My two week adventure, two years in the planning to the Indonesian island of Sumatra has now ended and I’ve had a wonderful trip. A real rollercoaster of a journey both physical and emotional for me. The scale of the issues in Sumatra overwhelmed me from the moment I touched down until the time I left this island. Too read about them is one thing but to be there on the ground and see them for myself is another. I’ve had unprecedented access to the wonderful and tough work SOS/OIC staff are doing out in Sumatra during my time there.
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There are only couple of charities out there doing amazing work and I am convinced that without the pressure from these people on the ground in Sumatra alot more Orangutans and forest would have vanished by now. It’s to all of them I give thanks and also Helen from SOS who has helped me to get out there and work alongside the teams. A trip I will never forget and it’s been an honor for me as a person to see these truly beautiful animals we share so much of our DNA with. I only hope the world can act and save them before its too late.
I truly love wildlife that’s why I capture their beauty with my camera. I have seen things during my time in Sumatra that have upset and angered me, and my only way to help these voiceless animals is to show the world my images depicting what’s happening out there. I trekked 20km a day, I’ve climbed the rainforest trees, I’ve slept rough and washed in rainwater to be close to these amazing animals. I wanted to capture their beauty, their spirit and help them reach a wider audience through the wonderful people that are helping to keep them alive out there and around the world. My work will give them a voice, and in turn I truly hope their voices will be heard.
I have witnessed first hand the burning of land. The day before I left Sumatra I was taken to an area of primary forest inside the national park that has been cut down and burned. A westerner like myself, with a camera at such a sensitive site, could have meant trouble for me, should I have been compromised but it was my choice and my decision to see this place so I can show what is happening. A very, very moving experience for me, I couldn’t speak as I asked the person with me to take this image of a 300 year old tree just lying on the ground, plants upside down still clinging to the tree.
It’s easy to blame the palm oil but for me the blame lays with the government there, as they don’t protect the national parks and continue to grant logging licenses. They allow the vile palm plantations to grow and increase, destroying the rainforests. Never in all my life have I seen anything like this, I was moved to tears and all I wanted to do is help and go back into the jungles to see these guys. I’ve lived and slept rough, washed with rainwater, climbed up trees on ropes to gain a level viewpoint on them, joining the Orangutans in their world on their terms. I’ve sweated in the intense heat and humidity to photograph these amazing animals.
Sumatran Orangutans are afforded the highest protection in law, these species are classified as critically endangered by the world conservation union – IUCN, yet they are still killed, kidnapped, poached and shot at, trapped and hurt each day in Sumatra. They are in the way, their home of protected park is being eroded around the edges with illegal logging each week and the Indonesian government does nothing to protect them or their homes.
Orangutans are only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Their forest homes are encircled by the illegal logging and palm oil plantations. They are killed by farmers and poachers, while their babies are kidnapped and sold on the black market to become someone’s pet or trophy. Some of the Orangutans get saved and have a second chance to return to freedom.
Unlike the other great apes such as Gorillas and Chimpanzees, Orangutans are solitary animals. They live a peaceful life, moving through the jungles looking for food which mainly consists of fruit, young leaves and seeds, sometimes insects and termites. They are arboreal species which means they rarely come down to the ground from the safety of the trees. It’s not until you see, watch and witness them that you begin to see and realise it’s like watching yourself in a mirror. Their behaviours and the enduring characters are the spitting image of us.
This is where my amazing journey begins and over the next several weeks I will show you whats happening out there through my images, and will go through the adventures I had during my time in Sumatra.
After a long flight to Madan, the capital of Sumatra, I was met by Panut the top guy on the ground and founder of OIC, who has worked in Sumatran Orangutan conservation for over a decade. He took me to the head office in Medan and I met some of the team that would be accompanying me during my time there. I received a very warm welcome and had my first taste of the humidity in those first few hours which I learned later always hovers at around 70-80%. The easiest way for me to explain just how humid it was is to go run a bath, leave the room and then after ten minutes go back and open the door and that temperature is what it’s like in Sumatra, very hot and your clothes become soaking wet within minutes.
