Leuser: The Last Place on Earth

Morning rain falls in Aceh Bara Daya on the western edge of Sumatra, Indonesia, just outside the six million acre Leuser Ecosystem. It’s home to an estimated 14,000 Sumatran orangutans – down from over 230,000 less than a century ago – numbers that put the red-haired great ape, whose name means “person of the forest” in the Malay and Indonesian languages, on the critically endangered list.

Leuser is also home to Sumatran elephants, tigers and rhinos – all iconic and critically endangered. Their survival is inextricably linked to the health of this vital ecosystem.

We are jammed into a trio of blacked out Toyota Avanza minivans containing a half dozen police and members of the Orangutan Information Centre, an Indonesian NGO dedicated to saving the endangered apes, led by its director Panut Hadisiswoyo.

Our objective: the confiscation of a juvenile orangutan held captive in a small village.

After an hour on the road, we pull up to a small, ramshackle house. OIC staff and the police exit the vehicles and calmly approach the owner and his family. Perhaps they can placate the man into releasing his captive.

Authorities approaching the house where a juvenile orangutan is being held illegally.

As a small group interrogates the owner on the dirt floor of his home, tucked inside an adjacent narrow and dark concrete alley is a young orangutan. It looks to be about three years old. A water bowl sits at its feet, while a metal chain circles its neck; the other end is bolted to the wall. This gives the animal – whose mother traveled five kilometers a day across a canopy of 60-foot trees – just three feet of slack, barely enough room to move. The owner tells us that he paid the equivalent of $100 USD for this endangered animal, feeding it a diet of rice and water for ten months.

A three-year-old captive — a prisoner of the palm oil industry and black market.

The orangutan, its sex still undetermined, is tranquilized and freed from its bonds for the first time in months. Krisna of the OIC, clad in a mask and gloves to protect the young orang from disease, carries it to the vehicle, where it is eventually placed in a crate and driven an exhausting 15 hours to the Orangutan Conservation Programme.

A week later we meet Dr. Singleton and a team of veterinarians as they evaluate the health and sex (female) of the orangutan. She is given a name – Irmelin.

Irmelin on her way to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme where she will be rehabilitated and, eventually, released back into the wild rainforests of Leuser.

After her physical exam, Irmelin is placed alone in a large cage, still groggy from the anesthesia. She eventually comes to, but stays mostly out of site perched in a hammock, understandably confused by her new surroundings and leery of the humans who are now charged with her protection. Over the next 18 months, Irmelin will be habituated to a forest diet, taught to climb trees, source water and food, and build nests.

Dr. Singleton stands at her cage with a weary look of resignation. “She’s effectively a refugee. But, we’ve got her back, and she has a chance at being a wild orang for the rest of her days and contributing to the survival of the species.”

Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

But that bright future is clouded by the clear and present danger imposed by a commodity firmly entrenched in our world’s industrial food supply – an oil that is relentlessly harvested, milled, refined and trucked day and night throughout Sumatra, biting chunks out of Leuser and the population of animals that call it home.

Palm Oil Accelerates the Devastation

The industry of choice in Sumatra is palm oil, and the fronds of the tree that bears the fruit, Elaeis Guineensis, dominate the landscape where dense, ancient jungle once stood. In the last 25 years, more than a quarter of Indonesia’s forests – 76 million acres – have disappeared for its cultivation.

Harvested palm fruit before being shipped to the mills for processing into crude oil.

Food scientists explain that palm oil, one of the world’s most versatile commodities, is used in over 50 percent of products consumed in the Western world, including snack foods, shampoo, toothpaste and cosmetics. It’s an essential emulsifier and binder – it’s what keeps foods like Nutella soft at room temperature.

Inside an industrial processor, palm oil works its way into our food. An expert explains that, ironically, it is the most ecologically efficient of all vegetable oils – it requires little water and delivers more oil per acre than soy, corn, and canola. And, according to a recent study, there is sufficient arable land around the world to produce enough sustainable oil to meet the world’s demand, which makes the destruction of Leuser all the more tragic.

However, this isn’t a story about the evils of a crop. It’s a story about the greed, corruption and ecological devastation wrought by the machine that feeds this $44 billion industry. It is also a story about the human spirit, and the remarkable will possessed by many to fight against this machine to save “the last place on earth.”

One of the many palm plantations throughout Sumatra.

So how does it get from a plantation in Indonesia into our food? Few understand the supply chain; it’s closely guarded by the mafia and corrupt Indonesian officials who benefit enormously from its production.

