Saving species from extinction

‘Falling For Orangutans’, by Jonathan Stark.

27th November 2012

Sumatran Orangutan

Earlier this year, a group of Durrell staff took part in a sponsored skydive over Jersey to raise money for “The Tripa Campaign”, an initiative led by our esteemed ex colleague Dr Ian Singleton who is now the Conservation Director for The Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme. The idea to support this campaign was born during a visit I made to Sumatra in May of this year when I had the opportunity to meet with Ian and see the devastation of the Tripa peat land forest for myself. 

 

 

Fig. 1. Land cover change in Tripa between 1990 - 2009         Fig. 2. Map showing the northern half of Sumatra with orangutan habitat zones.

Tripa is one of just 3 remaining peat swamp forests on the west coast of Aceh province, Sumatra. In terms of area, these peat forests make up just 10% of the viable remaining Sumatran orang-utan habitat yet they are home to 30% of the population making them vital for the survival of this species.

As a peat swamp, the protection of Tripa is also incredibly important for the regulation of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Estimates of the amount of carbon stored in Tripa's three peat domes range from 50 to 100 million tons, an amount equal to the carbon emitted by the use of air conditioning in the whole of the United States in a year. With the destruction of the forest and the draining of the peat swamp comes the massive release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In 1990 the forest of Tripa covered 60,000 hectares which is equivalent in area to the size of Singapore while sustaining a population of 3,000 orang-utan. Since then much of Tripa has been destroyed with over 250 concessions handed out to companies for the development of palm oil plantations. Today forest covers just 15,000 hectares and the population of orang-utan has plummeted to 200 individuals.

Tripa is part of the wider “Leuser Ecosystem”, which covers more than 2.6 million hectares. It is one of the richest expanses of tropical rain forest in Southeast Asia and is the last place on earth where Sumatran elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger and Sumatran orangutan are found within one area. The area provides water to nearly 4 million people living in Aceh and it is of global importance to the conservation of biodiversity, as well as an important status symbol of Aceh.

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Fig. 3. The Leuser ecosystem from above

Whilst in Sumatra I was hoping to visit Tripa with Dr Singleton but unfortunately he was suffering from extreme fatigue at the time, brought on no doubt by the arduous work schedule he maintains. I therefore travelled with a group of SOCP staff including Shayne McGrath, a 29 year old New Zealander who has been working alongside Ian in challenging the illegal allocation of palm oil concessions in Tripa and other areas within the borders of the Leuser Ecosystem.

Packed in tightly to one of Ian's numerous pick-up trucks we left the SOCP office in Allubele which is a small ramshackle village on the outskirts of Tripa. Soon we were speeding through mile after mile of mature palm oil estate deep into the heartland of what was once forest. After a while the horizon opened up as we entered an area of newly cleared land as the burning midday sun shone down.

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Fig. 4. Map showing the Tripa region with the contested PT Kalista Allam concession in dark blue.

What was a few months ago a riot of jungle had been replaced by line after line of freshly planted oil palm saplings on ground still charred from the clearance fires. This was the controversial concession granted to the company PT Kalista Allam. It was the illegal issue of this concession that had galvanised Ian and his colleagues into taking action and hence “The Tripa Campaign" was born. With Tripa so close to complete annihilation, forcing the government to rethink the sale of this 1500 hectare plot represented the final battle to protect what remained of this vital orang-utan habitat.

We continued through the concession for another 15 minutes before arriving at a solitary fragment of forest which was set back perhaps 100 metres from the road. This patch, barely the size of a football pitch, had been spared the recent destruction and using a hand held GPS Shayne pinpointed its position within the boundary of an area supposedly protected by spatial planning laws. Shayne explained that it was from this fragment just a few weeks earlier that a fully mature male orang-utan had found refuge and had been rescued by the SOCP team. This magnificent male was presently housed in SOCP's Batu Mbelin quarantine facility in the outskirts of Medan awaiting relocation to Jantho, one of SOCP's release sites in Central Aceh.

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Fig. 5. Fully flanged male orang-utan rescued from Tripa by SOCP

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 Fig. 6. The SOCP quarantine facility at Batu Mbelin in April 2012.

Within seconds of entering the forest patch it was to my amazement that we heard the kiss squeak vocalisation of a female orangutan up above. I looked up and her lithe silhouette hung suspended below the canopy, bobbing up and down as she rested on forest vines before disappearing amid a crash of breaking branches. I looked to the faces of the SOCP team and they appeared more dejected than surprised. "Looks like we need to sort out another rescue" one replied.

