Sumatran Orangutan Society Director Helen Buckland was standing inside the border of the Gunung Leuser National Park, in northern Sumatra, when the first chainsaw roared into action. It ripped through the silence, then the nearest oil palm tree. She began to cheer.
The oil palm shouldn’t have been there. None of the oil palms facing Helen should have been. But here they were, planted row upon row - as if copy and pasted - over what was once diverse rainforest within the Leuser Ecosystem. Helen was stood on an illegal plantation, one of many that have snuck into the boundaries of protected forests and national parks. Beneath her, the ground was parched and covered with labyrinthine cracks. Before the unmistakeable whir of her teammate’s chainsaw (incidentally, the only time she is happy to hear that sound in a forest) she hadn’t been able to pick out a single noise. Not even a bird call.
“I planted a rainforest tree seedling in that barren soil, and hoped that it would survive,” said Helen.
Two years later, she returned: “I went back to the spot where I had planted that tree, and stood under the shade of its branches, closed my eyes and listened to a landscape buzzing with life. I heard gibbons and birds singing, and heard from the team about a herd of elephants that had passed through the previous day.”
Now, the land where the illegal palm plantation was has been transformed into the Sumatran Orangutan Society’s flagship forest restoration site. It is a living example of just what it takes to restore lost forests.
Recipe for Replanting a Rainforest
Sumatran-inspired, plant-based, oil-palm free
Preparation time: Four years+
What you’ll need:
1,100 seedlings (of between 20-30 different tree species)
Local community support
Wild elephant dung
Hardwood tree seedlings
Fruiting tree seedlings (hint: durian is a winner with orangutans)
1. Forget planting trees for now. No, really...
Before doing anything else, meet the locals. Once the rainforest is restored, the communities living around it will need to band together to defend it from future threats. In Sumatra, SOS supports partners that have so far: planted more than 1.5 million trees; made it possible for over 120 rescued orangutans to enjoy second chances in the wild; and trained thousands to become true guardians of the Leuser Ecosystem.
2. Grow up, fast
Now you’ve got the neighbours on board, start planting! Go for fast-growing ‘pioneer’ species. These are the hipsters of your regenerating rainforest; they get there before it’s cool. By year three, they will recreate a rainforest canopy, shading the slower-growing newbie trees from the extreme heat and enriching the soil with their fallen leaves.
3. Repeat x1,100
Each hectare will need to be planted with 1,100 seedlings of between 20-30 different species. The audition process for these species is trickier than most TV talent shows. Not only must they be fast-growing, but they also need to be found within the native ecosystem and be resistant to fire, drought and flooding. For bonus points: ensure some trees produce fruit in two to three years, because this will encourage wildlife back to the area.
4. Make friends in high places
To give the trees you’ve planted the best chance of survival, you’ll need to spend the next two to four years engaging in regular maintenance work. This means clearing weeds and grasses from around each tree and adding organic compost - mixed with wild elephant dung - to the soil. It means replacing any trees that haven’t made it. And it also means increasing the diversity of the forest by planting seedlings of new species in amongst the original pioneers.
5. Leave it to the experts
You’ve made it to year four! The microclimate needed for the rainforest to grow has been restored and wildlife will soon return to course through its vines. Those pioneer trees you planted may now be reaching heights of nine to ten metres, and the hardwood and fruiting species could themselves be five to six metres tall, making them safe nesting spots for orangutans.
When the orangutans do move in, it’s time to move out. The great apes are nicknamed ‘gardeners of the forest’ for a reason. After eating the rainforest fruits, they disperse the seeds in their dung (it’s a two-for-one deal as fertiliser comes part of the parcel too). They also sleep around, building new nests each night and breaking branches as they go. Come morning, rays of sunshine will pour through the gaps and give young seedlings on the forest floor a boost.