I have just returned for a two week trip to the amazing island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Its my second trip there in as many years and I had the privilege of working alongside and shadowing the work of the Sumatran Orangutan Conversation Program – SOCP. This charity that helps Sumatran Orangutans and their rainforest homes was set up by Dr Ian Singleton originally from the UK in 1999. Their vision is to prevent the extinction of the Sumatran Orangutan and safeguard their habitat.
After a journey of over 10,000 kilometers I landed in Medan and straight away that heat hit me, you never forget the heat and humility in Sumatra. After waiting for my bag I was picked up by SOCP‘s driver and driven to their office in downtown Medan.
A busy place far removed from the jungles there. I met all the team from Ian downwards and had my first Sumatran coffee. Its the best in the world I believe and I love coffee. After going through my timetable for the first time I headed to the mess building just around the corner and settled in to rest for a couple of days and in readiness for my trip which was to begin on the Monday with an internal flight to Banda Aceh, the most northern tip of Sumatra.
After a pleasant flight we were picked up at the airport and we drove north stopping off for some lunch. We were heading to a place called Jantho, a beautiful wildness in Aceh saved from the palm oil and logging companies and now a heaven for a very successful reintroduction programme by SOCP. The place can only be reached by off road vehicles so the last bit of the trip was done on these massive wheel-based jeeps of testing terrain. Lucky for us Sumatra hadnt had much rain in the last 3 months, their driest on record another sign if it were needed to the continuing changing patterns to the weather and environment through globe warming.
The site is a protected area of exceptionally rich lowland forest, with an unusual high density of fig trees, one of the orangutan’s staple foods. There is also a river which is at the foot of the forest, which can be crossed by people, but cannot be crossed by orangutans making it an natural barrier. Its a reintroduction site for SOCP’s rescued Orangutans taken from their lives as pets or trophies by locals. Once in quarantine they are given a full health check and looked after and monitored before they come to Jantho. There they are given further monitoring before that gate opens and they taste freedom for the very first time in the forests there.
Once we arrived there we settled in and unpacked and met the dedicated team that all work to help those critically endangered Sumatran Orangutans live out the rest of their lives in a safe environment. Jantho was to be my home for the next three days, I wanted to find and photograph the wild Sumatran Orangutans that live there too along with those released from their torment for the very first time. I quickly unpacked and chose to sleep outside, the river in the background and the noise of the forest all around me.
There are a series of small huts there, with a generator that comes on for a few hours in the evening, The place is right in the middle of one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in. It truly blew my away with its beauty. We had two nice ladies that did the cooking, they must have thought I’m mad not liking chill as Indonesian people have chill with everything. So I just asked for simpleness please, eggs, rice, fish all plain and they looked after my food needs very well.
That first night I didn’t really sleep, new noises, new smells, new places, new stuff always keep me awake. I could wait to get amongst it as I say. I found out what time sunrise was and I was detailed who I would be going out with. The researchers, trackers go out everyday to find, watch and monitor the orangutans there. I met my guides and got my gear ready before the generator turned off at 10pm sharp. I was laying in my make shift bed listening to the river in the background and hearing every noise it was amazing, I couldn’t sleep a mixture of emotions, what was ahead and so on. I got up way before my 5 am alarm, I think it was 4am, the ladies get up early too to prepare your breakfasts and packed lunches to take out for the day.
I couldn’t speak a word of Indonesian but the word. ” Coffee” is universally spoke and understood I feel. Aceh coffee is the best in the world trust me, its from the province of Aceh in Northern Sumatra. I had a few cups that first morning, grabbed some eggs and rice and I was packed ready, bursting with energy in readiness for what awaited me. Even though I was there to capture photographs that will help SOCP in many ways I never have any per-conserved images in my head. I take what I see and work with what I have this approach never puts pressure on myself and more often or not works for me.
With a thumbs up to my guides, we were off to the tiny boat to firstly cross the river the moon lighting our way. I had trackers and researchers with me. As I got into the boat, heavy mist covered the river and I had to go alone due to the size and weight of myself and camera gear on my back. In total darkness the boat slowly crossed the river its was amazing as I hung onto the sides of the boat for dear life. Once we got to the other end anything could turn up so I was ready.
I went last in the line of trackers as I always like to be the guy at the end of the line. I had around an hour or so before first light and in darkness I cannot explain unless you have been in a dense rainforest we climbed up, vertically for an hour. Head torches lighting our way, the noises and sounds of the jungle all around me. The going was tough, grabbing tree roots to pull myself up as we tired to reach the top of this ridge in time for the dawn.
Once we reached the top, my legs returned back to their normal state and weren’t burning intensely as they were with a one hour climb. The path ahead was flat and I soon noticed we were almost level with the tops of the massive trees there. Soon the trackers had found a nest and there was a female sleeping inside. I slowly took my camera bag off and got my kit ready working with two camera systems with two different focal lengths.
I sat down and the sun lit the place up as the female climbed out of her nest, the morning mist hanging heavy in the air it was a wonderful and very moving experience to watch and see her. The rays of light penetrating the dense jungle canopy where I under-exposed a lot to give me this amazing effect of light and her shape.
