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Saving Sumatra: Orangutan rescues and regeneration heroes

With the World’s attention on the problem of palm oil, and Lush coming to the end of its second campaign with the Sumatran Orangutan Society, Lush Times writer Katie Dancey-Downs sat down with some of the people overseeing regeneration projects on the ground in Sumatra for an update

The Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) team is responding to a conflict. This time, an orangutan is on a local farmer’s land, eating his crops. The team will judge whether the primate can be pushed back into the forest, or whether he needs to be tranquilised and translocated. If they do nothing, the animal risks starvation or death by poaching. Baby orangutans are also at risk of being kidnapped for sale via the illegal pet trade.

“The orangutan rescue is the last resort,” says Panut Hadisiswoyo, an OIC trustee who, alongside his colleague Mustaqim, now works with Lush to oversee projects across Sumatra. “In an ideal world, orangutan rescue is not necessary.”

The team rescues around 30 orangutans a year, and works with farmers in Sumatra who are the organisation’s ‘eyes on the ground.’ Panut explains the importance of monitoring the situation from the frontline.

“More forest is shrinking, so more habitat is disturbed. There is more forest in trouble, so there are more orangutans in trouble,” he says.

With teams on both the East Coast and West Coast, they are ready to respond to any conflict, at any time of day. As more Sumatran forest disappears to oil palm monocultures, more orangutans are losing their homes.

The Leuser Ecosystem, an area in Sumatra, is the last stronghold for Sumatran orangutans. It’s also the only place in the world where tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans can be found co-existing. But all this is under threat.

While monitoring orangutans, the OIC team often finds other animals in trouble. Just two days before our meeting in the UK, a baby elephant died on an oil palm plantation after getting stuck in a ditch, too far down to be rescued by its mother. Tigers are also wandering into farms, looking for food. Panut recently assisted in getting a tiger poacher arrested, and Mustaqim has witnessed a tiger being killed.

This is the grim reality for wildlife that has lost its habitat, but people like Panut and Mustaqim are working hard to build a different future for Sumatra’s forest and its inhabitants.

Regenerating Sumatra

The orangutan might be the poster child for reforesting Sumatra, but they are not the only ones impacted by deforestation. Panut explains some of the other projects that he’s overseeing to protect wildlife and the Environment, and how they’re connected with ingredients, many of which are destined for cosmetics.

“My role in Sumatra is to help the people prevent more deforestation,” Panut explains.

Agriculture, he says, is the main cause of deforestation, and so that is the area in which he focuses. In all the projects he works with, the emphasis is on keeping things at a small scale, rather than large industrial farms.

Rather than telling people to stop industrial farming, Panut and the OIC present organic alternatives, including permaculture options, which not only help protect the Planet and its inhabitants, but also help local farmers improve their yields.

On Nias Island, there are two different stories relating to the hill myna bird. One story is this native bird’s elevated position as the province’s mascot, often seen nesting in coconut trees, and mimicking human speech. The darker story is one of capturing, smuggling, and a rapid decline towards extinction in the wild, as the birds are illegally captured for the illegal pet trade.

Panut and Mustaqim are working with a project aiming to breed and rewild the hill myna birds, to try and protect their numbers. At the same time, they’re engaging local coconut farmers, who now sell to Lush. Panut and Mustaqim are educating them about the problems, and asking them to protect the birds which nest in their coconut trees.

Wildlife in trouble

On Nias’s neighbouring island, Simeulue, there is another of Lush’s coconut oil sources, and another story of wildlife in trouble. Turtles lay their eggs on the beaches near the coconut trees, but the eggs are stolen and sold as a delicacy. So Panut and Mustaqim are now working with a local NGO and the coconut farmers, who have now started patrols of the beaches to protect the turtle eggs, and give them a chance to become hatchlings.

Back on the mainland in the Leuser Ecosystem, elephants are losing their forest homes alongside orangutans. The lowlands are being converted to palm oil, and while many other animals are being forced into higher altitudes, the elephants are simply unable to adapt. They are getting stuck, because the corridors between forested areas have been destroyed. There are estimated to be fewer than 250 of these elephants left in the Leuser Ecosystem, their numbers having slumped by around 70% in the last decade.

Another problem, Panut explains, is that elephants seem to particularly like the taste of oil palm leaves, and when they wander into farms, they risk being shot or poisoned. Panut wants to experiment with creating natural elephant barriers with lemongrass and chili, which elephants tend to avoid. This would keep them on the right track and away from farms, whilst also creating another source of income for locals.

There are more projects to encourage organic farming too. Panut and Mustaqim are working with local farmers to find better ways of growing patchouli and to stop people encroaching further into the forest. Most farmers in the region believe that new land needs to be cleared for each batch of patchouli, which is a plant that draws a lot from the soil. But Panut is now encouraging the farmers to let the land rest and recover between harvest;, using the breaks from growing patchouli to grow other less intensive crops which will also provide other income streams. This stops the need to cut down any more forest.

Panut says: “The key to addressing the problem is to engage the growers, to avoid slash and burn.”

Engaging the next generation

Following a European campaign by the Sumatran Orangutan Society and Lush in 2017, a 50-hectare piece of ex-palm plantation in Bukit Mas in the Leuser Ecosystem was bought by OIC, and is now being turned back into native forest. Soon afterwards, the adjoining 50 hectares was also acquired, following a campaign run across Asia, and this has now been dedicated to agroforestry.

On this land, a school focusing on permaculture offers opportunities for students to study for free, so that the next generation can learn about conservation and permaculture.

“Education is a long-term investment. We want to create a green generation that lives next to the National Park Forest,” Panut says.

Through education, Panut hopes people will see the beauty of the forest and its animal inhabitants, and stop being destructive.

“People will either want to exploit the forest, or they’ll want to protect it. But they cannot understand that choice until you educate them,” he says.

He says there has been a good response from local people, and that the school children, especially, are enthusiastic about permaculture.

Wildlife is already returning to the land, and leaf monkeys, with their prominent spectacle markings, are regular visitors. From the school, people have even spotted orangutans in the distance. So Panut and his colleagues are hoping that it is only a matter of time before they return to their newly reforested home in Bukit Mas for good and that this tale of successful regeneration will inspire others to do the same in other parts of Sumatra.

Find out more about reforestation and agroecology work at Bukit Mas.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Walmsley

The orangutan might be the poster child for reforesting Sumatra, but they are not the only ones impacted by deforestation

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