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Learning to swing

  • Written by  Hazel Southam
  • Published in Wildlife
Learning to swing Javarman
16 May
A team of British tree surgeons are heading to the Indonesian island of Sumatra next month to help rescue endangered orang-utans from the rainforest

The tree surgeons, who normally spend their days felling trees, will head to Medan in northern Sumatra to teach a local team of orang-utan rescuers basic tree-climbing skills. It is in a bid to save more of the primates, as their numbers plummet.

The Sumatran rescue team, known as the Human Orang-utan Conflict Response Unit, was set up in 2010. They travel across Sumatra rescuing orang-utans that have become stuck in limited areas of forest, something that happens as surrounding trees are felled for logging or to make space for palm oil plantations.

Although they are a protected species, scientists say that around 1,000 orang-utans are poached each year, either for the pet trade or, worse, to be eaten.

Rescuers can spend days tracking orang-utans from the ground, waiting for a vet to be able to fire an anaesthetic dart safely at the animal. The primates are then caught as they fall from the trees and later returned to larger areas of forest. More than 60 have been rescued since 2012, including eight so far this year.

Helen Buckland, director of the Sumatran Orang-utan Society said, ‘This is a last resort as there’s a high risk to both orang-utans and people. But it has to happen as conflict between people and orang-utans is a major problem. Increasingly, as the rain forest is cut down, orang-utans are coming into farmland in search of food.’

The team of five from the UK – which includes the three tree surgeons – will teach the orang-utan rescuers basic tree-climbing skills, used every day to both fell and prune trees in the UK.

Palm oil plantations, the building of roads and houses, and logging led to 61 per cent of Sumatra’s rain forest being felled between 1985–1997 according to the Orang-utan Information Centre in Medan. More than 1.5 million hectares – an area nearly as big as Wales – was felled between 2009 and 2013.

This article was published in the May 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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