To watch a wild Sumatran Orangutan wake up, come from her nest and have the sun shining on her through the dense jungle canopy has to be the most special moment I have ever had the privilege of seeing while among nature, it truly does. For the next 20 minutes or so I watched her feed, drink the water from the leaves before disappearing into the dense jungle. These images capture that moment that I was so lucky to see on that first morning in Jantho.
Once she had gone, I sat down and reviewed some of the images on the back of the camera and I had manged to capture some wonderful moment showing how the light fell. Once the guys were ready we headed off deeper into the jungle in search of further Sumatran Orangutans. Sadly apart from a few Orangutans around the release cages my luck on that first day didn’t continue and we didn’t get close to another wild Sumatran Orangutan that day but I was so happy what I had witnessed in the morning I think I was still high on the moment if I’m honest.
When headed back to camp in the last rays of light, crossing the river once more to reach our camp and our evening meal made for us by the two ladies that live there and do all the cooking in very limited conditions.
That first day was amazing and just as the day was coming to an end and I was off for a shower then bed I saw one of the staff bring in a young female Sumatran Orangutan that had come from the forest and just collapsed. The vets and dedicated staff there worked hard to help her. At first I watched them from a safe distance without my camera, letting them do their magic with drips, blood and other checks they were doing. I went and got my camera and just sat outside this room and watched, routing for the orangutan to pull through.
All the time in the background I could here the steady bleep of the heart rate monitor indicating life and a pulse. It was a truly haunting sound, breaking the still of the night. My heart almost kept up with it as I desperately willed her to fight, fight I was saying inside and live as I watched taking photos of a very private and moving moment. I feel these images though need to be shown to show the passion, love and sheer dedication to keep every single Sumatran Orangutan alive there. I had a massive amount of respect for the vet and the staff, respect is earned, not something you give or buy, having never met these fine people before they had my respect straight away as they fought so tirelessly to save this young female.
On a day that had given me a rare moment in wonderful light it now offered me a sight I wished Id never seen as it was harrowing to watch this young Orangutan hang on and fight for life. Its hard not to be angry to, witnessing such things as humans, their vile role in the destruction of Sumatra are to blame for this apes suffering and the countless others that have gone before her and after. The constant bleep of her heart ringing out in the silence of the night, troubled me, haunting as if you looked away the noise could still be heard, I couldn’t escape it the more I tired the louder it got. The vet, a wonderful lady soon had things under control and they closed the door of this makeshift theater and turned out the light so the little one could sleep.
I took those images to bed with my that night, they canceled out those in the morning I was so excited to see. Welcome to Sumatra Craig I said to myself as this is the front line in helping these critically endangered great apes. I didn’t sleep well that first night as the mosquito’s rained down on me I just didn’t sleep thinking of that harrowing scene and for a few moments I hated mankind and wanted to do something but I couldn’t. I found out in the morning she had made it through and had been transferred to SOCP’s quarantine in Medan. I was to visit there the following week so I was keen to see her fingers crossed.
The following morning we were up early and I was going to explore Jantho so more and see some of the work they do there reintroducing those orangutans that have had a shocking life so far back into the wild. Once the Sumatran Orangutans have spent time in quarantine they are moved to one of SOCP’s release sites.
Here they are put into cages for a number of weeks where they are watched and monitored. contact is minimal so the Orangutans never come into contact again once released into the wild. Many have stories so bad you couldn’t even imagine in your worst nightmares, the following images are of those almost ready for release and testament to the love, care and handwork of the SOCP staff at Jantho. All the Orangutans there have had shocking starts in life, a world you couldn’t even imagine, the remains of that start still bare fruit in their eyes I felt as I sat and watched and photographed them all.
Its a long long road back to the wild for the Sumatran Orangutans without their mums but from what I saw every single person involved from the top to the bottom has a passion to return these great apes to their natural homes and this is very enduring to witness. Once released the trackers and researchers monitor them for as long as they can to just make sure they are doing ok. No contact nothing like that and in time they go off and find their own place within the magical place that is Jantho.
On my last day in the amazing Jantho I went for a walk with one of the forest rangers that accompany you here. We walked through rivers, through the rainforest and it was amazing to see the different species that live here just a spectacular place.
I was truly sad to leave Jantho, in three days I feel I’d only just scratched the surface of the place and its wildlife, my guides tell me there are Sumatran Tigers there two. I have to go back, I just have too for weeks perhaps next time.
As we left Jantho the sun started to set. A head of us was around an 8 hour maybe more drive to Tripa to try and photograph the burning of the forests there but it was going to be hard to get into through security etc. But we all got our heads down in the car as we drove south.
As the night passed and we where in sight of Trip and the amazing Leuser Ecosystem the sun was just started to rise, filling the air with the most wonderful colours that I have ever witnessed . This place is one of the few remaining in Sumatra and is under grave danger of being flattered and there are many campaigns to save it.
