Last fall, The Washington Post partnered with Visura in an open call for photo essays. The Post selected two winners and three honorable mentions out of hundreds of submissions. We are presenting one of the honorable mentions on In Sight: Belgian photographer Alain Schroeder and his project about orangutan rescues in Sumatra, Indonesia.
Schroeder says this story came about after he visited Bukit Lawang in Sumatra as a tourist hoping to see orangutans. His trip turned out to be fruitful in more ways than one. He did indeed see orangutans, but his encounter with the animals also sparked a feeling of connection with them. Because of this, he decided to do some research and then return wearing a photojournalist hat.
Schroeder gave In Sight this account of his experience with the orangutans (it has been lightly edited for brevity):
It begins with a rescue in the jungle, actually a rubber plantation, where I quickly discover the number of people involved in saving just one orangutan.
A call from a local man with the Orangutan Information Center (OIC) in Medan has triggered a meticulously coordinated effort, starting with the immediate dispatch of a two-man team to the site to verify the information: Is it actually an orangutan? What is the precise location of the sighting? Has more than one person seen the animal(s)?
“We get three to four reports like this a month,” says Panut Hadisiswoyo, founder and chairman of the OIC. “Before we allocate full resources, we want to be certain.”
Within hours, I’m tagging along with North Sumatra team leader Bedul Siregar, veterinarian Tengku “Jeni” Adawiyah and other members of the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit for the five-hour drive to Bangun Sari, a small village in Aceh province where nine of us settle in with a welcoming family for the night. Deafening rain pummels the aluminum roof as I fall asleep.
It’s 7 a.m. as the team heads single file into the rubber plantation for what they refer to as a morning walk. Orangutans spend their days moving through the tops of trees feeding primarily on fruit, bark and vegetation. Every evening, they build a new nest. But their routine is being sabotaged. Haphazard clearing of the forest is forcing the animals into plantations as they search for food and shelter, resulting in conflict with plantation workers.
Two scouts have gone ahead. Communicating by walkie-talkie, the search lasts three hours with no result. Wilted from the effort, the group returns to the village. Just as lunch is finishing up, the call comes in, and within minutes, I’m again trying to keep up in the thick, muddy brush. And then, there it is, high up in a tree. Team members vigorously shake branches and call out, enticing the animal down to within safe range for Rudi to fire the tranquilizer.
The orangutan struggles against the effects of the dart, eventually releasing its grip and falling toward an outstretched net. Demun and Bedul brace for the catch, but the animal’s weight combined with the extremely steep, slick terrain sends the trio (and myself) sliding. The groggy orangutan tries to lift her arms in protest but gently drifts into sleep as the men secure the net and carry her down to level ground where Jeni, the vet, performs a thorough medical check. Although blind in one eye, with several air rifle wounds on her body, the 15-year-old female is in good condition and everyone agrees she is fit to be released back into the forest. It’s a race back to the jeep to secure her in the transport cage before the sedative wears off.
In the oppressive humidity, I struggle to recover from the gargantuan effort. The problem now is there is a palm oil plantation standing between us and a viable release location in the Tenggulun protected forest. Hoping to shave four hours off the journey, Bedul puts in a call to the BKSDA Conservation Agency to request permission to drive through the plantation.
Night has fallen when the cage is placed flush against a tree. As the door panel is lifted, the orangutan bolts straight up and disappears into the foliage in a flash as the onlookers gasp. The weary team returns to the host family for the night, exhausted but proud of the work accomplished.
Over the next few months, I participate in several more rescues with either an immediate translocation or, if the orangutan is injured, transport to the fully equipped medical facilities at the Quarantine and Rehabilitation Center run by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) in Sibolangit, North Sumatra.
I return often to the Quarantine Center to observe routine medical checks. Orangutans like Hope, Leuser, Chrismon or Fahzren, who have been severely injured or domesticated, will live out their lives here or at the Haven, the SOCP’s soon-to-open protected sanctuary nearby. But the greatest reward for everyone working with orangutans is the release of those who have assimilated the skills to survive in the wild.
Since the center opened in 2011, more than 100 orangutans have been reintroduced into their natural habitat. “Every orangutan we are able to release is a major contribution to a new, genetically viable, self-sustaining wild population, and to the long-term survival prospects of this critically endangered species,” SOCP Director Ian Singleton noted in a bittersweet moment of separation.
For months now, I have shadowed the members of several organizations coordinating their efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and release orangutans. Beyond their dedication, I have witnessed passion transform to pride with every intervention.
You can see more of Schroeder’s work on his website.
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