For the love of the forest people
Ian Singleton smiles as he greets his coworkers at the orangutan shelter. He smiles as he strolls past the cages where the rescued animals are housed. He chuckles like a schoolboy as they greet him amiably, letting themselves be tickled until they curl up on the floor like armadillos. But when he sees the male who arrived this morning in a box, he stops smiling.
The orangutan presses fearfully into a corner of his cage, dragging one leg, which pokes out from the hip at a grotesque angle. His body is swollen. His face is swollen. A gigantic, intimidated animal who draws back at the sight of humans. He hides his face behind a front paw that resembles a human hand, as if he wanted to hide from the beings who have caused him so much suffering. His skull is hairless, his left eye oozing pus. His bright orange fur stands away from his body like straw. He gives off noises that make you think the person sobbing behind these cage bars is human. It was only last night that Indonesian soldiers freed the giant from a village five hours away by car. He had been imprisoned in a cage for years. Resembling humans so closely, the animals bestow high social status as pets.
The nameless male is just the latest addition to the shelter run by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). Its goal: To turn back the clock and save Sumatra’s orangutans from an extinction that increasingly seems inevitable. Slowly but surely, like sand in an hourglass, time is running out. The stiff-necked Englishman Ian Singleton founded the organization eleven years ago. A Briton on a “mission impossible,” or so it seems. The flow of orangutans to the shelter never seems to let up. Habitat loss constantly strands new refugees.
In the Indonesian language Bahasa, orang means “person” and utan “forest,” Singleton explains. The forest people, only one chromosome away from being human, attain the intelligence of a four-year-old child and have powers of recollection that are in some respects superior to ours. They practice the healing arts and use tools. Their home is the jungle and the forested wetlands of Sumatra, where a tragedy is taking place our information society’s blind spot. Its final act could be their extinction. In just a few years, biologists say, the point of no return may be passed. They are victims of globalization, of greed for natural resources, of illegal logging, and above all of the boom in palm oil. Like an insatiable plague, plantations are eating their way through the Sumatran rainforest, where as recently as 1993 twelve thousand orangutans still lived. Today the population has sunk to a couple of thousand at most. And time is not on their side.
It is a lucrative industry that is being pursued here. Next to Malaysia, Indonesia is the largest supplier of palm oil. Liquid gold – in high demand around the world, and cheap to produce. The country has increased its annual production since 2003 by sixty-six percent. Its share of the global market is forty-four percent. This year alone, Indonesia produced twenty-three million tons. Currently, eight million hectares are planted with oil palms, a number that is steadily rising. Palm oil can be found in Nutella, as well as ice cream, laundry detergent, margarine, soap, lipstick, cooking oil, instant soups and automotive fuel. Virtually every product on supermarket shelves contains at least a trace of palm oil.
For the owners of palm oil plantations, orangutans are stumbling blocks on the way to higher profits. And because the apes – for lack of suitable habitat, and desperate to find food – increasingly invade plantations to nibble on seedlings, plantation owners have established bounties on their heads and stepped up their slash-and-burn destruction of the virgin forest. In all likelihood, thousands of orangutans have simply been burned alive. The smoke of countless fires hangs like a shroud over the Sumatran jungle. Singleton tells how orphaned apes have been found wandering helpless through the ashes. Some survivors are shot on sight. Others end up as caged pets.
Or at Singleton’s shelter. It lies secluded on the fringes of the village of Batumbelin, an hour from Sumatra’s capital Medan by car. A brook gurgles and cicadas chirp. Vivid butterflies sail from tree to tree. In spacious cages, forty-seven recently liberated orangutans begin their new life of freedom – initially behind bars. The instincts they lost in captivity must be patiently reclaimed, Singleton says. They spend months preparing for a return to the wild. They relearn how to climb trees, build nests, find food, forget about human beings. Singleton regularly makes his rounds of the plantations to catch and resettle homeless orangutans. “They’ve lost their habitat. If we don’t resettle them, they’ll die. It’s that simple.”
