Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra

by Sumatran Orangutan Society
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Orangutan Rescue: On the frontline in Sumatra
Pongky in the cage at the police officer's house
Pongky in the cage at the police officer's house

We are delighted to be able to announce that earlier this month, after more than 2 years of campaigning, Pongky the Sumatran orangutan has finally been granted a second chance at freedom!

Pongky's Story

The first we knew of Pongky was when OIC, our partners in Sumatra, found him being kept illegally by a high ranking police official - a ‘Police Grand Commissioner Adjutant' - in Aceh province, Sumatra, in July 2013. We do not know how he came to be there, but from our knowledge of the illegal pet trade it's pretty much certain he was born in the wild and taken from his mother as an infant. She would almost undoubtedly have been killed during his capture.

When Pongky was first discovered he was locked in a small cage with no access to open space, very limited room to move, and only a single rope, on which he swung back and forth obsessively - a common stress and boredom induced behaviour.

The first attempt to rescue Pongky was led by specialist staff of the OIC, who confronted the police commissioner, explained that keeping an orangutan was illegal and that Pongky should immediately be surrendered. The commissioner refused this first approach, however, and the matter subsequently had to be taken up by the Government's conservation authorities. A few weeks later, the Natural Resources Conservation Authority in Aceh Province (BKSDA-Aceh) confiscated Pongky.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the capture, killing, keeping, transporting and trade in orangutans is illegal in Indonesia (National Law No 5/1990), no case was brought against the police commissioner for keeping Pongky illegally, sadly missing an important opportunity to apply the full force of the national law.

Furthermore, according to Indonesia's National Strategy and Action Plan for Orangutan Conservation 2007-2017, "any orangutans confiscated from the illegal pet trade should enter a rehabilitation programme and be returned to the wild". Pongky, however, was taken to Medan Zoo instead.

He had simply swapped one life behind bars for another.

The Campaign for Pongky

It was at this point, in August 2013, that we began campaigning for Pongky's freedom. The public response was staggering, with almost 10,000 emails sent to the head of BKSDA Aceh and the Director General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA) in Jakarta, urging them to transfer Pongky to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme's (SOCP) specialist ‘Batu Mbelin Orangutan Quarantine Centre', near Medan, with the aim of eventually returning him back to the wild.

PHKA responded quickly and positively, and in October 2013 the Director General sent an instruction for Pongky to be transferred to the centre to be cared for by the SOCP and begin the process of being returned to the wild. This was a short-lived victory for Pongky, however, as that instruction was sadly not carried out.

We certainly did not give up though, and continued lobbying both the government authorities and the zoo to release Pongky, along with another orangutan who had by then also been confiscated from the illegal pet trade and placed at the zoo.

On 11th April 2015 these efforts finally met with some success. The younger orangutan, a female named Limbat, was transferred to Batu Mbelin to begin the rehabilitation and reintroduction process. Even at this point, though, Pongky was still kept at the zoo, and SOS renewed the campaign to have him transferred to Batu Mbelin as well, for eventual reintroduction to the wild forests of Sumatra.

We wrote to the Minister of Environment and Forestry in May 2015, and within a few weeks she had launched an investigation.It has been a lengthy battle for Pongky, continuously lobbying the various government authorities and the zoo. Now, finally, we are delighted to announce that all this work has paid off and Pongky is now in much better conditions and with much improved care by the SOCP.

What next for Pongky?

The SOCP quarantine station is located in the small illage of Batu Mbelin, near Medan in North Sumatra, and is currently caring for just under 50 orangutans, all confiscated former illegal pets. All orangutans arriving at the centre must complete a mandatory initial quarantine period and pass full medical health checks before entering the rehabilitation programme, which prepares them for eventual return to the wild.

Drh Yenny Saraswati, senior veterinarian at the SOCP stated, "We're so happy to finally get Pongky out of the zoo and provide him a chance to be a free wild orangutan again. The first thing we must do is give him a little time to adjust to his new surroundings. We will then give him a complete health check, looking especially for illnesses such as Tuberculosis and Hepatitis, which captive primates sometimes contract from their human captors and owners. Once we have the results of his tests, we'll then be able to properly assess his future; namely if Pongky can indeed be returned to a life in the wild, or if we will have to find an alternative long-term solution for his care. The health and welfare of all orangutans in Sumatra is always our number one concern, and whatever the outcome, for sure Pongky is now in much better conditions and with much better care than he has been used to these last several years as an illegal pet and at the Medan Zoo. And there's every chance he can be free once again if all goes well."