As we approached nearer the sun was coming up and I could see so many images in my head. we stopped the car many times but the area is very sensitive and a tall, westerner with a camera is not welcome in these parts so I took a few images and then the blacked out windows had to stay up as we entered the blacked-mailed area in which Tripa is. Most of the population there have been brought off and are involved in someway with the palm oil industry. There are many spies and people that will inform the companies of your presence so it was like working behind enemy lines it wasn’t nice to see the hold these massive companies has on this area in order to control it and its forest for their own gain.
The beauty of Jantho was soon replaced by an aggressive feel in the air, I could feel my own anger already building as I sat in the car and drove to meet our contacts there. I was told it wasn’t certain if we could even get into Tripa such was the tight security after the worlds press and many campaigns had highlighted the vileness that’s happening there. The news came back to us that three days of rain had put out most of the new fires so any images of burning wouldn’t be possible.
Once we met our contacts on bikes they drove us past lots of checks and onto a part of the Tripa swamp forest that had been set alight three days earlier but the rain had given the area a small reprieve. I have had experience in the past in Sumatra of visiting the wastelands killed by the mindless greed, local people doing the large companies dirty work for a few dollars. Once we arrived and got out the vast waste land of Tripa greeted me. Its hard to put into words as I walked among the burned remains of a once proud and beautiful rainforest. The following images I hope convey my thoughts at the time of seeing this shocking, truly shocking site.
After the beauty of Jantho it was really upsetting and greatly moving to be walking among where once stood some of the worlds finest rainforest. The earth still warm beneath my feet as though I had gatecrashed at illegal party I had no invite too. While the world debates whats happening here I was standing on land that 3 days ago was burning the only saving grace was the rains. Three days of rain had put out all the fires almost a last shout for help to the world before the whole area was to be burnt. As we were there a guy drove up on a motorbike and through our translator he’d said to move as the whole area was to be fired later.
A few pockets of green life had hung on, escaping the first wave of fire. As I knelt down I saw a splash of red..” no way it cant be..?” I said, it was, a lone Ladybird among the burnt reminds of its home. I love Ladybirds, their colours and markings are just beautiful and here among this tattered wasteland one had hung onto life. A last stance against those destroying this place, as I took this image I should have put in in my pocket and took him with me to release into a better environment but I didn’t. I hope he used his wings to escape the coming fires I thought and walked away.
Words, memories and my photographs are all I can use to describe this scene from hell, this is happening at such an alarming rate there will be nothing left soon. When its too late for those in power to be stopped. Without the handful and I mean handful of dedicated charities on the ground fighting a massive war, often at times putting themselves at risk if they don’t play ball with the government. two steps forward four back. The last remaining pockets of rainforest are in the hands of people being pulled in all directions with the common aim to bleed the riches of the land, make their money then retire leaving Sumatra. The whole are is releasing so much greenhouse gases, heat and population into the air at such an alarming rate that now we have so called experts telling us what we all knew all along. That the earth is warming, the seas are getting warmer and the world is under attack from what we are doing in a nutshell.
As I stood on the fresh burnt land, birds sung in a last act of defiance, with nowhere to go, nowhere to nest it was greatly upsetting to here their song at what should be a beautiful moment when you hear birdsong. There was nothing for those birds, their calls weren’t returned by their would be mates, they’d moved on to a better place leaving those males stuck there singing for a mate in a soleless territory. heartbreaking. This was a crime scene I stood among, soleless, completely soleless and to here a local say you better move I wanted to stay and say move me, I wanted to protect what still stood but silly I no. All sorts of emotions go through your mind those working in this hell must get use to it a little. Those that visit like me are moved behold words. I wanted somewhere to sit and take it all in but we had to move on. We were lucky not to have been moved on already such is the paranoia of the firms and locals that work for them.
We left Tripa, and I sat in the car, undid my window and took a last look back at what would be gone in 24 hours, that feeling of helplessness stayed with me throughout the trip as the person I am I try to do all I can. To have no choice, to be able to nothing is a feeling I dislike. Sumatra is a place full of beauty and the local people are very kind but it has a side that grinds you down once you see the total destruction of the place around you.
I cannot cover my whole trip in one blog , so there will be two more where I will cover my second week in Suaq Balimbing, a peat swamp area and then my time in quarantine. A place where the Orangutans learn to heel their hurt with love, care and dedication from the staff there. It was a very moving place for me, full of stories of abuse and hurt you couldn’t even make up, but those Orangutans are the lucky one. 50 babies are there, meaning 50 mothers were killed by those that took their babies. A sentence I have trouble getting out let alone understanding. I will pay my own respects to those mothers and babies in my future blog posts and slideshows that I have planned.
I would like to thank Dr Ian Singleton, the head of SOCP for inviting me over, thank you to all his staff for looking after me during my time there and on a personal note I was very proud to be alongside you all, seeing the incredible work they do to save this critically endangered Sumatran Orangutan and their forest home which is also home to Tigers, Elephants, Rhinos all hanging onto dear life. They are fighting at this very moment to save large areas of the Tripa swamp lands that form part of the Leuser Ecosystem. To help the ongoing fight then click here to sign their petition.
I hope my images, my work and what I will show will help you guys in turn the Sumatran Orangutans many thanks.