A zookeeper prepares a tranquilizer dart, shoves it into a glass pipe, aims with it at the trembling simian body. Next to him stands the veterinarian Yenni Sarraswati, twenty-nine years old, a slim woman in work coveralls and a head scarf. She speaks soothingly. “Everything’s going to be fine, big boy. It’ll be okay. We want to help you. We’re your friends.” As the hypodermic drives into his thigh, the animal howls briefly and yanks it out. Slowly, slowly the ape collapses. His head sinks on his chest and he falls asleep. A team of zookeepers heaves him on to a stretcher and takes him to the infirmary. Ian Singleton stands by, his face expressionless except for the anger in his eyes.
The ape’s previous owners treated him brutally. They hoped to beat him into becoming more human. Pity turns to rage as Sarraswati lays the unconscious animal on the operating table to take an X-ray. Her forehead wrinkles as she cautiously examines his skull and limbs. But it is the X-rays that bring certainty: a broken left forearm, a broken thigh bone, a broken hip, three skull fractures, blind in the left eye, dehydrated. “It’s a miracle he’s still alive,” the veterinarian says. “His owner must have beaten him on a regular basis.” In the end she draws a few more vials of blood to test for hepatitis, malaria and tuberculosis. Orangutans are so similar to humans that they can contract all our diseases. Ian Singleton gives him the name “Cane” – a pun on the canes used in punishment.
The apes share similar stories, Singleton says. Sold off as babies, their mothers murdered. But as they reach maturity their appeal to humans wanes. No longer cute, they are chained up, beaten, locked into cages, forgotten. Or – if feeding and housing them gets too expensive – killed outright to make space for a younger orangutan.
A few hours later, Dr. Singleton sits once again in his tiny office in a house on a busy road in the provincial capital Medan. His desk is covered with maps, reports, CDs, aerial photographs. He smokes clove cigarettes as the locals do, though actually he is trying to quit. “Too much stress right now,” he says. By stress he means that his little world is once again colliding with the world he would like to avoid but cannot. Hundreds of unanswered e-mails are waiting on his laptop. The telephone rings nonstop. Someone always wants something from him. At one point he slams down the phone because yet another television crew has asked whether they can drop by to shoot cute footage of baby orangutans in diapers. “We’re not running a petting zoo! This is a refugee camp. Some people will never understand that animals aren’t toys you can dress up.” The contempt in his voice is unmistakable.
Dr. Ian Singleton, forty-six, has blue eyes, black humor, and a clear sense of who his opponents are: all those who are destroying the rainforest and with it the habitat of Sumatra’s unique fauna. Chief among them the palm oil planters who are covering Indonesia with wall-to-wall palm trees.
Singleton came to the forest people’s struggle for survival in 1996, almost by accident. He spent his childhood in a small village on the north coast of England. His father, a fisherman, took the family out in the boat every Sunday. That was when he acquired the deep love of nature that still motivates him. At nine years of age, he says, he already knew “ninety percent of England’s bird species.” His favorite book was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. The passion for birds lasted for several years. It was followed by one for amphibians and reptiles. His future job would have something to do with them. So he resolved to become a zookeeper. After jobs in the reptile houses of several major zoos, his career dreams were at last fulfilled: He secured a position at Durrell Wildlife Park on Jersey, one of the world’s most famous zoos. And there a coincidence gave his life the direction it retains today.
His ennoblement as an elite zookeeper began with a disappointment. Instead of the hoped-for job in the reptile house, he was assigned to the great apes. “The orangutan keeper had quit, and I was supposed to take his place.” From then on he read everything relevant he could get his hands on. That kept him going for a few years. Then, still hungry for knowledge, he got the idea of trying to observe orangutans in the wild to see how they used tools there. “But no one wanted to hand me a bunch of money to spend two years sitting in the jungle,” he explains. With a heavy heart, he quit his job and went back to school. With scholarship money in his pocket and a dissertation mapped out in his mind, he set off for Indonesia, disappearing for two years into the mosquito-infested swamps of Sumatra.
