Fleeting Glimpses of Indonesia’s Endangered Orangutans

We watched in silence as the two orangutans, a mother and her child, prepared themselves for an encroaching rainstorm.

While the air grew thicker, the mother — whom the local guides had nicknamed Minah — led her child toward the canopy and into a nest she had built earlier that day. Then, collecting vines and leaves, she wove an umbrella out of the foliage and held it devotedly over her daughter.

Thunder shook the ground, spooking a pair of giant hornbills, who honked indignantly. The haunting call of gibbons echoed across the canopy.

Its 6 million acres of dense rainforest is home to 389 species of birds and 130 species of mammals, including the world’s largest wild population of Sumatran orangutans.

Populations of the Sumatran orangutan, Pongo abelii, and the Tapanuli orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, both of which are also critically endangered, have also experienced precipitous declines.

In response, a devoted group of caretakers is trying to unravel the complexities of conservation on Sumatra, fighting to protect the ecosystem and grasping for a solution that can mutually benefit both the wildlife and people who call the island their home.

Panut Hadisiswoyo, who founded the O.I.C. in 2001, told me that his goal is to give orangutans on Sumatra a place to flourish. He also hopes that, through community development, he can instill pride and awareness about the animals in rural communities — to help create a group of grass-roots orangutan guardians.

The epicenter of the O.I.C.’s efforts are in the Leuser Ecosystem, whose rain forests provide livelihoods and drinking water for more than four million people — and whose boundaries are continually threatened by ever-expanding palm oil plantations.

With the assistance of Nayla Azmi, a 32-year-old Indigenous conservationist, we spent several days hiking through the mountainous rainforest to watch and photograph families of orangutans on the outskirts of Bukit Lawang, a small village whose eco-tourism-driven economy provides a case study on how sustainable jobs and forest preservation can coexist.

Following our time with the orangutans, Ms. Azmi led us to other corners of Sumatra to learn about less iconic but equally important conservation battles.

Near the remote village of Tangkahan, which sits on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park, a riverside animal rescue center is home to a family of Sumatran elephants rescued from forced labor operations. While their new riverside home was bare-bones and relies on the controversial practice of offering elephant rides for income, the rescue center works to provide the animals with a better environment, in spite of mediocre resources. Visiting the center was a testament to the reality of conservation in Indonesia, where good intentions are often constrained by economic and infrastructural limitations.

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