I have just returned from the remote,Indonesian island of Sumatra. It was great to be back some twelve months on from my last visit. I was shadowing the rescue team -HOCRU from the Orangutan Information Centre- OIC. during the two weeks there. The last time I worked with these guys was just before the Spotlight Sumatra exhibition in London, which was an amazing success.
As soon as I arrived in Medan the capital of Sumatra I was picked up by Panut and we headed over to the HQ of OIC. We went through a very loose plan for my trip because nothing is promised or can be planned with regard to the rescues of Sumatran Orangutans that find themselves cut off, surrounded on all sides with conflict palm oil. This rescue team was set up by Panut as a direct response to these conditions these crucially endangered orangutans face on Sumatra each and everyday.
With the preparation, travelling and release there is alot of time involved with each rescue so during the two weeks I rarely had any free time. My aim by shadowing these guys is to show the world what they do and how etc. This is the only rescue team on the island of Sumatra, something when I say it still surprises me because the scale of the problems in Sumatra with Sumatran Orangutans are massive.
After spending the night travelling we reached the house in which we were to spend the night ready for the following morning when we were to meet with the forest police force and then go and rescue this orangutan. OIC has a network of local people that help them, and they also put the team up whenever they can, looking after them.
On the morning of the raid we were up early, I dont sleep well when Im getting ready for something so I was up way before the rescue team from Orangutan Information Centre. We had some breakfast, a team talk from the director of OIC- Panut and we set off. All I knew was a young Sumatran Orangutan was being held as a pet and that we could gain access into the courtyard at a certain time and with the help of the local/forest department police we would rescue her.
On the way I got my cameras ready, settings and lens chosen, once we arrived we parked up we entered the small courtyard and to my left I saw a tiny cage with a Sumatran Orangutan slumped on the floor. The smell of urine was really bad as this tiny head lifted up and made eye contact with us. In the background I saw the owner come a man around 45-50 average build and he was talking to the police and team as I lay level with her and spoke to her. She was banging her body into the cage, perhaps excited there were new people in the yard. I’d like to think for those brief moments she came alive and was happy as I was saying “you’re okay now you will be free in a minute so relax”.
Then the tone and tempo changed and the man was standing in front of me talking loudly in Indonesian and waving his arm with a pointed finger. I ignored him and carried on taking images of the young female.Then I heard ” Craig… we have to go he wants us to leave” I was puzzled and said very little. Once back in the car I was told the police got scared, didnt want to take the orangutan or apply the “Law” that they have the power to do. The man holding the Orangutan told them he was an ex-Aceh rebel and was part of the mafia in that area and that if the orangutan was taken we would all disappear.
A common problem I have come across in Sumatra, fear, intimidation, corruption, bribes, money and a total lack of willingness to apply the rules the world have applied to these critically endangered animals. OIC dont have the powers of arrest, they depend on the police to help them and have to pay them for their time, petrol and any other costs. Those we met on that morning came in civilian dress, weren’t wearing their uniform and had little interest in their work or helping the orangutan. Soon after they dropped their invoice off to Paunt though for prompt payment.
The helpless task of saving Sumatran orangutans is made so much harder by the corruption there and to this day I am told this female is still being held illegally. She was estimated to be 6 years old and the children there told the team they had had her a number of years. This tiny small cage has been home for years and it was very troubling and upsetting to see. Efforts to gain her freedom continue, these images show just what a tough and emotional job these guys have and even when everything is on their side things still don’t go their way.
I’d like to think for a few moments her life changed as we were there, she woke, took food from Paunt and begin moving around her tiny cage. Leaving her behind troubles me to this day. This was as close to the frontline as you can get , in the yard of a mafia mans home seeing the results of the illegal pet trade close up for myself. The following images visualize what we saw on that morning I hope, and are dedicated to that Sumatran Orangutan.
We then headed back to the locals house to eat and rest for the next day as the plan was to locate the female and her baby and fingers crossed rescue her. Again we woke early, got our gear together and set off for the area in which the reports had come into the team of her presence. A number of locals were helping to locate her so when we arrived the team knew roughly the area. I watched as Ricko the vet and the rest of the team put into practice a well drilled operation they have gone through many times.It was then just a matter then of waiting, watching, listening and fingers crossed we’d find her.
The shout came back and I followed Ricko the vet, walking through the fragmented forest, we came across several trees and it was then I first saw her. The marksman had already darted her and soon after she fell into the large net held out and open below her by the whole of the HOCRO team as well as some locals. In a matter of minutes I heard a loud crash and she and the baby fell from the trees and landed safely into the net. The team took her to a safe area so they could do their vital checks.
When you see these beautiful animals up close you are always struck by their size and colour. It is amazing to be so close to one and I remember my first rescue with this team back in September 2012. Once in a safe place the baby was taken from the mum in order for the check to be carried out. A member of the team got the baby and walked off very carefully so as not to stress the baby any further. Then the vet, Ricko checked the female, inserted a microchip, checked for any injuries, state of heath and so on.
Once this was done the team carried her to the rescue truck and reunited mother and baby as they placed them both in the cage that was to take them to a safer part of the national park and a second chance of life. We then drove an hour or so to the release site where we had to cross,shoulder deep a river to reach the safe part of the national park.
It was great to witness all this and the end result once the team lifted the door of the cage and slowly she came out along with her baby and climbed the first tree she saw. Just wonderful to witness and see and it was a great day for the team and these two Sumatran Orangutans. We then crossed the river once more which I must say was so refreshing as the temperatures in Sumatra at this time of year is a blistering 36-38 degrees and the humidity levels are very high so you’re always wet anyway.