We continued onwards to see if we could get a better look but within a couple of minutes we heard another rustle of foliage, this time to our right, perhaps 50 metres away. Knowing looks were passed between the SOCP team as we altered direction, moving through the thick undergrowth in the direction of the noise. To our amazement the mysterious form of a fully flanged male orangutan came in to view. With each limb spread-eagled he anchored himself to branch, vine and climber staring directly at us. He gave penetrating kiss squeak vocalisations while snapping off twigs from surrounding trees and throwing them in our direction. My mind darted back to Dagu, our magnificent adult male at Durrell and the life he may have lived. I couldn't help but think if he was unfortunate enough to be living in Tripa at this time, then the security of Durrell would be some kind of heaven.

It was saddening to think that this was my first encounter with truly wild orang-utans, forced in to these increasingly tiny forest fragments as their habitat is destroyed all around them. At the same time I felt very aware that the only hope for these individuals was provided by Ian Singleton and The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. While there are a couple of other orangutan NGO's working in the region, SOCP is the only one that can respond to the clear and present danger individual orangutans find themselves in when the palm oil companies arrive. Who would have thought a humble keeper from Durrell could become the greatest hope for a species as magnificent and beguiling as the orangutan.

Maybe it was at this point that I thought we should try and raise some money to help turn this situation around. When I returned to Jersey I suggested the idea of a sponsored skydive to my colleagues at Durrell. It was with no surprise that they were immediately enthusiastic about the idea and within a week or so we had 10 willing participants across 5 different departments willing to take a stand by "Falling for Orangutans".

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Fig. 7. A promotional poster showing the skydiving team of 10 Durrell staff.

With the help of the marketing department we set up a justgiving fundraising page and each participant was encouraged to attract support from friends, colleagues and family. Within about a month we had raised £4,200 between us. This, I am told is sufficient to run the campaign for 2 and a half months, ensuring Ian can maintain individuals such as Shayne in the field while paying the lawyer fees necessary to save Tripa by the challenging the perpetrators in the courts of Jakarta.

So the day of the skydive came and as the first jumpers; Gordon and Myself, arrived at the dilapidated portacabin of Skydive Jersey. Following a 30 minute training session by a worryingly aged instructor we climbed into a van reminiscent of one of the rust heaps I had seen in Sumatra. Following a short journey we arrived at the air strip where we were introduced to the "aeroplane" which was supposed to break our god given right to terra firma. After a few adjustments to the gafa tape that held the wings on we were off, accelerating down the run way, a knot of apprehension tightening in our stomachs. This humble craft took flight and, slightly slower than anticipated, Jersey unfolded below us into a patchwork of greens and browns. We headed over the sea and began climbing in a wide spiral up to the jumping height of 10,000 feet.

The wind screamed like a banshee and Gordon was first to go, clamped firmly to his instructor - I couldn't bring myself to look as they shuffled towards the open door before falling away towards Jersey. I kept my head up as instructed and took my position ready for the experience of a lifetime. Arriving at the open door I looked skyward and after a short pause suddenly I was falling too. When I'd opened my eyes I saw the shape of Jersey below me. In honesty it was a rather tranquil experience that lasted just a few seconds. The instructor pulled the cord and suddenly we were floating down to ground. As we descended towards St Aubins bay I could make out the gathering of Durrell staff who were waiting by the slipway to greet us.

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Fig. 8. Colm sporting a rather fetching orang-utan costume. 

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Fig. 9. Alberto and Chris after their jump – smiles all round

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Fig. 10. I think this was me                                                                                                                                                             

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Fig. 11. Eluned comes in to land.

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Fig. 12. Gordon on the final approach                                                                                                                     

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Fig. 13. Colm and Will doing the “Mo”

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Fig. 14. Where on earth is Johnny!?                                                                                                                                              

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Fig. 15. Colm takes the orang-utan mask off.

The rest of the day was spent welcoming the rest of team back to solid ground. Alberto, Chris, Will, Colm and Eluned landed safely and without incident. Relatives and colleagues of Johnny Poole exchanged worry shrouded small talk while the sky darkened as day crept into night, wondering when the last of the jumpers would arrive. Finally a Johnny-like shape appeared up above. Johnny had accepted the stealth mission, jumping in near darkness long after the sun had set and landing to cheers all around. Unfortunately Louise and Sarah weren't able to jump that day as we ran out of time so their skydive will be postponed till early next year – so get your wallets ready!

Since the skydive the controversial PT Kallista Allam concession has been revoked, a historic first in the battle to save Indonesia's forests. This is undoubtedly down to the efforts of SOCP and their partners. The hope of Ian is that this victory will provide the necessary leverage to enforce forest laws across increasingly large tracts of Indonesia. Whilst these are just small steps along a long road to a coherent and sustainable land use policy in Indonesia it’s certainly a start. Looking back over all these events I think it is remarkable what Durrell’s Army can achieve when they put their mind to it.


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