Imagine you’re stuck inside your home and the only food you have access to is what’s left in the fridge. Outside is a wasteland as far as the eye can see.
Would you sit around and wait to starve?
Or would you make a run for it, into the unknown?
One of the remaining 6,600 critically endangered Sumatran orang-utans, Avatar is not the running kind; his home forest – what’s left of it – means everything to him. The land on one side of his habitat – now only about the size of a football field – is still smouldering; that on the other side is a monoculture of palm-oil trees. As far as the eye can see are remnants of this once mighty tropical forest: charred tree stumps and smoke.
On the ground, a team from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) prepares tranquillising darts and moves into the small patch of forest for the second time in a month. Avatar needs to be relocated; his home will be gone within weeks.
Once the team has him in their sights, they line up a customised air gun and a dart flies through the trees. It finds its target and Avatar starts making a kissing sound, clearly in distress. Moving through the trees with speed, he swings from one branch to the next, pausing momentarily before calculating his next move. Clearly the dart has not worked.
Rain starts to fall and the team take cover under the canopy. Mosquitoes buzz around their heads; leeches cling to blades of grass, swinging from side to side, waiting for their next meal of blood.
The rain passes and the team regroups, moving forward and forcing Avatar into a corner of the forest. This time, team veterinarian Yenny Saraswati shoots and the dart hits Avatar right in the thigh – a perfect hit. As the tranquilliser drug starts to kick in, the team places a large net around the base of the tree Avatar is up. The orang-utan’s hands start to slip, then his legs follow, and his immense body suddenly comes crashing down. He bounces off a branch and falls to the forest floor, missing the net completely. Luckily, leaf litter and ferns on the ground cushion his fall. Surprisingly, he lifts his massive orange head above the ferns and gives everyone an intense stare.
ORANG-UTANS ARE THE ONLY great apes found in Asia. During the Pleistocene era they existed throughout Southeast Asia, including southern China, but now they’re found only in Borneo and northern Sumatra, in Indonesia. Of the remaining populations in Sumatra, only three contain more than 1,000 individuals. Another three contain between 250 and 1,000.
The Sumatran orang-utan is losing habitat fast, though. Pristine forest in Indonesia is being burned, drained and cleared for palm-oil plantations at a shocking pace. The three coastal peat swamp forests of Aceh province – Tripa, Kluet and Singkil – are among the species’ most precious natural habitats. Home to almost a third of Sumatra’s orangutans, Tripa – which has already been 70 per cent cleared – has lost more than 80 per cent of its population to forest hunting, poaching, human encroachment, illegal logging and fires.
“If no more forest is chopped down then yes, [Tripa] could be protected and expanded for a viable wild population [of orang-utans]. But clearance would have to stop very soon,” says Dr Ian Singleton, who heads the SOCP.
These coastal forests form vital corridors linking the Indian Ocean with the rainforests of the Leuser Ecosystem and the Gunung Leuser National Park. However, irrigation canals are depriving what’s left of the swamp forests of their lifeblood, as the water table drops. Human communities are suffering, too, as wells dry up.
THE SOCP TEAM MOVES IN quietly to pin Avatar down and give him another shot to knock him out completely. They bear in mind the words of Singleton: “You never want one of these animals to get a grip on you in these situations – it could rip your arms out of their sockets in a heartbeat. Try to imagine a four-legged octopus with the strength of six men getting hold of you. It’s not pretty. People seem to think it’s OK to relocate orang-utans, but it’s very dangerous for both sides.
Broken bones are fairly common during such rescues.”
Avatar is rolled over and pulled on to a makeshift bamboo stretcher.
“He’s so underweight,” says Saraswati. “An ape of this size should weigh about 100kg, but he seems to be only 60kg. He’s got nothing to eat apart from tree bark or the young palm-oil seedlings planted around here. He has no other choice, all the original fruit trees have been lost to the palm-oil plantations.”
Avatar is carried out of the small patch of forest, past the oil palms, and placed in a transport cage on the back of a pick-up truck. He is just starting a six-hour journey to Jantho, a release site in the north of Aceh, near Banda Aceh. (Thirty-seven orang-utans have been released by SOCP at Jantho since it was first used for that purpose, in March 2011.)
A FEW DAYS LATER, THE SOCP team receives a tip-off that a young orang-utan is being kept as a pet in a village close to the edge of Tripa forest. In these situations, they need to proceed with caution, as the area was a known rebel stronghold of Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, the separatist group, during the Aceh civil war, from 1976 to 2005.
The team heads to the local police station for backup. There will be no arrests for keeping an endangered animal, just a warning. The chief of police invites the team into his office and, at first, struggles to understand what an orang-utan is. He hesitates, saying the area has a reputation for being lawless. After he’s handed some promotional material on the Sumatran orang-utan and the work of the SOCP, however, he agrees to escort the team to the small village the following day.
On arrival, they encounter a juvenile male orang-utan tied up in front of a house. He appears to be in good condition. By talking to the villagers – most of them plantation workers – the team discovers the orang-utan’s mother was killed when he was captured.
Negotiations go on for some time and become quite heated; the family clearly loves the young orang-utan like a family member. The whole village, it seems, comes out to see what’s going on. Several hours pass before the SOCP team leaves with the animal.
