Meet the Scientists Trying to Save Indonesia's Critically Endangered Orangutans

By Greg Norman on at

If you were asked to list the skillset needed to work in orangutan conservation, you might not think to jot down accomplished marksman. But that’s high on the list of job requirements for a unique band of conservationists working in the forests of Borneo.

“If you’re trying to tranquillise an animal that is some 30 metres up a tree, you need to be very accurate,” said Karmele Llana Sanchez, the Indonesia programme director for International Animal Rescue (IAR) based on the island of Borneo. “There is a risk the animal may fall and end up injured or killed.”

It goes without saying that tranquillising a highly intelligent, distressed ape, weighing in north of 150 pounds, is a tricky operation. Doing so so when said ape is far above you and has to land on an industrial strength net is trickier still. Teamwork is the key. For Sanchez and her 250-strong colleagues based in Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo, the decision to intervene, sedate, rehabilitate, and translocate an orangutan is not one that is arrived at lightly.

But in the increasingly fragmented forests of Borneo, the work is becoming more necessary. Orangutans, which can move from tree to tree at great speed, are finding themselves clinging to isolated, solitary trees, is emblematic of the fate befalling their natural home. As forest destruction continues, the three subspecies of the world’s only great ape outside of Africa are having a harder time finding suitable unspoiled habitat of sufficient size. That means they’re coming into regular contact – and often conflict – with humans.

Organisations including IAR therefore often need to intervene, rescue injured or compromised animals, treat them at their centre before releasing them back in a safe environment or caring for them long-term if they can no longer survive in the wild. And the efforts are in some ways a last line of defence for the “human of the forest” (as orangutan translates from Malay) if deforestation isn’t slowed.


In the last 50 years, Indonesia has lost an estimated 185 million acres of forest. For orangutans that call a handful of Indonesia’s islands home and need intact forests to survive, the impact has been staggering. The number of Bornean orangutans in the wild is believed to have declined by 100,000 between 1999 and 2015 alone. That means nearly half the population has disappeared in less than two decades, leaving the apes on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List as critically endangered.

The rarer and critically endangered Sumatran orangutan is arguably more up against it. Just 14,000 are believed to remain in the wild. The third subspecies, the Tapanuli, was only officially described two years ago and fewer than 800 may exist in northern Sumatran.

An orangutan clings to a lone tree in an otherwise completely deforested area. (Photo: Alejo Sabugo courtesy of IAR)

Aware of the pressures on his beloved orangutans, Panut Hadisiswoyo set up the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in his native Sumatra in 2001. Through their Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU), trained vets and conservation workers have rescued nearly 200 animals since 2012.

The Leuser ecosystem near where OIC and HOCRU operate is one of the largest rainforests in Southeast Asia and home to apes, rhinos, tigers, and elephants. But despite being protected by national law, the animals still face the threat of poaching. Illegal deforestation and huge infrastructure projects, including roads and dams have also taken their toll on the once intact ecosystem.

These threats are a reminder that work by IAR, OIC, and other groups is done so against the backdrop of some of the most industrial and widespread habitat destruction carried out anywhere in the world in recent decades. Estimates vary but suggest that Indonesia, one of the world’s most densely forested countries, is still losing nearly 2.5 million acres of forest each year.

Much of the deforestation has taken place on peatlands that release copious amounts of carbon dioxide when burned. That’s vaulted Indonesia into the ranks of the top emitters globally. Once-diverse forests have also been replaced with monoculture plantations, chiefly palm oil, that has left orangutans and other forest creatures that rely on a more varied forest to suffer. The more fragmented forests that exist outside national parks have made conflict with humans inevitable.

“The speed of the deforestation is the main problem,” Sanchez said. “With illegal logging or small-scale development, the clearance takes [place] over years. The orangutans just can’t adapt when it happens so quickly.”

Vast swathes of Borneo have been on fire this year, mirroring crises worldwide. Fires are an annual occurrence in Indonesia, with farmers and large corporations alike using them to clear forest. But Sanchez said that this year’s were particularly savage, driven in part by a longer dry season tied to El Niño. Peatland fires are also harder to put out, increasing pressure on the forest homes of orangutans and other wildlife.


One of the big debates in conservation is whether we place too much emphasis on saving so-called “charismatic megafauna.” And orangutans definitely fit that bill given that they’re almost universally recognisable to people in Borneo or Bolton whether they’re eight years old or 80. But in the case of the orangutan, protecting them also means protecting forests given that they’re largest tree-dwelling animal and spend an estimated 90 per cent of their time in the forest canopy.

