Environment

Orangutans rescued from patch of forest as oil palm plantations expand

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An orangutan and her baby have been rescued from a patch of forest that is surrounded by oil palm plantations in South Aceh, Indonesia. They were released into the Gunung Leuser National Park in Bakongan.

The primates were found isolated in Ujung Padang village on a two-hectare patch of forest that local farmers were about to clear for oil palm cultivation. Neither of them had any injuries, although the baby, a male aged about 6 months, was thought to be underweight.

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The rescue was carried out yesterday (Tuesday) by the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU), assisted by the Indonesian Natural Resources Conservation Agency and national park office staff. The HOCRU is attached to the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan, Sumatra.

“It didn’t go entirely as planned,” said OIC founder and director Panut Hadisiswoyo. “After the mother orangutan had been sedated with a tranquiliser dart, she found an old nest and fell asleep, rather than dropping down into the net being held below to catch her.

“One of the team had to climb the tree and help to bring them down.”

 

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The director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), Helen Buckland, said that, while the rescue was good news, there were still more orangutans in need of urgent help, and conflict between humans and orangutans was a growing problem.

“Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered and, without urgent action, could be the first Great Ape species to become extinct, so protecting every individual is crucial.”

It was members of the local community that alerted the OIC to the presence of the orangutans in the patch of forest. “Our team had been monitoring the area,” Hadisiswoyo said. “We had already rescued three other orangutans in the area, two in October, 2014, and one in August, 2014.”

On January 7, the HOCRU team rescued an adult male orangutan, estimated to be 30 years old, from a rubber plantation in Karang Jadi village, Langkat, North Sumatra.

“Local people said that the adult male orangutan and a few other orangutans had been in their village for a long time,” Hadisiswoyo said. “The orangutan was unable to return to the forest because the forest corridor had been turned into an oil palm plantation.”

Karya Jadi villagers said the orangutan had damaged their crops and frightened local farmers when he chased them and had demanded its relocation. The HOCRU team released the orangutan into the OIC forest restoration site in the Gunung Leuser National Park.

Every rescue is a high-risk operation for both the orangutans and the team, Buckland says. “An evacuation is only carried out as a last resort when the orangutan’s life is in greater danger if left in their current situation.”

The HOCRU team has rescued 54 orangutans since 2012. Twenty-five were released into the Gunung Leuser National Park, four into protected forest in Aceh province, five into the Jantho reintroduction programme in Aceh, two into the Bukit Tiga Puluh reintroduction programme in eastern Sumatra, and the remaining 14 are still being cared for in the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) quarantine centre in Batu Mbelin, North Sumatra.

Four of the orangutans died either in transit or soon afterwards. They had either sustained injuries from unknown assailants before they were rescued, or suffered from malnutrition and parasite infestations because they were held captive in atrocious conditions.

There are two distinct species of orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan and the species found in Borneo, who are also endangered. According to figures from 2004, there are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces.

Increased conflict

Large areas of orangutan habitat have been lost or degraded because of agriculture and logging. As a result, the primates are pushed into areas where forest and farmlands meet. With natural food hard to find, crop raiding – a key cause of conflict – becomes increasingly likely.

“As more forest is replaced by oil palm plantations, more orangutans become isolated in forest patches,” Buckland said. “They are at serious risk of starvation or being killed if they wander into plantations in search of food. We set up the HOCRU with the OIC, our partners in Sumatra, to address this problem.

“We urgently need to raise funds so that the team in Sumatra can continue to help orangutans in danger, as well as supporting our projects and campaigns that work to protect and restore their forest home.”

The HOCRU team runs regular educational activities and workshops for farmers, and conducts surveys to find out more about the causes of human-orangutan conflict.

The team trains farmers and plantation workers in various methods of HOC prevention such as using noise (bamboo noise cannons) as a safe method to keep the orangutans away.

The OIC helped set up the Human Wildlife Conflict Task Force Group, which brings together government officials and NGOs specialising in individual species – namely orangutans, tigers, and elephants.

Horrific killings

One of the most shocking recent cases was in December 2014 in Central Kalimantan on Indonesian Borneo. An orangutan was discovered on an oil palm plantation with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.

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The veterinary team at the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation in Nyaru Menteng tried to save the primate’s life, but she died from her injuries.

“This is one more victim of the conflict between the oil palm industry and wildlife,” BOS Foundation spokesman Monterado Fridman said at the time. “This orangutan was brought to us in a horrific condition. Both of her legs and arms were broken and x-ray results showed more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.”

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Michelle Desilets from the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust (OLT) said that, as habitat was cleared, orangutans became easy targets. “Concession holders often view them as agricultural pests as they can destroy young oil palms when they consume them in desperation. In some plantations, managers offer a bounty to the workers for the head of an orangutan.

“We started seeing these kinds of cases more than ten years ago when the palm oil boom really started to take hold, especially in Central Kalimantan, where this orangutan was found. Orangutans have been discovered with more than 100 lead pellets in their bodies.”

The director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), Ian Singleton, said such cases were all too common for those working to save orangutans in Indonesia. “This is the standard way that orangutan mothers and others are routinely killed here. They are shot, beaten, clubbed, macheted and speared, and a few ‘lucky’ infants manage to survive this and end up as illegal pets; and there are hundreds of those each year.

“Adult orangutans are notoriously strong and have huge teeth and four hands. The level of sheer adrenaline-fuelled violence needed for people to batter an orangutan to this degree without being seriously injured themselves is almost impossible to imagine.”

Palm oil

About half of all packaged food contains palm oil and, over the past 25 years, the total area planted with oil palms has tripled, with current global estimates of more than 15 million hectares.

It was revealed in June last year that forest clearance in Indonesia – the world’s biggest palm oil producer – had for the first time surpassed the clearance rate in Brazil.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), oil palm plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, who together produce close to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

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Earlier article: Orangutan dies after being found with 40 shotgun pellets in her body

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