Sumatran Orangutans Benefit From Action Against Illegal Trade and Logging

July 14, 2016

A 29-year-old Indonesian student caught trying to sell baby Sumatran orangutans on Facebook in November 2015 became the first wildlife trafficker to be jailed in the country’s Aceh province under a 1990 anti-poaching law.

Enforcement of this law was a solid victory for conservationists racing to ensure the survival of the critically endangered orangutan, whose population on Sumatra (see map), a major island in the western part of the Indonesian archipelago, stands at 6,500.


The poacher, reported to authorities by staff of the Sumatra-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), was sentenced to two years in prison with a fine equivalent to $3,653. Three orangutans were rescued from his home.

“It’s so shocking that people still want to buy orangutans,” says Panut Hadisiswoyo, founder of OIC and recipient of the 2015 Whitley Award for Conservation of Ape Habitats. “They just kill the mothers. They don’t really care.”

Smuggling orangutans out of Indonesia for the pet and entertainment trade is one among several threats to Sumatra’s great ape, whose numbers have declined by more than 80 percent over the last 75 years due largely to destruction of their forest homes, poaching, and outright killing.

In 2015 alone, OIC, supported by the Center for Orangutan Protection and other organizations, rescued and relocated to safety some 30 orangutans, out of a total of 70 during the last three years. They had been displaced from land cleared for oil-palm production in the Leuser Ecosystem, a richly biodiverse expanse of Aceh and North Sumatra provinces that is home to rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers, and 300 other mammals.

Male orangutans require a range of about 3,000 hectares to survive, and the larger orangutan community needs a forest block large enough to support at least 250 members to ensure genetic diversity.

Decades of forest-to-farm conversion have stranded these species in isolated patches from which they frequently wander onto agricultural land where they are often treated as pests and sometimes killed.

Fires Shroud Forests in Deadly Haze

Slash-and-burn farming techniques in the highly flammable peat forests of western Sumatra and of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo caused widespread fires in 2015 across at least two million hectares and cast a deadly haze over parts of Indonesia.

At least 21 humans, most of them babies, were reported killed by the fires or associated respiratory conditions. The number of deaths of orangutans and other animals is unknown but is estimated by Mark Harrison of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) to be in the thousands.

OuTrop’s initial analysis revealed that approximately 30 percent of the fire hotspots in Kalimantan during the 2015 fires occurred within the orangutan’s home range.

As fires approached an International Animal Rescue site in West Kalimantan, staff worked overtime, setting up fire breaks to stop the flames. Between October and December 2015, the group rescued 20 orangutans from land degraded by the fires, releasing some to secure forest and treating others for illness.

When added to the loss of more than 12 million hectares of Sumatra’s forestland, cleared between 1985 and 2009 to meet the global demand for palm oil, the latest damage leaves just 8 percent of the island’s landmass under the canopy of trees, compared with an estimated 50 percent forest cover before felling began, according to WWF Indonesia.

The recent fires are estimated to have emitted as much carbon into the atmosphere in a single day as some industrialized nations release in a year,1 leading the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), a U.N.-backed alliance, to call on Indonesia’s government to ban land-clearance fires.

Indonesia’s forestry ministry announced in December 2015 that 23 companies, mostly wood fiber producers, would face a range of sanctions for their role in the fires, and it set up a peat-restoration agency led by a well-known conservationist.

The government in April 2016 announced a temporary halt of new palm-oil and mining operations, and since May, 61 companies have seen their palm-oil and mining proposals rejected, saving approximately 851,000 hectares from conversion, said San Afri Awang, head of governance and planning for the forestry ministry.

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Vegetation burns on the edge of the Sebangau National Park in Borneo, Indonesia.

Palm Oil Industry Takes Steps to Cut Forest Impact

Consumer pressure in recent years led companies covering 90 percent of the global palm oil trade to commit to very strong forest-conservation policies, according to Glenn Hurowitz, a former senior fellow at the Washington D.C.–based Center for International Policy.

A halt on palm-oil-related deforestation by the major suppliers Wilmar, ADM, and Golden Agri-Resources, for example, had influenced smaller domestic and regional producers, including First Resources, Bumitama, and Astra Agro Lestari, to scrap land-clearance plans.

“[Consumers] do have power through campaigns, through influencing companies, and through influencing our own and other governments as well,” said Hurowitz, speaking at an Arcus-hosted event last November on Farming for the Future.

However, while the world’s largest palm-oil buyers, such as Nestle, Kellogg, and Unilever, now report the identities of their suppliers, they still do not reveal which ones are cutting down the forest, he says.

A December 2015 Greenpeace survey2 of 14 major companies found that only one—Ferraro—was able to say with certainty that there was no deforestation in its supply chain. Others, including PepsiCo and Johnson & Johnson, received failing marks for responsible sourcing.

“Greater transparency is what’s needed,” Hurowitz adds, noting that conservation groups can monitor individual companies by using satellites and conducting site visits, but there are more than 1,000 Indonesian oil-palm suppliers operating across an area the size of the U.S. state of Ohio.

Conservationists Track Industry Supply Chains, Reclaim Land

Hadisiswoyo, who founded OIC in 2001, echoes the call for companies to provide more information about the sources of their raw materials so consumers can hold product manufacturers responsible for upholding their own commitments.

A lack of accountability was highlighted when mapping by a local NGO coalition3 revealed that several suppliers linked to the 2015 fires were providing raw material to Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), a company that has been lauded for its conservation policies.

One of the APP suppliers, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, was cleared by a panel of judges in South Sumatra’s Palembang district court in January 2016 on the grounds that 20,000 hectares burned on the company’s land did no damage to the environment. The Ministry of Forestry is appealing the ruling.

Hadisiswoyo’s work involves reining in deforestation not only at the scale of multinational producers but also at the village level, where conservation groups strive to shift poachers and encroachers off protected land.

The town of Bukit Mas in Aceh province, for example, has been the site of significant steps by OIC to hold back encroachers from orangutan habitat through community work, including education about forest-protection laws and training of law-enforcement agents.

With more than $50,000 awarded through the 2015 Whitley Prize, OIC has also been helping more than 50 farmers from the town to move away from chemical fertilizers for the production of organic oranges, vegetables, and agarwood.

In 2015, OIC, working with the national park authority, reclaimed 200 hectares of forestland from encroachers, the result of extensive outreach and education directed toward those using the forest illegally and sensitization of law-enforcement agencies.

The first 25 hectares of reclaimed forest were planted with 27,500 indigenous tree seedlings by people living in the area.

1The Global Fire Emissions Database (, an initiative based at several universities in the Netherlands and the United States, makes publicly available the work of several research teams, combining satellite information on fire activity and vegetation productivity to estimate burned area and fire emissions worldwide.

2Greenpeace, Cutting Deforestation out of the Palm Oil Supply Chain: Company Scorecard, March 3, 2016.

3Eyes on the Forest is a coalition of three local environmental organizations in Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia: WWF Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo Programme, Jikalahari (Forest Rescue Network Riau), and Walhi Riau (Friends of the Earth Indonesia).