Despite apparently large numbers remaining, fears for their survival come from the fact they only breed on average once every eight years. Mothers and their young form one of the closest bonds believed to exist in nature.

“They are very cool animals,” Sanchez says. “Just like humans… But a lot better.”

Conservationists with IAR check on a baby orangutan and tranquillised mother. (Photo: IAR)

The plight of all three species of orangutan is one that has definitively caught the international public imagination and helped turn the tide against monoculture plantations and the deforestation behind them. Palm oil has reached the public perception nadir occupied by smoking, oil, and single use plastics. Companies are now trying to cut down on their use of it, and foreign NGOs offering support and expertise abound.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, the major palm oil companies really didn’t care how they behaved and had no respect for our work,” Sanchez recalled. “They would just clear forest.

“I think things have changed on the ground in part because of pressure from the West and all the campaigns and all the noise and media. Nowadays I find that they do want to listen to us, so we try and train the workers of these plantations of the risks and in that way at least mitigate conflict with orangutans.”

But in the same way that a UK resident may not find a wild rabbit very exotic, these great apes that share 97 per cent of human DNA are not always accorded the same awe and reverence domestically that they receive from an international audience.

“Unfortunately, there are still some people that see orangutans as a pest,” Hadisiswoyo said. “But I do think there is more awareness now and that the orangutan is seen as of national importance.”

Panut Hadisiswoyo with a rescued orangutan. (Photo: Courtesy Panut Hadisiswoyo)

He believes there is political will to protect the animals and control deforestation. But that the main challenge is disseminating that down to efficient management and enlisting resources at a local level. Both conservationists say their teams rarely encounter people intent on harming the apes but regular examples of animals that have been explicitly and visibly harmed still abound.

Among the most notorious in recent memory was a female rescued from near death earlier this year. Named Hope by the vets who found her, she had been shot at repeatedly by villagers in Aceh province, Sumatra using an air rifle. She was blinded, had deep lacerations to her body, broken bones, and 24 pellets lodged in her.

Hope is now being cared for at a rehabilitation centre, where she will remain. Her months old baby had been taken from her.

Although rarer than it used to be, the risk of orangutan babies being taken for the pet trade or to be trafficked still exists. Females tend to remain in the part of forest they are born, unlike males who can roam vast distances through the canopy. For that reason, conservationists often encounter more males than females But it’s also why the latter are just as vulnerable to human encroachment.

Reaching the decision to directly intervene and translocate an orangutan can be complex. Rescues are not covered by government legislation and therefore must be conducted with the cooperation of local forestry authorities.

Sanchez’s group only undertakes an operation if the animal is seriously injured or if attempts to keep it in the wild have proven unsuccessful. A trained vet will always be in attendance along with enough personnel to carry the equipment and then help transport the sedated animal. If there is any local hostility an outreach worker from the human conflict unit will be there.

Conservationists release an orangutan into a more intact forest habitat. (Photo: IAR)

Given orangutans spend so much time in the trees, they’ll often need to be coaxed down to as low a branch as possible to be sedated. In Borneo, IAR will sometimes directly re-release an animal, rather than taking it to its centre, provided the right authorisations have been given.

Despite the vast distances and areas sometimes involved in a day’s work, monitoring orangutans can be done effectively as there are “conflict hotspots” that are often near national parks on Sumatra and Borneo where encounters frequently happen. Local outreach means it is easy for concerned farmers or villagers to approach one of the organisations.

“Being honest, the actual rescue process is not that challenging for us,” Hadisiswoyo said. “What is challenging is that we have to attend situations where orangutans have been injured or maltreated. With all the conservation work and education we are doing, how can it be that they are getting shot. We sometimes ask ourselves, are we failing the orangutans?”

NGOs operating in Indonesia must always chart a course between making a difference on the ground and living with political realities. Originally from the Basque country in Spain, Sanchez like many international conservationists, has fallen in love with Indonesia and its wildlife since arriving in 2003. But she readily admitted a working day can be a source of frustration.

“It’s sad to see we are doing this, but on the other side, we rescue animals from horrible situations and make them happy again,” she said.

Hadisiswoyo went even further: “This is not a nice job to have. It’s not exciting, you see this problem every day and the desperate situation of orangutans. Sometimes I feel hopeless and helpless and question whether I can really help them… But you know I love orangutans; I love forests and I want to make a difference.”

A mother and baby orangutan check out their new digs. (Photo: IAR)