Fleeting Glimpses of Indonesia’s Endangered Orangutans
We watched in silence as the two orangutans, a mother and her child, prepare for a downpour.
As the air grew thicker, the mother – whom local guides had dubbed Minah – led her child up to the canopy and into a nest she had built earlier in the day. Then, picking up vines and leaves, she wove an umbrella in the foliage and held it devoutly over her daughter.
The thunder shook the ground, scaring a pair of giant hornbills, who honked indignantly. The haunting call of gibbons echoed through the canopy.
Its 6 million acres of dense rainforest is home to 389 species of birds and 130 species of mammals, including the largest wild population of Sumatran orangutans in the world.
Although they once thrived in healthy jungles from Indonesia to China, wild orangutans, which are among the rarest and most intelligent of the great apes, are now limited to the rainforests of two islands in Asia. from South-East: Borneo and Sumatra. Mainly because of habitat destruction – in the form of mining, logging, and the highly destructive practices of the palm oil industry – their populations have declined.
The Bornean orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, was declared Critically Endangered in 2016; since the middle of the 20th century, its population has declined by more than 80 percent.
Populations of the Sumatran orangutan, Pongo abelii, and the Tapanuli orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, which are also critically endangered, have also experienced precipitous declines.
In response, a dedicated group of custodians attempt to unravel the complexities of conservation in Sumatra, fighting to protect the ecosystem and seeking a solution that can benefit both the wildlife and the people who inhabit the island.
Sumatra is a far cry from my family’s ranch in Wyoming where I grew up on the outskirts of Grand Teton National Park. Conservation, however, is in my blood. Fifty-five years ago my great-grandparents recognized the importance of wilderness areas and made our ranch one of Jackson Hole’s first private conservation plots.
It was while growing up here that I fell in love with nature and learned with my own eyes the difficulties of protecting it as development encroached upon us. As my career as an environmental archaeologist and photojournalist matured, I became interested in the relationship between wildlife conservation and traditional cultures. In 2017, I took the opportunity to travel to Sumatra with Photographers Without Borders, a non-profit organization that covered the island’s wildlife and indigenous rights issues.
Over the next few weeks, we traveled to North Sumatra under the direction of the Orangutan Information Center (OIC), an organization that aims to rescue injured and trafficked orangutans to rehabilitate tropical forests destroyed and to help bypass human-animal conflicts through educational programs.
Panut Hadisiswoyo, who founded the OIC in 2001, told me that his goal is to give Sumatran orangutans a place to thrive. He also hopes that through community development he can instill animal pride and awareness in rural communities – to help create a local orangutan keeper group.
The epicenter of the OIC’s efforts is in the Leuser Ecosystem, whose tropical forests provide livelihoods and clean water to more than four million people – and whose boundaries are continually threatened by the ever-expanding oil palm plantations.
With the help of Nayla Azmi, a 32-year-old indigenous environmentalist, we spent several days walking through the mountainous rainforest to observe and photograph orangutan families on the outskirts of Bukit Lawang, a small village whose l he ecotourism-driven economy provides a case study of how sustainable jobs and forest preservation can coexist.
After our time with the orangutans, Ms. Azmi took us to other corners of Sumatra to learn about less iconic but equally important conservation battles.
Near the remote village of Tangkahan, on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park, a riverside animal rescue center is home to a family of Sumatran elephants rescued from forced labor operations. While their new riverside home was stripped down and based on the controversial practice of offering elephant rides to earn money, the rescue center is working to provide the animals with a better environment, despite poor resources. The visit to the center was a testament to the reality of conservation in Indonesia, where good intentions are often limited by economic and infrastructural limitations.
The fate of Sumatran conservation will be largely determined by what happens in the next few years. As the rate of forest destruction continues to increase, the tireless work of activists like Mr. Hadisiswoyo and Ms. Azmi offers glimmers of hope.
“My dream is to see indigenous peoples regain their pride and start leading conservation programs,” said Ms. Azmi, who recently founded the Nuraga Bhumi Institute to help preserve Batak culture, promote women’s rights and do campaign for indigenous-led conservation efforts.
“If we can give people confidence, if we can work together and be proud of our ancestral connection to the forest, I think we will see a big change in conservation in Sumatra. “
Matt Stirn is an archaeologist and photojournalist based in Boston and Jackson Hole, Wyo. You can follow his work on Instagram.
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