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A new home for Sumatran orangutans

An ex-palm plantation in Sumatra is about to be restored to its native forest, and the orangutans that once lived there will soon be able to return home.

At the end of 2017, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS)  launched a new campaign supported by Lush, to reforest 50 hectares of what was once diverse orangutan habitat.

After £126,014 was raised through the sale of Orangutan soap, SOS’s Indonesian partners, the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), bought the oil palm plantation land to reclaim and restore native forest to an area on the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem in Bukit Mas, Sumatra.

Helen Buckland, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, says: “This part of the forest was under attack, with more and more orangutan habitat being lost every week as illegal agriculture encroached into the protected area."

To highlight the problem, a giant ‘SOS distress call’ has been carved into the landscape by Lithuanian 'Splash and Burn' artist Ernest Zacharevic, calling attention to the ongoing destruction of Indonesia’s forests and the demise of iconic species such as the Sumatran orangutan.

SOS distress call, Ernest Zacharevic

Helen explains: “The fallen palms will be used as compost to prepare the land for restoration. Our partners, the OIC, with the backing of the local community, will plant tens of thousands of rainforest tree seedlings to return the land to wildlife. We expect to see orangutans and many other species roaming in the new young forest within a couple of years.”

SOS is 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.

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, oil palm 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.

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.

The human warriors fighting for orangutans

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

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.

From its base in the UK, SOS works with partner organisations in Sumatra and around the world. And 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.”

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 piece of land reforested following SOS’s campaign could make a huge difference for orangutans in Sumatra, but the work will not stop there. Orangutans are still facing destruction to their land, making public support of SOS’s work vital.

Find out more about Splash and Burn, the artists behind the SOS distress call.

Images: Header image of orangutan, courtesy of Zac Mills; SOS distress call drone footage, courtesy of Ernest Zacharevic.

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about 2 years ago

The work LUSH are doing to restore the Orangutan's natural habitat is absolutely astonishing and the picture by ernest zacharevic is amazing. I hope LUSH carry on this conservation work so that the Orangutan's future will be safe. This project will not only benefit the Orangutan's, but it will also benefit lots of Rainforest creatures.