Once at SOCP’s quarantine and care centre, outside Medan, north Sumatra, they name him Rahul. The ape is subjected to a full health check and placed in a holding cage, where he must undergo a minimum 30-day quarantine period before being introduced to and socialised with other orang-utans. He will eventually be released back into the wild.
A MONTH LATER, IN TRIPA, a wildlife investigation team – posing as buyers – track down another young orang-utan being kept illegally.
This time the owners want to sell it. The team are taken to a house and asked to wait. Some 15 minutes later, a man on a motorbike turns up and asks them to follow him down some narrow backstreets.
The orang-utan is brought out and placed on the floor of a dark room full of people. It is the sickest looking creature the team has seen in a long time; underweight, afraid of people and holding a small handful of rice. Clearly he has been teased and taunted by his “owners” and shuns human contact. The ape has a small leather collar around his neck and patches of hair are missing from his having slept on cold hard surfaces.
The traders talk openly, going into detail about how they catch orang-utans: “We identify the mothers with babies, then cut down the trees around them, leaving them with nowhere to run. Then we climb the tree and beat the mother close to death until she falls, using metrelong bamboo sticks. Only when she is unconscious are we able to prise the infant from her grasp.
“We can normally sell one [as a pet] for about one million to two million rupiah [HK$800-HK$1,600], normally to Chinese businessmen, and even military or police officers.”
After some discussion, the team agree to come back in two days and pick up the orang-utan for 2.5 million rupiah. Phone numbers are exchanged and the team leave – but not without the GPS co-ordinates of the location and photographs.
Later, a team consisting of members of the SOCP, the NGO Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (“foundation for a sustainable ecosystem”), the Nature and Natural Resource Conservation Agency of Indonesia (KSDA) and the police are called in to discuss a strategy. The following day, the team, including two police officers, move in but find nothing.
The young orang-utan has been moved to another location. Hope of finding him alive begins to fade.
The next day the police make a call and threaten the traders with a prison sentence if they don’t bring the orang-utan to the police station. Local government officials also put pressure on them.
Just after lunch, the traders arrive at the police station with the orang-utan. The police take statements and brief the traders about the laws prohibiting the capture, keeping and trade of orang-utans, and the penalties that could apply if they are caught again with endangered wildlife.
The SOCP team inspects the young ape and gives him fresh fruit and fluids, before he starts a 12-hour journey to Batu Mbelin. He is named Chocolate.
RAHUL HAS BEEN AT the SOCP quarantine centre for just over a year now. He is still quite young, so will probably be released late this year or some time next.
Chocolate is also at the centre and is mixing with the other youngsters.
Given his youth, he will probably not be released for another year or two.
To sponsor and/or follow Chocolate’s progress, visit: www.orangutan.org.au/adopt_orphan_orangutan/Chocolate 
Search and rescue
Dr Ian Singleton worked with a variety of species at zoos in Britain, before specialising in orang-utans when he moved to Jersey Zoo, in the British Channel Islands, in 1989. He left Jersey in 1996 to begin a PhD study of orang-utan ranging behaviour in the peat swamp forests of Suaq Balimbing, in the Gunung Leuser National Park, in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. In 2001, he joined with the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation and Sumatran NGO Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari ("foundation for a sustainable ecosystem") to establish the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. He now works to confiscate illegally kept pet orang-utans and return them to the wild, in field research and on monitoring the remaining wild Sumatran orang-utans and protecting their habitat.
What percentage of orang-utans that are taken to your care centre return to the wild? "Almost all of them. Of about 265 we have rescued so far, only about 15 [most of which died of illness or injuries] are not going back. We currently have about 50 orang-utans in the quarantine centre and all but four will be returned to the wild at some point. The four cannot be released as one is blind (it was shot 62 times with an air rifle), one tests positive for hepatitis B, one has an acute rheumatoid problem and another is paralysed in the left leg due to an air-rifle pellet in the brain."
How long do rescued animals stay at the centre, on average? "If they are already old enough for release it should be an average of about six months to 18 months. Some much more [because they are too young], some much less [because they are still very wild]."
Are you the only organisation releasing orang-utans back into the wild? "In Sumatra, yes. But the release site in Jambi [in Bukit Tigapuluh National Park] is managed by the Frankfurt Zoological Society."
The Aceh government announced in March plans to authorise the felling of 1.2 million more hectares of rainforest for mining, logging and palm oil. How many orang-utans would that affect? "It's hard to put a number on it, but A LOT!"
You work with the Indonesian government. Is that a fruitful partnership? "Everything we do has to be with them, according to our [memorandum of understanding]. But they are extremely bureaucratic, underfunded, understaffed, underequipped, undereducated, underpaid, etc. At least the PHKA [Perlindungan Hutan dan Konservasi Alam, the conservation department] is."
In 2011, the South China Morning Post published a story about an SOCP plan to create a chain of man-made islands on which poorly orang-utans could live. What became of that plan? "We're working on it now. We have the land [but still need to pay off debts] and are gradually getting started."
Do you think that the survival of at least one wild population of Sumatran orang-utans is realistic in the long term? "It's still 50-50 but for sure we are putting up a good fight. Win or lose, it's too early to tell."