Once back to our base in Aceh we washed off and relaxed for a while before the 10-12 hour drive south back to the HQ of OIC in Medan. The driving and planning like I say often takes many hours if not days so even though a rescue itself is short its the before, after and traveling that makes the hours flyby.
Once we got back to the headquarters of OIC in Medan a long 12 hour drive the HOCRU team cleaned and packed away the kit and headed home. Some had been away from their families for nearly ten days so everyone was looking forward to the rest and time with loved ones. I cleaned all my camera equipment and charged batteries and backed up my images and did some editing of the rescue images to send back to the UK for SOS- Sumatran Orangutan Society. That night I slept at Panuts house and met his lovely family, wife, and two young children, one boy and one girl. The following day I woke and had breakfast and then headed to the office with Panut and carried on doing some editing to get the images back to Helen, the director of SOS. The news was breaking back in the UK and many sites carried the story and images – EIA- SOS.
That afternoon though everything changed, the team had a call to let them know a male Sumatran Orangutan had become trapped in land just outside a palm oil plantation. After several calls the team were called in from their homes and we all gathered our gear and headed north once more to the province of Aceh. All we knew again was their was a male there that had wandered into land where locals were working and they had become scared.
OIC has posters up all around this area and with the help of locals they ring and alert them should a Sumatran Orangutan come into conflict with humans or became trapped and this was a perfect example of that once more. I had been in the country less than a week and already we were on our way to our second rescue it was unbelievable and quite sad that the Sumatran Orangutans are in such danger because for every one that gets rescued there must be many more that don’t and end up being killed or sold into the pet trade which really saddened me.
We reached there quite late, with around a couple of hours light left. The team went into their well drilled routine and off they went to try and locate this male. After a while we caught a brief sighting of him, a hand then he vanished. He seemed to know how to hide and the sun set that night as he gave us the slip. The search was called off as dusk fell, we stayed in a nearby plantation which were helping the rescue team. They made us welcome and cooked some food for us which was a welcome break as with the travelling and searching not many of us had eaten. We then got our heads down and looked forward to the morning.
Before first light we were all up and in place, the team were searching and watching for any tell tale signs of movement. After searching for two hours, they found him, I was on the top of the valley looking down as the team went in. Not long after they had darted him and then began the long walk to the top carrying him in the net with the locals and people from the nearby plantation helping to carry this massive male to where the vet could check him.
The male Sumatran Orangutan is the most beautiful of all the great apes. With privileged access I wanted to try to reflect that beauty within an image. After the team had done all checks on him, I was given the nod by Ricko the vet and I took this very personal image again with my macro lens. Being so close at times felt surreal, 5-6 times stronger than man, this male whose age was around 35 was in his prime and very handsome. He wouldn’t have woken up from the tranquilizer given to him at the point of rescue but still being this close to such a massive and powerful ape made my heart beat so fast. His facial hairs I love and are one of the key characteristics Sumatran Orangutans have from their Borneo Orangutan cousins. The following images take you through that days events.
These are the HOCRU team and some of the helpers from the plantation and locals that helped to carry this massive male pictured above. Once he was safety in the cage we loaded up the truck and headed some distance away to the national park to release this beautiful male back into the rainforests where he belongs. When the gate on the cage is pulled up I’m always nervous as to how the Orangutan will come out, they always climb the nearest tree and vanish. This was no different, so amazing to see and witness though and this image below captures that wonderful moment.
As we headed back to Medan from Aceh the team were over the moon and so was I. We drove through the night to get back and once home everyone was so tired. The rescue team were given a few days off by Panut and headed home. I backed up my images and headed to bed also. In just over a week on the island of Sumatra I had witnessed three Sumatran Orangutans rescued and relocated and it was amazing to see and witness. As I closed my eyes that night I hoped they were all doing well back in the wild.
My itinerary gave me some time to edit and get the images ready for OIC/SOS over the next day or so and I had time to sleep and get some much needed rest. While you travel around Sumatra it’s hard to escape the vast palm oil plantations that cover most of Sumatra now and also the deforestation that litter the landscape of Sumatra. The following words and images reflect how I saw this and how I felt driving through these soulless places.
“THE BIRDS DONT SING ANYMORE” by craig jones
Soulless, a lifeless landscape of palm oil forests. The sun still rises in the East, each day it tries desperately to bring life to the spot where once some of the worlds finest rainforest stood. But nothing grows, nothing lives apart from alien palm oil trees
Nature wont forgive, a defiant act, its last stand against those that came without warning ripping every bit of life out in such a brutal manner, killing everything that lived there.
Nature wont allow the same to happen again
Over the next few days the plan was to visit Medan Zoo for a mission that I hope will end happily for a certain animals while I photographed some of the conditions the animals live in there. After that I headed to see my friend Darma a guide for the forest who I hadn’t seen since September 2012 when I spent several days trekking wild Sumatran Orangutans. I spent some time in the jungles with him again and some much needed peace and beauty after the last week or so. Then I spent time with the HOCRU team in the field once more, after which I spent a wonderful day with the Sumatran Elephants before doing some undercover work and photography. All of this will be covered in my next blog.
I hope you have enjoyed this first blog and if you’d like to donate to this rescue team, the only one of its kind on the island of Sumatra then please see this link many thanks.