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Soapbox: Sumatran Orangutan Society

Reclaiming and Restoring Rainforests in Sumatra

By Helen Buckland, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society

Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered. As their rainforest home is cleared for farmlands and roads, these gentle apes, one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, are being pushed to the edge of extinction. The Sumatran Orangutan Society is working to turn the situation around.

Standing within the boundary of the Gunung Leuser National Park, I was faced with rows and rows of oil palms. The soil was dry and cracked, and there was absolute silence, not even bird song. I was in one of the planet’s most incredible biodiversity hotspots, and the scene in front of me was devastating.

I was in Sumatra to visit the site of a new project which the Sumatran Orangutan Society was supporting, and I was filled with trepidation. We planned to return this land back into lush, green rainforest, but in that moment, it seemed like an impossible task.

A chainsaw started up, and rather than this tipping me even further into despair, I grinned. The only time it’s a cause for celebration when you hear a chainsaw in a national park is when it’s being used to cut down illegal oil palms – and as the first tree fell, a cheer went up from our small group.

Our sister organisation, Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), was reclaiming and restoring 500 hectares of national park land that had been stolen by a palm oil company, and as I planted a rainforest tree seedling in that barren soil (durian – orangutans’ favourite fruit), I hoped that it would survive.

Just two years later, I went back to the spot where I had planted that tree, and stood under the shade of its branches, closed my eyes and listened to a landscape buzzing with life. I heard gibbons and birds singing, and the team told me about a herd of elephants that had passed through the previous day. That, right there, was conservation in action.

Not long after that, after I had returned to the UK, they spotted the first wild orangutan to return to the area. I smiled, sitting in my office on the other side of the world, and hoped that ‘my’ tree had provided a nice resting spot for him!

Tearing down forests for farmland destroys all manner of natural balances. As well as destroying the home of countless species, when this area of forest, near the village of Halaban, was replaced with oil palms, the rivers and wells dried up, and the villagers’ crops failed. The disastrous effects of deforestation were clear to the community, and they welcomed the opportunity to reclaim and restore the forest. They are very proud of the success of this project (as are we!), and have formed a group called ‘Protectors of Leuser’ to continue to manage the restoration and protection of this corner of the national park. This once-barren landscape is now a thriving young forest, and our camera traps show orangutans, elephants, sunbears and so many more species returning.

Planting trees to restore rainforest undoubtedly makes an important contribution to conservation efforts. However, we must also look beyond the trees, and consider how we can be confident that we are making a long-term difference to the protection of forests.

When an area of rainforest is destroyed by people or companies who want to use the land to grow crops, it’s not enough to simply plant trees and put up a signboard claiming the land back as a reforestation site. We must ensure that those trees, and the untouched primary forest beyond, remain standing, as an intact and functioning ecosystem.

No matter how many trees we plant, the most essential element of successful rainforest restoration is the true, deep engagement of the communities who live next to the forest in becoming its protectors, and defending its borders from future threats.

So, just as we plant and nurture trees, the team in Sumatra are also putting down deep roots in these communities, transforming them into conservation ambassadors, and guardians of the ecosystem.

Planting a tree is a symbol of hope, and represents a brighter future for Sumatra’s forests, wildlife, and communities.

Find out more and get involved: orangutans-sos.org/join
Photo credit: Gita Dafoe

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