While meeting the team and enjoying my first cup of Sumatran coffee which is something the island is famous for. I had my first glimpse on this trip of a Sumatran Orangutan. It wasn’t what I was expecting and brought me to earth with a bang. The skeleton remains of a Sumatran Orangutan, all neatly packed into a box. It had formed evidence into a case that was never proved. The remains were exhumed from a village where locals claimed it had been accidentally shot with an air rifle and had been buried five years previously. It was found by the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit ( HOCRU) during one of their field surveys. The pellet can be seen behind the left eye and as I looked at the bones I just couldn’t help but think what a shocking and undignified end to this Orangutans life.
Soon after I said my goodbyes to the team at the office, I then headed off to my first location in the foothills of the Gunung Leuser National Park. After several hours of driving we reached Darmas house. He’s an amazing naturalist that has lived his whole life in this area. His knowledge and expertise would help me see these amazing Orangutans over the next several days which Darma had planned for me. I stayed in a simple hut surrounded by his crops of rice and other produce he grew to feed his family.
I couldn’t sleep that first night, the excitement was overwhelming. Hearing different noises and strange goings on around me with the wildlife, as I unpacked and got my gear and equipment ready for the mornings trek. What seemed liked ages was only a few hours as I woke at dawn, the sun bathing the tiny hut I was sleeping in with the warmth from its rays.
I had my first view of the landscape and it was amazing. To my front I had one of the active volcanoes on the island, a small trail of smoke just filling out from its brim. To my right I had the Gunung Leuser National Park, home to around six thousand Sumatran Orangutans and covering some one million hectares of land in size. The GLNP takes its name from the towering mountain of Mount Leuser.
This park together with Bukit Barisan Selaten and Kerinci Seblat National Parks form the tropical rainforest heritage of Sumatra UNESCO World Heritage Site. These areas are a rich, complex environment with a delicately balanced network of wildlife and plant life. The GLNP is the core of many endangered species remaining habitat, including the Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sumatran Elephant and the critically endangered Sumatran Orangutans.
We headed to the park that first morning, Darma got our permit and then we were inside one of the best rainforests habitat on the planet. Our plan was to trek and find Orangutans within this massive place. We also had Osman with us too, a trained climber carrying all the ropes and other equipment needed, which SOS had hired for me to help me to climb the trees. I wanted to try and capture the Orangutans on their terms giving me a feel for the way they live and not the other way around. The photograph below is of Darma looking for Orangutans.
During those two days I did manage to climb several trees, getting level with many Orangutans within this amazing place. All the time the heat and humidity was tough and my clothes were always soaked especially my shirts, as seen in this image that Darma took of me. I was photographing my first sighting during this trip, a female called Pesek. It was worth every single ounce of sweat and graft.
I managed to get level with her and a few others with my wide angled lens to show more of this amazing primary forest that they live amongst. Ever so often she would make a sound by kissing her lips together to communicate with her baby. I managed to get a few clean images of him as the vegetation was so dense most of the time and the angle in which I was shooting up was often not enough. His name is Wati and he is the son of Pesek. I have captured him here looking down at me and who knows what he was thinking here. To watch these animals is like looking into the mirror as they are so much like us, only 4% DNA separates them from us.
A few moments after these images were taken she took her baby deeper into the rainforest and out of view. We carried on walking deeper into the heart of this breathtaking rainforest. The noise and the smells all triggering my senses as I watched for any movements. Often we’d come across some of the largest trees in the world, bursting out from the forest and pointing directly up to the sun. The size of these amazing living specimens was unbelievable.
I wanted to climb this one but we didn’t have enough rope, which was shame. In the shadow of these majestic trees there were tiny, beautifully coloured flowers. Completely dwarfed but still growing in this amazing and diverse habitat. Their patterns, shapes and colours all amazingly beautiful in their own right, some attracting other wildlife. Its such an amazing ecosystem you can see how everything fits and works alongside each other in the interest of survival.
As we carried on trekking deeper into this amazing place we came across another Sumatra Orangutan, Darma told me her name was Sumu and she’s 38. She was rescued many years ago, chained up all day as she was kept as a pet. It’s a form of status to have one of these as a pet in Sumatra. She now lives free in Gunung Lesuer National Park, and is one of the lucky ones. She trusts people again now after her shocking start in life, as time as heeled the wounds of how she was treated as a pet. She has been given a second chance through the hard working of the guys on the ground in Sumatra.
