time with an orangutan mother named Mina, her baby and her older daughter Katerine. I was blown away at how she allowed us to watch her for hours. We even walked with her through the forest as she chased tourists. When this happens it’s because some tour guides bring along bananas to satisfy their tourists, but this endangers both human and animal by making the animals dependent on humans, and makes for a very unpleasant visit to the jungle (If you ever go trekking with orangutans, get Darma to take you; if he’s not available, request a guide who respects the forest and does not tote bananas for your enjoyment). We had the most incredible experience because our amazing guide had incredible respect and reverence for the environment.
We also learned that animals such as the Sumatran tiger and elephant are critically endangered, and that the Sumatran rhino is all but extinct. I felt something die in my soul after seeing these creatures up close and in the wild.
Next we went to a restoration site where our spirits were lifted. OIC spends much of their time and resources suing palm plantations that illegally chop down conserved forests, as well as reforesting these reclaimed sites. By planting many kinds of native, fast-growing species, a forest can be regenerated in a matter of years, and while new forest is never the same as old-growth forest, it is nevertheless inspiring.
The most daring part of the documentation process was when we went to an amusement park to rescue this illegally-kept 5 year old baby orangutan. We learned that these kinds of situations are especially sad because in order to acquire a baby orangutan, one must kill its mother. We called this little one Cece. We could really see how much Panut and the Human-Orangutan Conflict Rescue Unit (HOCRU) these people care about these animals. We took her to a rehabilitation centre where she will be taken care of and hopefully released back into the wild in time. We had to pay the government officials to come with us to complete the seizure as it was a Sunday, and we also had to take them to lunch and have them pose for an awkward photo (see gallery below; government officials are relatively idle on this pressing issue and this rescue would not have happened without the persistence of Panut and the OIC staff).
Again, we were reminded that not everybody can be saved when we went to the Medan Zoo to visit a pair of orangutans that Panut and his team have been trying to rescue for some time now. It was raining hard, which was a good thing since my eyes wouldn't stop crying. The poor creature sat dejected in a little green house, with no trees to climb on, and plastic bottle in hand.
Sumatra is a small island with a beautiful culture and beautiful people. It's not just animals that are suffering from human greed, but other humans as well. Palm plants take up so much water from natural aquifers that some villages have to get bottled water delivered. If this is happening now, what will the future hold? It doesn't look good.
I am now determined to give back to the forest that gave so much to me. What started as a plan to buy my own land in Sumatra has now turned into a venture among special friends who feel the same way I do. We're calling it the "Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary," and simply put, it will be a privately conserved rainforest area where wild animals can find sanctuary, migrating in and out of other areas safely, at least while on our property.
Sumatra saved my life, so now I'd like to give something back.