19 August 2014

International Orangutan Day 2014


Although today we celebrate the survival and resilience of critically endangered Orang-utan, the iconic flagship species and ambassador for the ancient forests of South East Asia, let's also acknowledge the deep loss of life this species continues to endure as human populations and economies develop in such a way that pushes them closer and and closer to the brink of extinction.

Orangutan supporters may have noticed lots of photo's in social media today of the lucky few orangutans who have been rescued - refugees of forests which often no longer exist, victims of industrial monoculture expansion - most of whom are now on their way back to the forest thanks to the tireless efforts of rehabilitation centers across Borneo and Sumatra.

Often the situation can feel so overwhelming that we forget to celebrate the smaller grass-roots victories, so today I want to share a unique story of an encounter with a young, fully wild Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii), just one of a few thousand individuals hanging on to survival on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia...

For the past 12 months I've been based in the most easterly section of the globally significant Leuser Ecosystem in North Sumatra - with the Orangutan Information Centre - we've been working on a Forest Restoration program, restoring and protecting a 500 hectares of the Gunung Leuser National Park which was destroyed by palm oil companies looking to expand into the last of Sumatra's lowland tropical rainforests. 

When one day the call came that their was an Orangutan just 100 meters from the restoration cabin - not far from the tent where I was sleeping the night before - a few of us eagerly took flight in his direction, bare-foot, quietly approaching in a state of sheer excitement..

A blur of deep maroon-red, and a sway of the branches in the canopy above, gave him away. I guess it's natural to presume that in bahasa orangutan he was thinking "who's that down there?"

Seeing wild orangutans in their natural habitat is an extraordinary experience - but seeing them return to a forest that is being actively restored and protected by a local grass-roots NGO is another experience altogether - it was the first time I'd seen them on the restoration site and the ultimate indicator of a healthy regenerating forest..

It was a fruiting Ternangka Tree (Artocarpus dadah) - a relative of the Jackfruit - that brought him so close to our cabin, and over the next few weeks we saw 5 more individuals (2 mothers and their young, one baby and one very curious juvenile) 2 of which had been trans-located by OIC-HOCRU from ever shrinking isolated patches of forest outside the national park. 

How they all knew about this fruiting tree is a mystery to me - as Orangutans are not usually very social. Some kind of advanced internal fruit mapping system...?

One afternoon I went down by myself to hide out by the fruiting Ternangka tree, I guess he knew I was there but accepted my presence without any of the earlier signs of distress (they usually make a kiss-squeak call if threatened).


Watching him eat was such a fascinating experience - my mind exploding with all kinds of thoughts surrounding plant-animal co-evolution, distribution and dispersal patterns, what and how exactly he is thinking...? with the occasional zen-moment of primate-to-primate connection, breathing-the-same-air which is coming-from-the-same-trees and all that jazz..

And then I witness something really cool, it was late afternoon and the light was beginning to fade, he decides it's time to find a tree to build his nest for the evening. Before heading off he grabs one more Ternangka fruit, 'one for the road'!

Incredible, I had know idea they did this.

In what I could only describe as some kind of primitive display of delayed gratification, he travels gracefully through the tree-tops, carrying his ripe fruit in one hand and comfortably cruising along with his other 3 hands.

Just as the last light fades away, and he skillfully sets himself up with a fresh nest about 100 meters from the fruiting Ternangka tree, there he hangs-out in his nest and enjoys a freshly picked organic Ternangka fruit as the sun sets over the forest. 

Suffice to say we collected and germinated the seed from this guys dung and are now planting these trees all over the restoration site.

As the fight for his species survival heats up to the north in the Leuser Ecosystem of Aceh (where 85% of the Sumatran Orangutans are found outside of the National Park), we are reminded that their is still so much to fight for and that collaboration is crucial in preserving these globally significant landscapes.

And finally I want to share this short little video clip which is a tribute to all the staff, students and global supporters of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) - grass-roots action inspiring a new generation of conservationists and earth lovers :)