She had a baby with her and was just watching and playing with the little one. It was like watching a mum and her baby back home, so beautiful and real, I just couldn’t put it into words. I just sat down and watched the marvellous and wonderful power of a mothers bond towards their child. all played out before me. Sometimes in nature things dont need any introductions, no explanations. A cold shiver came over me as I just sat and watched something so powerful, so gentle and so caring unfold amongst one of the most special places on the planet. Capturing those moments with my camera is what wildlife photography means to me.
My first day within the Gunung Leuser National Park came to an end and the light went so quickly inside the jungle. I just sat down for a few minutes and looked through a few images as I wanted to relive what I’d seen that day. Too often with wildlife photography you capture something and then something else comes up. Giving you no real time to see and look at what you were lucky to capture.
I slowly went back to my time with the Orangutans that day, while viewing my photographs, before Darma said lets go and we ventured back to the small hut I was going to be living in during my time with him. While his wife prepared me a plate of rice, fish and other wonderful food. I had a shower with rainwater collected in a large tub, using a small cup to throw the water over you as you washed. I was exhausted and this heat and humidly had drained me on that first day trekking. We covered around 20km and with my kit weighing around 30kilos it was tough but worth every single once of sweat.
Even though the water took my breath away, as I threw it all over me, it worked and really woke me up. Twenty minutes later I was washed and brushed ready for my evening meal and fuel for the following days trekking. I soon went to bed after a lovely meal. All my gear had been cleaned, dried and prepared for the following day and with my images all backed up the morning couldn’t come quicker enough for me.
As the dawn broke we were already inside the Gunung Leuser National Park on the trail on the Orangutans. I’d been lucky so far as we hadn’t had much rain, with just dry conditions and sunshine with temperatures around 36c and the humidity around 75%. Once you enter the jungle the light almost disappears in the early morning. Amazing to see and hear the different array of bird life, insects and other wildlife calling and making their mark as the sun rose. We headed deeper and deeper into the jungle giving you a feeling that she was just swallowing you up.
The going was tough, with hilly terrain in places almost 70 degrees straight upwards to gain a vantage point in which to see and listen out for the Orangutans. They build nests each night and sometimes they are late risers so we were ideally placed for them to be waking up now as we were deep inside the jungle as the light increased with the rising sun.
We could hear and see some movement in the trees so we put up a quick rope set up, and I climbed up around 30 feet to become as level as I could with a female Sumatran Orangutan. I only managed a few images before she moved and here is one of my favourites. The primary forest can be seen in the background as she moves from one tree to another.
I’d been really lucky so far as I had seen all the Orangutans in their natural habitat. I had also visited a place in which the rangers put food out for them. This helps people who have travelled to have a better chance of seeing these amazing animals. On the second day we passed through this place and it was very touristy. Although its a good way for the park to monitor some of the rescued Orangutans who have been released back into the wild.
Alot of Sumatran Orangutans in this area have been given a second chance with many never visiting this area again, but there are some that do for the easy food on offer. They put out bananas and the Orangutans come, clean up and then vanish as quickly as they came. It helps them see if they are alright and also gives the people a chance to see what they may have travelled thousands of miles for, to see a Sumatran Orangutan. I preferred the rain forest so after a short stop at this site we then carried on trekking.
Before we left the park on that second day we had another chance encounter with Suma but this time her baby just climbed up and over the top of us and looked down at me for a few seconds. This image captured that wonderful moment when a baby Sumatran Orangutan, the future of the species, had a look at me before venturing back to mum. Those two days in the national park were magical. I’d seen our closest living relative and watched them. As the day drew to an end I had some time back at my small hut to reflect on the those days before, backing up my images and heading for my evening meal with Darma and his family.
The next day Darma took me to a place right on the edge of the national park he calls ‘the block’. It does have a proper name but to those working for the chairty out there and for the purpose of this blog and the welfair of the Orangutans I will just call it ‘the block’. Its an area of forest and rocky out crops encircled with rubber and palm oil plantations. Up until around a month ago there were 17 Sumatran Orangutans living there but recently that number has increased to 18 with the birth of a baby.
These Orangutans live in an area that’s almost cut off, apart from a few corridor of trees that have been planted by friendly farmers that have tried to look after this population since it was first found in 1974. Darma himself owns a small piece of land here and regularly plants trees to increase those corridors for the Orangutans to move around in and not become completely trapped within this small area on the fringes of the national park.
A river separates the national park and this area so the Orangutans are unable to return to the park as they hate water. He told me that most of the farmers tolerate the Orangutans and help them rather than shooting or killing them which is common practise by farmers throughout Sumatra, as Orangutans offen raid their crops, and in some cases take their livelihoods away.
