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Fighting for Sumatra’s forests and orangutans 

“The future is fine,” Panut Hadisiswoyo jokes, from a timezone 11 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast. “Don’t worry.”

Hadisiswoyo is working tirelessly with the future in mind. For the past 15 years, he has led the Orangutan Information Centre, a group he founded in his native Sumatra, Indonesia, to help save the critically endangered species there, particularly in the precious Leuser Ecosystem. One of the biggest tropical lowland rainforests in Asia, Leuser is home not only to orangutans but also to critically endangered rhinos, tigers, and elephants. Oil palm development has encroached on their habitat, and Hadisiswoyo is building a cadre of committed local supporters to restore degraded forests and protect what remains.

When you listen to him talk about his work, it’s possible to feel hopeful, but also concerned, about the future for Sumatra’s forests. —By Christina Nunez

“I was really curious why this orangutan approached me. I felt like we were having a conversation and she wanted to deliver a message: Please help.”

—Panut Hadisiswoyo

How did you become interested in orangutans?

After I finished my [university] degree, I got a chance to join a team in the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh, and from that time I really fell in love with the forest. By chance there, I encountered a female orangutan that came really close to me. We had eye contact for such a long time—I think the distance between me and the orangutan was maybe less than 10 meters (approximately 33 feet). I was really curious why this orangutan approached me. I felt like we were having a conversation and she wanted to deliver a message: Please help. I started to become more curious about the life of orangutans and really wanted to do something to help them.

 

Were you at all exposed to this area when you were growing up?

I lived not far from the Leuser Ecosystem. Even when I was in high school, I frequently came to the Leuser forest. The forest is a strong magnet for me—I feel that there is a forest calling in myself. There is no other place like it. I live by [Medan] city, and then the forest is about two hours from my hometown. When I look at the lights in the big city, I feel like life is dull. But when I look at the forest—magnificent trees, big trees, animals living together in harmony—I feel so impressed and amazed with the wonder of it.

 

What is it about this particular species that is important to you, that draws your focus?

Orangutans are very intelligent animals, for me the most intelligent in the world. They use tools and they’re very smart. They make a nest of vegetation every day to sleep in the evening and rest in early afternoon.  They can adapt very well—a lot of things really amaze me. Specifically how the mother teaches the baby to survive in the forest, to have skills, to climb trees, to find food. Orangutan babies live with the mother for six to eight years just to learn how to survive in the forest. That’s really wonderful to observe and see this kind of relationship.

Not only that, they are the biggest arboreal mammal; they spend most of their time in the trees. They eat a lot of fruits that have seeds. That means they disperse seeds and they’re actually helping tree regeneration in the forest. And when they move from one canopy to another canopy, it allows sunshine to go down to the ground of the forest, which helps the other small trees that need sunlight.

The orangutan is the best forest farmer on this planet, because they keep helping to regenerate the forest. There are so many things that make them special.

Your group has restored 500 hectares (approximately 1,236 acres) of degraded forest, and is restoring 500 more. Animals are coming back, and you’re making progress, but it all takes time. What keeps you going?

There is always a solution. People sometimes are desperate, even myself—I’m desperate about all the destruction happening in Sumatra—but then, do something, even a small [thing]. When you see a problem and you see things not happening and you feel that someone else will fix it, then that is the start of destruction.

I created a volunteer opportunity for local people, young people that have now become dedicated staff to help the forest and the orangutans. People are now thinking, wow, you do something and there’s progress.

 

What do you do locally to discourage the incentive to turn that land into plantation?

We work intensively with the local community to really make them understand that the forest will sustain your livelihood if you keep the forest as forest. Not only the local people but the government must understand that the Leuser Ecosystem provides a huge economic value that you cannot replace by other forms, even plantations.

 

What do the next few years look like for you, and what would you like to see happen?

To keep forests as forests. It’s vital that we keep forests not only for orangutans and other animals, but also for people. I want to claim and restore more forest land that has been developed for plantations illegally. I want to secure a place for orangutans to live without any danger. If we destroy the forest, then I believe there will be no future.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.