The new oil rush that is killing Sumatra’s orangutans

There used to be 2,000 orangutans living in the forests of western Sumatra. Today there are just 200. The great apes have been burnt out to make way for vast plantations of oil palms, reports Gethin Chamberlain from Blangpidie.

Smoke rises from the remnants of the Tripa swamp forest in Aceh, Sumatra. Clearing of the forest to make way for palm-oil plantations is endangering wildlife. Photo by Gethin Chamberlain
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It’s the smoke that you see and smell first, drifting over the shattered landscape, backlit by the rising sun.

But as light spills into the world over what should be lush swamp forest, the eye falls on the source of the smoke and a scene of utter devastation.

The skeletal remains of a few of the trees that made up the once-dense forest are outlined starkly against the bright horizon. The rest lie smashed on the ground, the smoke rising from the peat.

It looks like a battlefield and in some ways that is exactly what it is: the front line of a war between the palm-oil industry and nature.

The trees are the most obvious casualty, but they are not the only one. The wildlife that relies on the forest, in particular the increasingly rare Sumatran orangutan, is in desperate trouble as the plantations advance across the land.

Two decades ago, the Tripa swamp forest, part of the Leuser Ecosystem, stretched over 60,000 square hectares of Aceh, at the western end of the Indonesian ­island.

Then the palm-oil companies moved in. They started to tear out the forest and replace it with their uniform rows of oil palms, which bears fruit that is so popular with manufacturers of cosmetics and processed foods.

Destroying a peat swamp requires some effort. Roads have to be built into the concession, then wide canals dug to criss-cross the area and drain away the water. As the forest dries out, it dies. Then it’s torched. Finally, the bulldozers move in to rip out the stumps to make way for the palms.

So efficient have the plantation companies been that today just 10,000 hectares of forest remain. The Indonesian courts have banned fresh felling, but in existing concessions, the carnage ­continues.

The loss of the forest is, in itself, an ecological catastrophe for Indonesia and the wider world, not least because the peat, more than three metres deep in many places, is a carbon trap.

But for the orangutans who lived there, its loss has been an unmitigated disaster. In 1990, there were an estimated 2,000 of the great apes in the forest; today there are no more than 200. Local villagers recall that the apes were part of daily life, swinging through the trees oblivious to the humans beneath them, helping to spread fruit seeds across the forest, playing an important part in maintaining the balance of plants.

But once the burning started, the orangutan population was devastated. Individual apes would find themselves cut off from the main forest as the trees were torn down around them. This is what happened to Gokong Puntung and his mother in the Suak Puntung area of the Tripa forest in January this year.

The little ape, named after the Chinese monkey god, was rescued in February by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) from a chicken cage in the yard of a palm-oil ­worker.

Piecing together what happened, they discovered that a group of fishermen had spotted the mother and baby trapped in a single tree and unable to reach the rest of the forest without descending to the ground.

The men apparently decided to try to grab the baby in the hope of selling it. One climbed the tree, forcing the mother to fall to the ground, where another man beat her with a length of timber. In the confusion, mother and baby became separated and the fishermen were able to get away. They sold the baby for about Dh35 to the local plantation worker.

“We got information from local people who heard an orangutan crying in one house,” says the SOCP vet Yenny Saraswati. “They went in the house and found the baby orangutan in a chicken cage. The owner said he had bought it from people who had taken it from the plantation.”

It was an unusual case: more often, the mother fights to the death to defend her young.

“They are very good mothers – better than humans,” she says. “A lot of human mothers don’t care for their babies, but I never saw an orangutan mother [voluntarily] leave her baby. They always hug them and don’t let them cry.”

That’s why poachers tend to kill the mothers, says Anto, a local orangutan expert. “They hit it with sticks. One person uses a forked stick to hold its head and the others hit it and beat it to death. But the young orangutans they sell.”

Orangutans share much of their DNA with humans – about 98 per cent – and have the ability to learn.

Those that the SOCP rescues are taken to its quarantine centre outside the town of Medan, where they are kept before being released back into the wild, to ensure that they will not pass on diseases to the rest of the wild population.

Saraswati has a full operating theatre there, where she can treat anything from fractures to cataracts. Since 2002, the centre has handled hundreds of orangutans and it’s currently home to 46 of the apes.

It stretches up into the jungle, a series of large cages in which the orangutans are kept. One contains apes considered unsuitable for release, including a mother and her three-year-old twins. She had cataracts, and although staff have now operated on her, they are still trying to assess how well she can see before deciding whether it is safe to release her. Her mate, the father of the twins, is also blind after he was shot in the eyes by poachers.

In the wild, orangutans will try to avoid humans. Here, in the sanctuary of the quarantine centre, they are dependent on their human hosts for survival.

Gokong Puntung is fed milk by his keeper from a baby’s bottle. The little ape is still trying to come to terms with the complexities of life as an orangutan. The keeper places him in a small tree, encouraging him to climb, but his grip is not yet strong enough and he slides to the ground.

One day, his rescuers hope that they will be able to release him back into the wild. If not, the group is also working on an island sanctuary for its more difficult ­residents.

Environmental campaigners claim that the complex nature of the palm-oil supply chain makes it uniquely difficult for companies to ensure that the oil that they use has been produced ethically and sustainably.

In October, a Greenpeace report into Sumatran palm-oil production accused Colgate-Palmolive, Procter and Gamble and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft) of using “dirty” palm oil. The group called on the brands to recognise the environmental cost of “irresponsible palm-oil ­production”.

“One of the big issues is that we simply don’t know where the palm oil used in products on supermarket shelves comes from. It may well be that the palm oil in products on the shelves came from Tripa,” says Graham Usher, from SOCP.

On the road down towards Tripa, there’s a steady flow of lorries loaded with palm fruits, heading for the processing plant not far from the town of Meulaboh.

The whole area appears to have been given over to palm-oil plantations; some long-established, large, six-to-eight-metre trees in regimented rows, others clearly recently planted. Every now and again there is a digger, driving a new road into what little forest remains, the first stage of a process that will end with the forest burnt and gone and replaced with young oil palms.

“Tripa was known as heaven for orangutans,” says Agung, an SOCP worker. “It was the most dense habitat for them.”

“But the government gave the permits to destroy the forest. People are poor. They don’t know the importance of orangutans. They are only worried about their daily wage.”

Indonesian law is supposed to protect areas of forest where the peat is deeper than three metres, but in practice many plantations do not measure the depth.

“They shouldn’t be developing it, but the power of commerce and capital subverts all legislation in this country. There is no law enforcement or rule of law,” says Usher.

Anto says that Tripa was perfect orangutan territory, a lowland forest that is rich in fruit.

“But now the companies come with heavy equipment, 60 excavators at a time, and they use them to create the canals to drain the water from the swamp and then the trees die and then they cut the tree and burn the stumps and use bulldozers to remove the rest. Then they plant the oil palms.”

It takes three years for the plants to start producing.

“It is opening up and fragmenting the forest and isolating the orangutans. Then people are poaching the orangutans because it is easy to catch them. People isolate them in a tree and then they cut the tree or they make the orangutan so afraid that it climbs down and is caught. After that they can kill it and sometimes eat it. Or they can trade it.

“If there is no government effort to protect the remaining area, we will never know the orangutans here again,” says Anto. “If this continues they will be gone within 10 years.”

Gethin Chamberlain is a photo-journalist based in South India.