During my time in this area I witnessed several Sumatran Orangutans. Each one reacted very differently to my presence. A mother and baby were very shy and hardly showed themselves as they sat in a tall fruit tree. Hear through the vegetation I managed to catch a tender moment when mum gave her baby a kiss to the head. Soon after they moved from this tree back into the safety of the block.
The second sighting was a wonderful experience as I had come across a male who was trying to romance a female Orangutan. He was calling, kissing his lips and generally trying desperately to win her approval with his show of strength and antics. I felt so lucky to even see these apes let alone be part of their courtship, or the build up as least.
The female can be seen below. Most of the time she just sat on what seemed a favourite and well worn tree of hers.
The male tried in vain to come close on a number of occasions, showing outwardly displays of affection towards her with kisses and tender touches. I switched to video mode on my camera and made a few short films of this amazing behaviour that will form part of my future presentations on these amazing and enduring creatures. It is truly like watching ourselves when you spend time with these beautiful animals.
My last sighting on that day was of a female Sumatran Orangutan with a baby hidden beneath her arms. She paused here for a split second having seen me, I sensed her unease at my presence. It wasn’t until I
looked through the viewfinder that I could see she only had one eye. As I took a couple of photos I was saying to myself “you’re alright I’m not going to hurt you”, silly I know but I could see that she was jumpy as I had caught her out here. She was scared, fearful of another attack maybe. My long lens could of also looked like a long gun which added to her nervousness.
She moved soon after, disappearing back into the rocky part of this area where they are safe for the moment. Once I reviewed the image I showed it to the vet and he told me it’s probably through being shot, he then saw another pellet under her right eye, embedded into her skin, which confirmed she had lost her eye through being shot, probably by a farmer who had taken the land she once lived and hunted in.
I just sat and zoomed in, and this image for me sums up just how these amazing and enduring animals are treated by those that see them as a problem or a pest in Sumatra. How we as humans can do this to another living creature is beyond comprehension for me. As that third and final day drew to an end I was full of emotion, angered at how these animals are viewed and treated. I just couldn’t believe that they are truly on the verge of complete extinction at the hands of man.
As I spent that last night with Darma and his family I couldn’t help but relive some of the images I’d seen over the wonderful time that I’d spent with this man, in one of the most beautiful and diverse habitats anywhere in the world. I was being picked up in the morning by a member of the team to be taken to another place to see and photograph the project first hand. As dawn broke I was up and after that last three mornings of routine I had a bit of a lie in that day, to recharge the batteries and pack ready for the long drive.
I said my goodbyes and told Darma I’d be seeing him again next year as his knowledge and passion for the Orangutans is infectious. On the way to my next destination my driver received a call and our plans had changed. We headed north to the Aceh province of Sumatra. A female Sumatran Orangutan was trapped and encircled by palm oil and the plan was to rescue her and her baby and release them back into the National Park. What happened over those next two days really moved me, this next part of my trip will be covered in my second blog and some of the images are very moving and brought me to tears.
My first week had been an amazing adventure, all of my Sumatran Orangutan images wouldn’t have been possible without Darma, his knowledge and his understanding of these great apes was just amazing. I’d like to thank him and his family for looking after me. I raised the money for my own flights for this trip and other costs and I’m already saving for my return next year as I have made a firm long term commitment to these Orangutans and SOS, the charity that I’m helping and supporting with my work. I want to try and help to highlight what is going on out there with my images and talks. To show the world what we might lose if current trends of de-forestation carry on.
There are a number of talks coming up towards the end of October – Spotlight Sumatra. I will be presenting a number of presentations and talks alongside Panut who I had the pleasure of spending time with in Sumatra. He has worked in Orangutan Conservation for over a decade and has a dedicated team in Sumatra all doing their best for this great ape. For more details of these talks then please click here. I will doing one on Thursday 25th October at the Natural History Museum in London as part of their Nature Live talks. You can see this by clicking here.
Then on Friday 26th October starting at 7pm I will be at Chester Zoo, Russell Allan Lecture Theatre doing my presentation along with the team from SOS/OIC. The zoo has an amazing record of success with Sumatran animals and does alot of great work for the Orangutans. If you have time then please come along to one of these or the other talks we have planned many thanks.