Since 2001 the SOCP has released over 180 orangutans at the edge of the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Jambi province, and over 80 in the Jantho Wildlife Reserve in Aceh Province, gradually establishing two new, self-sustaining and genetically viable wild populations of this Critically Endangered species.

We wish to thank all of our supporters who added their voice to the call for Pongky to be given a second chance.

We will bring you news and updates soon. In the meantime, we are appealing for donations to support Pongky's care and recovery. Please help - donations made to this project on the Global Giving site between now and the end of March will be directed to Pongky's appeal. Please also consider sharing this report with your networks.

Thank you.

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The orangutan was safely sedated
The orangutan was safely sedated

The first orangutan rescue of the year took place yesterday.

The HOCRU team (together with BKSDA government officials) rescued a female orangutan isolated in a rubber plantation in Kedaung village. Local farmers reported that the orangutan had been wandering around their plantation for months, cut off from being able to return to the Leuser Ecosystem.

Yesterday the HOCRU team managed to safely sedate and translocate the orangutan, and released her on the same day into the Leuser forests.

Last year, the rescue team saved 29 orangutans from life threatening situations: 19 were rescued from conflict situations, and 10 from the illegal pet trade.

They are a lifeline for many orangutans in Sumatra. It is extremely important that our team is able to continue to be in the field monitoring conflict situations and/or isolated forest patches containing orangutans, so that these smaller but still vital populations are not lost.

Thank you for your invaluable support of this vital work. Please consider setting up a monthly donation or sharing this project with your friends and family.

Dr Ricko, the team's vet prepares the tranquiliser
Dr Ricko, the team's vet prepares the tranquiliser
The orangutan is carried to safety
The orangutan is carried to safety
The orangutan is released to the Leuser Ecosystem
The orangutan is released to the Leuser Ecosystem
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An orangutan is evacuated from condemned forests
An orangutan is evacuated from condemned forests

The role of rescue and translocation in orangutan conservation

SOS Director Helen Buckland and Programme Manager Dave Dellatore answer some common questions about the value of the evacuation and translocation of orangutans from condemned forests.

1. Is rescue and translocation good for the welfare of individual orangutans, and does this increase those animals' chances of long term survival?

The Sumatran orangutans that are translocated are found on land that is in the process of being cleared - condemned forests. This has been the case for almost 50 orangutans that the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit have relocated since January 2012.  In all these cases, the orangutans were taken out of areas isolated from larger forest blocks, that were at direct and immediate risk, or actively in the process, of being cleared. We can confidently state that without such interventions, these orangutans would have had little chance of survival, and those that were not starved or shot would likely have ended up in the illegal pet trade.

Being released into protected forests can certainly be said to increase their short-medium term survival prospects relative to the no-intervention scenario. We are looking into the short-term survival and adaptation of translocated orangutans in a joint research effort with Professor Serge Wich, at one of the government-approved release sites.  As to their subsequent chances of long-term survival, this is a question still to be answered, which will of course require a great deal more time to determine, and perhaps more importantly will depend on the decisions and actions of the Indonesian government, in terms of law enforcement and land management. 

2. Do these actions improve the welfare of any other orangutans that might still be in that particular forest?

The decision to translocate an orangutan is never taken lightly; rescue operations are always a last resort and only undertaken if active clearing is taking place or there is reason to believe that the orangutan is under other extreme and immediate risk (such as a threat that the orangutan will be shot in retaliation for crop-raiding).

The HOCRU team always thoroughly surveys an area of forest from which an orangutan has been translocated, to determine whether any more individuals remain. The same assessment that led to the decision to translocate the first orangutan would be applied to all others in the forest patch - in other words, if there was cause to remove one orangutan due to the perceived extreme and imminent risk to that individual's prospects of survival, then any other orangutans found would also be translocated.

As well as responding to reports from the field of isolated orangutans, the HOCRU programme maintains a list of sites with known populations of isolated orangutans that are monitored on a regular basis - it is not the case that all isolated orangutans are (immediately) translocated.  The team maintains open lines of communication with stakeholders in these areas, and conducts ongoing assessments of the threat level to each known individual or small population. 

It is only when an isolated area is deemed unsafe, either through active clearing, recent clearing resulting in greatly reduced forest area, or direct threats are made against the orangutans, that a rescue operation is carried out.  It is also worth noting that this work is officially government sanctioned - every rescue is conducted with the approval and presence of government conservation authorities. 

According to the latest Toolkit for Identification of High Conservation Values in Indonesia, it is stated under HCV 1.2 that for taxa classified by the IUCN as being Critically Endangered, as is the Sumatran orangutan:

‘each individual is extremely important as a potential founder/progenitor of future generations, and for this reason the persistence of each individual is a shared societal responsibility.'

