Saving Sumatra's Wild Orangutans Some scientists believe the orangutan — a Malay word that translates to "man of the forest" — may soon become extinct, wiped out by the humans it so closely resembles. We travel to the Indonesian island of Sumatra to profile competing plans to save the great ape.
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Saving Sumatra's Wild Orangutans

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Saving Sumatra's Wild Orangutans

Saving Sumatra's Wild Orangutans

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Wild orangutans are only found in two places. One is Malaysia. The other is the Indonesian island where we're going next, Sumatra. Some scientists believe the orangutan, man of the forest, may soon become extinct because people are destroying the forests where the animals live.

Our latest NPR National Geographic Radio Expedition takes us to the orangutan's territory in the northern Sumatran province of Ache(ph). Here's NPR's Michael Sullivan.


Ian Singleton is crazy about orangutans. And it's a good thing too. Otherwise you might wonder why he spent more than two years in the swamps of western Sumatra tracking orangutans from dawn to dusk.

Mr. IAN SINGLETON (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program): It gets a bit of a drag after a while. Most of the time you're bored to death, miserable, itchy, getting bitten by flies and leeches. Every now and again you see orangutans do something that you've never seen before.

SULLIVAN: Singleton is 40 years old with red hair and a wry grin. He smokes constantly, tells bad jokes, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Mad magazine's Alfred E. Newman. He's the scientific director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, and he probably knows more about orangutans in the wild than just about anyone.

This morning he's sharing some of that knowledge with strangers, near the Ctombe(ph) Orangutan Research Center deep in Sumatra's Leuser eco-system.

It's a forest some describe as the most diverse in all of Asia, home to Sumatran tigers, elephants and rhinos, sun bears, clouded leopards and, yes, orangutans, the only truly arboreal apes, who spend most of their day on the move in the trees.

We're moving now too, down a narrow path in the near darkness, as the forest starts to wake, scanning the canopy above, looking for orangutans in their nests.

Singleton stops, lights a cigarette, and points to a spot 70 feet up.

Mr. SINGLETON: There's an orangutan up there called Chris. (unintelligible) still in their nest, but in about five minutes he'll probably get out of the nest, do their ablutions and then move off and find a tree to (unintelligible) fruit for an hour or two, probably.

SULLIVAN: And sure enough, a few minutes later Chris does just that. Orangutans don't just travel in the trees, they eat, sleep and mate there too, rarely setting foot on the ground. They are graceful creatures with long, reddish golden hair and arms and legs they use interchangeably. In zoos they have a reputation as the strongest and most destructive of the Great Apes. In the wild they're movements are languid, almost casual, as they move from tree to tree, carefully inspecting the fruit on offer.

Mr. SINGLETON: They're very fussy eaters sometimes. Fruit has to be at just the right stage of ripeness.

I had an orangutan in a zoo that would only eat Granny Smith apples. If you gave her Golden Delicious, she's not interested, she'd just throw them away.

SULLIVAN: Chris is raining rejects down on us as we talk, half-eaten bits of fruit which have failed inspection.

Ian Singleton's fascination with orangutans began when he got his first job, as a zookeeper at Britain's Jersey Zoo in the primate house.

Mr. SINGLETON: Because they're forced to live semi-solitary lives, they're often very selfish.

SULLIVAN: Forced to live or choose to live?

Mr. SINGLETON: We think forced to live, because big fruit trees are scattered in the forest. The chimpanzee and gorillas, they'll eat a lot of this foliage that you find on the ground, so you can afford to bring a lot of friends around, because they're not going to steal your food resource. But with an orangutan, if you know a good fruit tree, you don't want to share it with anybody else, because then you have to travel another kilometer every day. It's much better to travel on your own and not tell anybody where the food is.

SULLIVAN: They don't tell anybody much of anything, Singleton says, vocalizing far less than other apes, mostly because they spend so much time on their own. His enthusiasm and fascination is tempered with concern and fear that the Sumatran orangutan may soon become extinct. A few hundred years ago, he reckons, there were hundreds of thousands living in Sumatra's forests. Scientists think there are only about 7,000 left in the wild today.

Low-land forest is where orangutans thrive, or used to anyway. Today they compete with humans for habitat, and they usually lose.

Fifty miles to the south of Ctombe, the forest is disappearing fast, the trees sold for timber, like these along the main road, or cleared to make way for rice paddies or huge cornfields that help feed Indonesia's fast growing population - the fourth largest in the world.

Most people here see orangutans as pests, or pets, something to be controlled or gotten rid of, not protected.

Many developing nations have embraced ecotourism as one way to attract tourist dollars and preserve endangered species. Indonesia has been less successful than others.

(Soundbite of music)

Bukit Lawang is about three hours from the provincial capital, Medan, and it's a popular spot for visitors who wish to see orangutans in the wild, where tourists can watch rangers coax the orangutans from the trees with bananas and milk. The tourists get what they came for, and the local economy benefits too, from the money the tourists spend in hotels and restaurants. Everybody wins. Everybody, an annoyed Ian Singleton says, except the orangutans.

Outside the dining room of one hotel, an orangutan named Adida(ph) is going from cottage to cottage, prying the lids off garbage cans, rummaging inside for scraps before moving on to the next one. And it makes Ian Singleton angry.

Mr. SINGLETON: As long as you're going to have hotels right next to wildlife, you're going to have this problem. If you've got really wild animals it's never a problem, but these guys are not afraid of people and are quite confident to come down and roam around places where people are staying.

SULLIVAN: As imperfect as this may be, Singleton also recognizes it may be better than nothing.

Mr. SINGLETON: If we move these animals away, we could have a backlash from the local people. These are our tourism resource and you don't want to move them all deep in the forest where no tourist can ever find them again. You remove all the orangutans from this area, and then they'll start illegally logging.

SULLIVAN: But Singleton thinks he has a better solution, and it begins here at the Orangutan Conservation Program's quarantine station, down an unmarked road about a five-hour drive from the circus at Bukit Lawang.

With orangutan numbers and habitat dwindling, Singleton's group is in the process of reintroducing orangutans in the south of Sumatra, where they were hunted to extinction about 150 years ago. There is still plenty of forest of in the south, much of it protected, and Singleton is using cast-offs, orphans and misfits like Adida to population his ark.

Mr. SINGLETON: What we're trying to do is slow down the decline, so that when Indonesia does eventually start to take more concern over its wildlife, there's still enough left to salvage.

SULLIVAN: In a huge cage near the back, more than a dozen young adults greet a new batch of humans with tricks they learned at school.

(Soundbite of orangutans)

These orangutans were rescued from a private zoo in Malaysia. They will stay at the Quarantine Center for a few months before being crated up one last time for the trip down south. Here, the orangutans don't rummage through garbage cans, and tourists are forbidden. To ensure the animals stay healthy.

Mr. SINGLETON: All our own staff are vaccinated against everything, tetanus and all that kind of stuff. Anybody who's been tested can come in, but anybody who's not been test cannot.

SULLIVAN: You're more worried about the humans being a threat to the animals than the animals being a threat to the humans.

Mr. SINGLETON: It's my job to look after the animals. It's not my job to look after the humans. Other people can do that.

SULLIVAN: About 60 orangutans have been released down south so far, and Singleton says roughly 500 are needed to jumpstart a genetically viable population there - a population that may help ensure that the Sumatran orangutan doesn't disappear in the wild.

For Radio Expeditions, I'm Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

INSKEEP: We'll have more on the effort to save the forest tomorrow.

Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. And if you want to hear podcasts, visit

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