Saving the orangutans of Sumatra

The Leuser Ecosystem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Sumatra and one of the largest single continuous blocks of tropical rainforest left in the whole of south-east Asia. It is also home to the orangutan, one of the region's most endangered species.

Despite Leuser's World Heritage status, it is under continued threat from deforestation by palm-oil plantations, affecting both the fragile ecosystem and critically endangered iconic wildlife.

Photographer Charlie Dailey travelled to Sumatra to document the efforts to relocate orangutans in immediate danger.

Dawn in the Leuser rainforest, Sumatra. Image copyright Charlie Dailey

The rainforests are the natural habitat of the Sumatran orangutan. A large proportion of the population lives in the borders of Leuser, with the highest density in the lower peat-swamp regions of Tripa, Kleut and Sinkhil - primary tropical forest with canopies up to 40ft (12m) high.

When a palm-oil company moves into an area, large swathes of forests are felled to make way for plantations. To plant on the waterlogged peat-land the companies have to create drainage canals. The orangutans are displaced as the trees of old-growth forests are burned.

Palm oil is used in approximately 50% of supermarket products, from food and snack manufacturing to cosmetics and pharmaceutical products.

Views of deforested lowland rainforest in Leuser, Sumatra in the Tripa region Image copyright Charlie Dailey
A worker clears charred tree stumps after a palm oil company has logged and burnt the Tripa region of the Leuser Ecosystem Image copyright Charlie Dailey
Trucks ferry palm oil fruit to the factories for processing in Sumatra Image copyright Charlie Dailey

Dr Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), has been working with orangutans in Sumatra for more than 20 years and is committed to their preservation, which means, among other things, confiscating those illegally taken as pets and returning them to the wild.

The SOCP team also focuses on rescuing and relocating wild orangutans that have become isolated from their natural habitat. Once rehabilitated, these are released back into the wild.

The SOCP is creating two new viable satellite breeding populations in the hope of safeguarding the species. To date more than 350 have been released into the new sites.

SOCP vet, Dr Pandu Wibisono, Dr Ian Singleton and his staff administer aid to a sick orangutan found in the forests by SOCP rangers. Image copyright Charlie Dailey
Dr Ian Singleton watches over the sedated female orangutan in Jambi, northern Sumatra. Image copyright Charlie Dailey
Holding cages for orang-utans at the release site of Jambi, the site of the second new viable breading population of orangutans created by SOCP. Image copyright Charlie Dailey

One of the SOCP's field teams had been alerted to the presence of a mother and baby located in a high-risk area of Tripa, one of the most heavily deforested regions of Leuser.

The pair had been hemmed into a tiny part of surviving forest, surrounded by palm-oil plantations. The team was able to sedate them safely so that they could be taken to a safe forest site in Jambi, where they were released.

A mother and baby orangutan breastfeeding in the forests of North Sumatra Image copyright Charlie Dailey
The SOCP team carry the sedated female and her baby out of the forest to the vehicles that will relocate them to a safe forest northern Sumatra Image copyright Charlie Dailey
SOCP staff move the sedated mother and her baby into a holding cage as she is brought around from the tranquiliser. Image copyright Charlie Dailey
SOCP staff member holds the baby orangutan at the release site of Jan to whilst waiting for the mother to be brought round from the sedative. Image copyright Charlie Dailey

As the rescued pair disappeared into the canopy, Dr Singleton said if the Leuser ecosystem could not be protected from the palm-oil companies and further industrialisation, the Sumatran orangutan would become extinct in the wild.

The female and infant orang-utan, moments after they had been released into the safe forests of the Janto region. Image copyright Charlie Dailey

All photographs copyright Charlie Dailey.