By Ian Williams
NBC News Correspondent
One of the Sumatran orangutan’s richest habitats, an area of swampland containing the highest density of the red apes on the planet, is being illegally slashed and burned by palm oil companies to make way for palm oil plantations.
“If we can't stop them here, then there really is no hope,” said Ian Singleton as we stood on the edge of what had once been pristine forest, home to hundreds of orangutans, but now reduced to a charred wilderness as far as the eye could see. As he spoke we could hear the distant sound of a chain saw.
Singleton runs the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Programme, an organization at the forefront of a battle to save what remains of the forest and the apes.
There are fewer than 7,000 of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans left in the wild, according to a 2008 survey completed by Singleton and other scientists. The largest number live in a vast area of swampland and lowland forest close to the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
“Orangutan paradise,” Singleton calls the area – but it’s a paradise under threat.
Land cleared, drained and burned in the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest.
The key battleground for Singleton is the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest, much of which has already been converted to palm oil plantations. The relentless march of the palm oil business is the biggest threat facing the orangutans.
A cheap, edible oil, palm oil is found in almost half of all packaged supermarket products, from instant noodles, to cookies to ice cream, and Indonesia is the world's biggest supplier.
“Look, look,” said Singleton, handing me a pair of field glasses. In the distance a large male orangutan moved gracefully across the canopy of trees. We would soon see three more.
There is something spell-binding about seeing an orangutan in its natural habitat, and for a while we were glued to that point, watching these high-wire masters at play. But excitement here was quickly tempered by the realization that the area of forest we were looking at was isolated and surrounded on three sides by plantations that were moving ever closer.
Singleton concluded that these apes had just about enough forest to survive - for now.
When he believes an orangutan is in danger, he said, he sends in a team to track and sedate it, transferring the animal to a sprawling rescue center he runs on the edge of the Sumatran city of Medan.
Singleton sometimes refers to the center as a “refugee camp.”
“These are the lucky few,” Singleton told me during a visit there. “They are effectively refugees from forests that no longer exist.”
And like in refugee camps across the world, there was no shortage of agonizing stories of suffering and survival, but also resilience and hope.
Chocolate, a 2-year-old toddler, rescued from animal traders
Among the 55 orangutans in Singleton’s care was a scrawny and bewildered 2-year-old named Chocolate, the newest arrival. Merely a toddler, Chocolate wrapped his arms and legs around Singleton, who lifted him carefully from a cot designed for a child.
“He’s a bit thin, but otherwise quite fit and feisty,” Singleton said. He believes the mother was probably shot.
“There’s no way a mother would allow a baby to be taken from her, not while she’s still alive – never in a million years,” said Singleton. Among orangutans, the bond between mother and child is one of the strongest in the animal kingdom, a child staying with its mom for as many as nine years.
Most orangutans arrive at the center as toddlers, many lacking even the basic confidence to climb trees. You’d have thought that came naturally to a great ape, but some youngsters will only scale the branches in the presence of a keeper, who acts as a surrogate mom.
That’s not a term Singleton likes. The aim of his organization is to build the animals’ skills and independence for an eventual return to the wild, though initially many are dependent on him and his staff.
He also introduced me to Leuser, a big male, probably more than 40 years old and blind.
“One day he went too near farmers at the edge of the forest and they took pot shots at him. They put 62 air rifle pellets into him, mostly around the head,“ Singleton said. Forty-eight are still there, and the X-ray resembles the speckled roof of a planetarium.
In the top corner of a nearby cage, 9-year-old Bahroeni was sitting inside a large tire, one of his legs dangling, encased in a cast. He, too, had been sold as a pet when he was a toddler and, as he grew up, the nylon rope that tied him to a fence was never removed.
Plantation owners and small holders frequently regard orangutans as pests, though there is profit to be had in illegally selling off the babies as pets.
“The law is very clear, but the enforcement is very weak,” Singleton said, tickling one of the toddlers, who reacts with child-like convulsions.
The center aims to return its refugees to the wild, in an undisturbed part of the forest, as soon as they are able to go.
As we spoke, a group of keepers from the rescue center carried on a stretcher an anaesthetised young male named Dito. They lay him out on an operating table in the medical center and after making a small insertion in his neck, they implanted a transmitter.
The transmitter will help Singleton monitor Dito’s movements, “so you know what they’re doing, where they’re going. That they are OK.”
Singleton and colleague Graham Usher launch drone with camera to monitor illegal deforestation.
On the Tripa frontline, Singleton and his team are now deploying a powerful new weapon: a drone, equipped with a small camera that will help them identify illegal forest clearing.
The area is supposed to be a protected forest, and using fire to clear the land as well as converting deep peat are illegal practices under Indonesian law.
Conservationists did have one recent victory, when one of the worst culprits, a company called Kallista Alam, had one of its operating permits revoked. That’s never happened before, since Indonesia has a terrible track record in enforcing its own environmental laws.
And Singleton says satellite imagery shows that burning has continued, even after Kallista Alam’s permit was revoked.
He is now urging criminal action against such companies and others involved in the illegal clearing, asking for their permits to be revoked, and the peat land to be restored.
For all the horrible destruction laid out before us in Tripa, Singleton remains optimistic, believing that the tide may now be turning in favor of Indonesia’s once lonely conservationists, and that the impunity with which the plantations destroyed the forest is at last being challenged.
Before leaving Sumatra, Singleton took me to an area where his refugees are being re-located. He told me that for him nothing can quite match the satisfaction of seeing the often bruised and terrified animals that turn up at his rescue center back in the wild.
“Now they have a second chance of spending 30 or 40 years in the wild, and of having four or five babies,” he told me as we tracked some recently released orangutans days later.
There was a sudden movement of red fur through the thick forest canopy above us.
“I get a real kick out of this,” Singleton said. “It’s as if they never left, and if we’d not been here they’d have died.”
Editor's Note: Ian Williams' full report, 'At What Cost?' airs Thursday, October 18 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.