Fieldwork in Sumatra instead of the primate house in the English channel. For months he roamed the virgin forests of Sumatra with orangutans, losing his heart to both them and Indonesia. In the process he found himself smack dab in the middle of the upheaval surrounding the fall of the Indonesian dictator Haji Mohammad Suharto. In the political vacuum between dictatorship and democracy, the rainforests with their valuable hardwoods became a self-service free store for corrupt politicians and businesspeople. The orangutans were in the way of greater profits. First the chainsaws whined, and then the shooting began. Dead mother apes fell from the trees, and their offspring landed on the black market in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Most international researchers felt threatened and fled the country. It was the beginning of the end of the orangutans. But their fate left Singleton no peace. He decided to stay in Indonesia.
Sixteen years, a dictatorship, a tsunami and a civil war later, the situation has not improved much, but Singleton is still in Sumatra – and those years have changed his life. Today is he married to an Indonesian woman and has two children with her. He speaks fluent Bahasa and several dialects. He oversees the construction of quarantine stations for Sumatra’s orangutans as SOCP’s executive director. But while Singleton and his people work patiently to prepare the animals for survival in the wild, their habitat is falling victim to palm oil cultivation at an increasing rate.
“I am not against palm oil on principle,” he says. “But I don’t want more virgin forest to be sacrificed to it. There’s enough other acreage to go around.” But there’s the rub. Unclear property rights, traditional systems of jurisprudence that vary from ethnic group to ethnic group, and resulting long and complex lawsuits attempting to clarify ownership or move owners to sell the land where their families are buried – all those obstacles tempt corporations to try it with slash-and-burn. It works faster and is, above all, cheaper. Corrupt local authorities can be persuaded to overlook contractual niceties. Singleton can easily talk himself into a rage, and as he lambastes arrogant politicians, inept animal rights activists, falsely conceived ecotourism and cheap palm oil, one thing becomes abundantly clear: that the orangutans are not likely to survive the next few years. “But that’s why our work is so important. Here I can still make a difference and change something. If it were pointless, I would just pack up and go lie on the beach.”
He suspects that, as an ambitious foreigner, he is a thorn in the side of many a rich and powerful Indonesian. Sometimes he receives threats, neatly packaged; nothing serious, he says. But for safety’s sake he teaches his children never to get into a stranger’s car and not to walk through Medan alone. “At my house we have three warning levels, red, orange, and amber. Mostly we’re set on amber.”
He does not have a high opinion of idealism. He believes it is counterproductive. “I’m a strict realist,” he says. Realism and idealism intermingle. In Singleton’s reality, Sumatra is not a lost cause. Despite everything, the island is one of the last remaining intact ecosystems in Asia. The only place where you can still muster all the animals in the Jungle Book: tigers, elephants, leopards, huge snakes, sun bears, rhinos, gibbons, great apes, monitor lizards. In contrast to countries like India, Vietnam, China or Cambodia. There the fight has already been lost, and nearly all the species have died out excepting a few specimens who live out their lives in tiny cages in dilapidated zoos. To keep that from happening in Sumatra, Singleton says, there must “be swift insight in the minds of those in power.” A new way of thinking – an environmental consciousness – must be called into existence out of nowhere. “We’ve confiscated two hundred and fifty-two orangutans since 2001,” he explains. “Two hundred and fifty-two! Even though catching, dealing with, or keeping an endangered species is punishable in Indonesia with five years in prison.” Prosecutions are virtually unknown.
Now that will supposedly change. The small Cessna is catapulted through the clouds by monsoon winds. Rain slaps against the cockpit. Then the pilot pushes the joystick forward and the machine breaks through the cloud cover. We are flying along the west coast of Sumatra, over Aceh province where in 2004 a tsunami ate its way into the coast and swallowed tens of thousands of people. Beneath us lie the peat swamps of Tripa. Where endless virgin forest once lay, filled with thousands of orangutans, there now stretch palm oil plantations, arranged symmetrically as far as the eye can see. Hectare after hectare, square kilometer after square kilometer. Scattered among them a few patches of woods, poking up like grass tufts in a pasture. Huge blackened areas where fires have raged, charred and dead tree trunks. Drainage ditches to turn the swamps into arable land. “As the groundwater falls, the ground falls with it, to below sea level. It’s releasing incredible amounts of carbon dioxide that are contributing to global warming,” Singleton says. Of what was once sixty thousand hectares of rainforest, two-thirds has already been destroyed. Laws that protect the forest are simply ignored.
