This former DESMAN
student is working hard to save the endangered orangutans of Sumatra
I have worked with orangutans at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation
Programme's (SOCP) Quarantine Centre in Northern Sumatra since 2009. Originally
I was one of the orangutan keeping staff (Orangutan Technician). In 2015 I was
lucky enough to spend a few weeks working as a volunteer with the animal
keepers (mostly on primates and carnivores) at Auckland Zoo in New Zealand. In
2017, I was promoted to my current position as manager of the Centre,
responsible for managing all the staff and daily operations.
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) has been working since
2001 on all aspects of orangutan conservation in Sumatra. A major focus of the
SOCP’s work is the rescue, quarantine, rehabilitation and eventual
reintroduction of illegal pet orangutans. Since opening, the SOCP’s Orangutan
Quarantine and Rehabilitation Centre has received over 410 orangutans and more
than 300 of these have been reintroduced back to the wild, helping to create
entirely new, viable wild populations of their species.
Our work is not easy, by a long way, and is often very emotional, but the
rewards of the progress and the positive achievements constantly inspire the
staff at SOCP to persist in their hard work. The centre averages around 50
orangutans at any one time. Most are confiscated illegal pets in need of
medical care and rehabilitation in preparation for eventual reintroduction to
the wild. Since I began working with the SOCP I have probably worked with more
than 200 individual orangutans, most of which have already been released.
Sadly, some of the orangutans that find themselves at the centre arrive in
devastatingly poor health and condition, and are often traumatised too, and a
few of them, even with time and the care that the SOCP provides, are unable to
live free in the wild ever again.
At present, there are seven individuals that cannot be released back to
their natural habitat, due to physical, or even phsychological disabilities.
Even sadder is that their problems were all caused by humans, as is illustrated
by the stories of Hope and Leuser, below.
Hope is an adult female orangutan. She was shot 74 times with an air rifle at
the edge of the forest. Some of the pellets are lodged in her eyes, causing
permanent blindness. She also and lost her baby during the same incident, a
result of human cruelty. Highly traumatised, Hope spent several months
recovering from her physical injuries, which included some open lacerations and
a broken collar bone, but will take much longer for her to recover from the
mental trauma of her experience. She remains afraid when she hears human voices
and seems to get upset by the sound of any infant orangutans crying nearby.
Leuser was shot near the edge of a protected forest by farmers out shooting
pests near their crops. We found 62 air rifle pellets scattered around his body
and like Hope he is blind as some of them hit him in the eyes. We removed some
of the pellets but he still has 48 inside him as removing them all would be too
invasive and unnecessarily risky.
Photo right above: Orangutan Leuser. Photo left above : Hope and an X-ray
showing air rifle pellets in her head and chest (Source: SOCP)
Sadly, some other orangutans have arrived over the years with similar
experiences, but did not survive their ordeal. This is one of the aspects of
our work that continually motivates us all to do everything in our power to
prevent events like these, violent and very one-sided orangutan human
conflicts, from happening in the future.
Rehabilitating and reintroducing orangutans represents just one of many
challenges the SOCP faces to protect orangutans in Sumatra. Both species (Pongo
abelii and Pongo
tapanuliensis) are in decline and are listed as Critically
Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to continued habitat
loss and human persecution. Not only are these enigmatic and intelligent Great
Apes an incredibly beautiful sight to see in the wild, they also play a
vital role in seed dispersal and in maintaining the health of the
forest habitat - an ecosystem which is important for people and
a wealth of wildlife, including Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos.
The Orangutan Haven
Over the years we have accumulated a number of orangutans that cannot be
released to the wild. Given that these individuals could live to 40 or even 50
years old or more, we do not want them spending the rest of their days in the
large metal cages they are now in at the Quarantine and Rehabilitation Centre.
With this in mind, we came up with the idea to try and build some large
naturalistic islands, where they could live out their days in a much larger,
and naturalistic environment. If we can, we would also like them to somehow be
able to play a role in the future of their species, despite not being able to
be free in the wild anymore.
Education and raising awareness is an essential part of the SOCP’s long-term
approach to conservation, to help address the core of the problem. If we could
somehow get visitors to see these orangutans too, we felt this would be a
highly innovative and unique mechanism to achieve our goals and get the
conservation and sustainable development message across to a large and
extremely diverse audience.
The answer? An Orangutan Haven - a new innovation by SOCP to build public
awareness to protect and maintain the balance of the ecosystem, building a
whole new facility that will integrate education and better quality enclosures
for the rehabilitated orangutans.
The SOCP secured 48 hectares of land in 2014 and has created 9 islands for
orangutans in a large green valley at the centre of the site.
The idea of islands in the Orangutan Haven was inspired by Dr Ian
Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) and
former Animal Keeper at Jersey Zoo, headquarters of the Durrell Wildlife
Ian (himself a Durrell graduate), was a key member of the original design
team for the ‘Orangutan Island Habitat’ at Jersey Zoo which has been an
enormous success, not only for the zoo’s resident orangutans, but as an
exciting, immersive attraction to visitors. Following this achievement, Ian and
the SOCP hope that the Orangutan Haven in Sumatra will become a major asset for
species and habitat conservation, and conservation education and awareness
building in northern Sumatra.
Photo Left: Aerial view of the islands valley at the Orangutan Haven,
showing all 9 of the newly created Orangutan Islands (Source: SOCP)
In addition to caring for the orangutans, facilities are also being
established at the Orangutan Haven for other endangered animals in Sumatra,
including some of Sumatra’s critically endangered song bird species –
threatened mostly by the illegal wildlife trade, and Fruit Bats (Pteropusvampyrus)
whose numbers are declining rapidly due to capture for the traditional medicine
Hands on work with these and other species over the coming years, and the
knowledge which Arista gained at Jersey Zoo working
alongside keepers and learning from specialist staff, will help to preserve
populations of many key species and to deliver educational talks that explain
that population declines in the wild will continue if human attitudes and
actions do not change.
My DESMAN training is invaluable to the SOCP as we gradually develop our Orangutan
Haven, with its vast education potential and its plans to establish
focussed captive breeding programmes for critically endangered songbird
SOCP hopes that through this work it will protect the ecosystem and
biodiversity in Indonesia - a fragile home for a truly rich diversity of people
Arista participated in the Durrell Conservation Academy DESMAN
course in 2020. This course is designed to equip conservation professionals
with a complete range of skills to maximise their effectiveness at managing or
participating in conservation projects. You will learn the latest theory
and practice of endangered species recovery, and gain a wide variety of skills
in facilitation, management and leadership. Click here https://bit.ly/2SSAJJU for
more information about the course and other conservation study opportunities.
Dr Ian Singleton, MBE, supports a range of vital conservation projects
including a unique initiative twinned with Jersey. The mission of "The
Size of Jersey" is to restore a rainforest the size of
Jersey, specifically 4 illegal palm oil concessions that have been
illegally planted within the boundary of the Leuser Ecosystem in Northern
Sumatra. By restoring what has been taken away from this vital
habitat, their work will also assist Jersey in achieving its 2030 carbon
neutrality goal. Read here
for more information.