If we are able to help save even one individual, it is a worthy effort. Fundamentally, these forest fragments are being cleared regardless of our actions, and inaction would see the loss of multiple individuals and small populations of Sumatran orangutans which could be contributing to the survival of their species.

3. Is the welfare of any orangutans that occur anywhere else under threatened conditions improved, now that the understanding is that "the orangutan problem" will be dealt with by the conservation professionals?

This is a very important question.  As forests fall to make way for farmlands and other developments, we are finding more and more orangutans stranded in agricultural landscapes, including smallholder plantations as well as company-managed concessions. We believe that orangutans and humans can and must coexist, but when individuals or small populations are trapped in forest fragments, with poor prospects of survival, translocation offers an opportunity for those orangutans to once again be part of a viable population.

In cases where orangutans are found within legal concessions, and especially where the companies managing those concessions are not part of any organization or pledge to conserve HCV or eliminate deforestation from their operations, the future is bleak for those individuals. As we know, orangutans are not only found within protected forests, and the reality is that these forest fragments will be cleared, whether or not they contain orangutans.

We are the first to acknowledge that translocation is a reactionary safety net in response to the ongoing problem of orangutans being displaced from their shrinking forest homes.  It is extremely important that there be someone in the field monitoring conflict situations and/or isolated forest patches containing orangutans, so that these smaller but still vital populations are not lost.

Of course, working to prevent these situations has to be part of any conservation strategy.

This project is just one element of a conservation strategy that focuses on protecting wild orangutans and their habitat. Indeed, the rescue and translocation of orangutans is just one element of the HOCRU programme, which also seeks to evaluate and address the causes of human-orangutan conflict, provide community training in best-practice mitigation methods, and support government capacity in dealing with this growing problem.

In an ideal world, arrests and prosecutions would follow from the detection of any wildlife or forest crime in Indonesia, and conservation-appropriate spatial planning would be implemented by communities and government. The HOCRU programme has been working at the community level (field interventions and also education and training) and also government level (passage of provincial decrees regarding the prevention and management of human wildlife conflict, helping to have law enforcement cases pursued) to that end. 

Ensuring that we are working towards our vision of a safe, viable and thriving population of Sumatran orangutans, is of paramount importance. We thank everyone who supports this vital project, and all of our programmes and campaigns to keep the orangutans, people and forests of Sumatra safe.

The rescue team are a lifeline for many orangutans
The rescue team are a lifeline for many orangutans
Returning to the wild - a joyous moment
Returning to the wild - a joyous moment
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Young female orangutan, now in safe hands
Young female orangutan, now in safe hands

A few weeks ago we launched an appeal for donations to buy a new truck for Sumatra's only orangutan rescue team: the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU). There was an amazing response from our supporters all over the world, and we're very happy to report that the target was reached in just a few days, and a new rescue truck is now on the road!

The team have already been able to save yet another precious life - a young female orangutan was confiscated the illegal pet trade last month, and is now in safe hands.

Thank you to everyone who donated and shared the appeal - with your support, the team will be able to reach even more orangutans in danger and give them a second chance at life in the wild.

The team asked us to share a short video message - see the link below.


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In safe hands
In safe hands

Please help the rescue team reach more orangutans in danger: We need to buy a new truck so that they can evacuate more orangutans from condemned forests and move them to safety.

As a supporter of this vital project, you know that Sumatran orangutans are Critically Endangered, and that forest destruction for farmlands and roads is happening on a massive scale in Sumatra. As a result, orangutans often become stranded in patches of forest, as the bulldozers clear the trees around them. 

Thanks to your donations, the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) is active on the frontline to evacuate orangutans from condemned forests, and transfer them to safe habitat, giving them a second chance at life in the wild. 

The HOCRU team are desperately in need of a new rescue truck, so that they can respond quickly to reports of orangutans in danger, and transport them safely to protected forests.

The team do an incredible and very difficult job, and have already saved the lives of more than 65 orangutans. They are the only orangutan rescue team in Sumatra, and cover a huge area, and they need your support to reach more orangutans who need their help.

We have already raised 85% of the funds we need to purchase a new vehicle. All donations to this project via GlobalGiving between now and the end of August will go towards our appeal. Please help, every donation gets us closer to our target and is so appreciated.

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Organization Information

Sumatran Orangutan Society

Location: Abingdon, Oxon - United Kingdom
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @orangutansSOS
Project Leader:
Lucy Radford
Abingdon, Oxon United Kingdom
$62,656 raised of $100,000 goal
1,201 donations
$37,344 to go
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