The unique ecosystem here has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site. That interests the investors here as little as the laws that prohibit setting fires. For years, Singleton has been fighting – with the aid of satellite photos, his own photographs, Facebook and other websites, lawyers and dozens of pages of careful notes documenting the destruction – against the operators of palm oil plantations who illegally clear cut the forest and hide behind a facade of lies. “Whenever it’s burning somewhere, I get an e-mail by the next morning. We’ve documented everything, collected watertight proof. The plantation owners are helpless against it.”
Victory comes in small steps. In early 2012, Singleton was able to amass evidence showing that a company received permission to farm oil palms in an area that had been taken off the market by the Indonesian government in 2011 and placed under protection as a nature reserve. The company lost its license and was forced to cease its activities. One battle won. But the war is only beginning. The case is now being tried in court. “Our prospects of winning aren’t too bad,” Singleton says. But since then it has become difficult for him to get to Tripa, because angry plantation owners have converted their farms to fortresses with road blocks, check points, and security guards. Invaders are quickly ejected. Independent journalism is hindered. “We are keeping quiet at the moment, because we don’t want to provide the plantation owners with legal ammunition against us,” he explains. Only when local people tip him off that foraging orangutans will be shot if they are not picked up immediately does he sneak back to Tripa secretly to bring the apes to the shelter.
Singleton is a driven man – and a dreamer who tries to make his dreams a reality without compromising his integrity. “I try to stand on the right side morally and ethically. That’s how my parents raised me.” His success, he says, cannot be measured by the number of “forest people” he has saved, but instead by his having saved any at all. His initial euphoria has faded in recent years. “Instead of hanging out in the jungle with apes, I’m forced to deal with people whose ideas aren’t necessarily identical with mine.” Businesspeople who want to make a quick buck. Aid organizations that spend money as if it grew on trees. Politicians who appear to care about nothing whatsoever. His distaste for compromise does not make his life any easier. “Sometimes I feel like an aide in an insane asylum. I dream of going back to my peaceful life as a zookeeper.”
Back at the shelter in Batunbelin, the veterinarian Yenni Sarraswati prepares three female orangutans for a long journey and herself to take leave of them. Yoti, Ayu Ting Ting, and Jeky Billie were retrieved from the ashes of their homes and caged for sale. Sarraswati raised them on the bottle, since they came to her as infants. But instead of milk they now receive injections of tranquilizers. Before they are carefully laid in metal boxes and heaved on to the bed of an SUV, Sarraswati activates radio transponders in the napes of their necks. Their destination is a nature reserve in Jantho, seven hundred kilometers away in the province of Aceh.
Ian Singleton has turned Jantho into a protective reserve for homeless orangutans: sixteen thousand hectares of pristine habitat where tigers and leopards roam the forest, otters play in the rivers, and gibbons leap from tree to tree – far from the nearest palm oil plantation or human settlement. He has released thirty-six animals here in the last eighteen months. They are the first generation of free-living orangutans in this part of Indonesia. With luck, they will conserve the species over centuries to come.
After a fourteen-hour truck ride, the newbies arrive in Jantho. A bit confused and jolted, but healthy. For one last time they must spend several days in a cage. Then they will be released into the wild. In the first weeks, zookeepers will play the role of mother to the orphaned young animals, coaching them in the art of living in the wild: climbing trees, making sure they don’t fall, showing them where fruits hang, how to build a nest, recording their progress in tables and logbooks for as long as it takes for their charges to function independently. “Because every ape we nurse back to health and release is a sign that the fight is not over yet” – a sentence Ian Singleton repeats like a mantra whenever he develops doubts about his vision, or when something happens to spoil his mood. It is a daily wrestle with ignorance, he says. “But it gives me the feeling of having done something meaningful. When I remember how the orangutans were doing before we freed them. In chains, half dead, with fungal infections. And how they look when they’re free. That gives me the sensation of doing something meaningful.” And as if to encourage him, two of Singleton’s orangutans – released nine months before – hang from the branches of a nearby treetop like a welcoming committee, watching the new arrivals with curiosity. If all goes well, in a few years the three orphaned females will have families of their own.