While many of the international conglomerates that purchase the oil – Pepsi, Unilever, and Nabisco, chief among them – claim to source sustainable oil, they in fact buy from refineries that mask their upstream supply chain, the growers and mills. And there’s little evidence that these manufacturers will push the refineries to source responsibly in the absence of intense consumer pressure. The film will lift this veil and tie the consumer directly to the remote land where the crop is produced. By exposing the truth, and igniting the will of an educated populace, international conglomerates will be forced to clean up their supply chain, restoring hope to Leuser.

The team moves through Sumatra, documenting the plantations that have sprung up illegally. Along the way, workers talk of the long, brutal days they must endure to meet harvest quotas imposed upon them by their overseers. These quotas are so stringent, it is not uncommon to find children as young as ten assisting in the harvest.

Using intelligence from undercover informants, we locate and film an excavator as it carves out a slice of the Tripa Peat Swamps, the ecologically rich land that is home to the largest concentrations of orangutans on earth. While Tripa is “protected” under Indonesian law, lax enforcement fails to deter its destruction.

Illegal excavation destroys primal rainforest in the Leuser Ecosystem.

As the machine razes the trees, it carves massive canals, sucking water from the swamps. When dry, the peat – often 20-30 meters deep and rich in carbon produced by millennia of growth and decay – is lit on fire, transforming a once rich and verdant habitat into an apocalyptic wasteland, suitable for just one thing: planting palm seeds.

Peat swamps ravaged by illegal excavation and deliberate fires.

Raging Fires

Climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann explains that these fires not only destroy thousands of square miles of jungle, they release so much carbon and methane into the atmosphere that Indonesia had, on certain days in 2015, surpassed the U.S. and China as the largest carbon emitter, and ranked it fourth in the world over the entire year. It is a suicidal mission – destroying a biologically rich carbon sink, which yields oxygen and rainfall – to produce a single crop.

From the air, the fires that burn and the haze that rises look like the end of the world.

Raging fires wreaking havoc on the Sumatran rainforest.

The Supply Chain

Our crew monitors trucks leaving illegal palm plantations, often stretching for hundreds of miles. As a truck leaves, loaded to the top with rows and rows of the spiky, thorny fruit, we follow – tracking it with a drone and cameras on the ground. The truck turns into a mill, one of many that dot the landscape, and dumps its fruit on the tarmac.

Workers loading palm oil fruit onto trucks bound for the mills.

We hang back and follow a tanker, filled with crude oil, that leaves the mill and heads south for the long drive to the Port of Belawan; there, refineries turn the crude into sweet oil, and pipe it into ships destined for ports in America, Europe and Asia. When its driver stops for food, our Indonesian fixer places a tracking device on the truck’s under carriage, allowing us to monitor its position from a safe distance.

Belawan, ringed with military bases and police, is a high security zone. Hidden under an awning on a small side road, we launch a drone as the tanker drives into a refinery owned by one of the big names – Wilmar, Asian Agri, Cargill, GAR and Musim Mas – which account for 80% of palm oil sold. We watch and wait.

The heavily guarded port of Belawan, where palm oil shipments leave Sumatra bound for the United States, Europe and other international destinations.

With the help of our supply chain expert, which has informants inside the port supplying tracking numbers for ships, we discern which ships destined for the U.S. draw oil from the refinery that processed the illegal oil.

Palm Oil in the U.S.

We are in Savannah, Georgia, the port that receives ships from Southeast Asia carrying the sweet crude destined for U.S. manufacturers. Finally, the ship with our tracking number, the one that left Belawan a few weeks before, arrives and dispenses its product into trucks.

We track these trucks to plants owned by a major conglomerate (such as Pepsi Co.), documenting for the first time conflict palm oil winding its way into the heart of one of the biggest snack food companies on the planet – and, in turn, to the consumers whose educated choices can turn the tide of destruction.

A bridge under construction cuts through the heart of Leuser.

The Animal Trade

The black-market trade in exotic animals is big business. Estimated at $20-$30 billion, it is right behind narcotics and human trafficking as an illegal cash generator.

A poached Sumatran tiger, the smallest of all tiger subspecies. Fewer than 400 exist today.

In Northern Sumatra, known for its high concentration of tigers, poachers lay hundreds of snares, hoping to snag one of the last 100 or so of these elusive cats. We follow rangers through dense land, their eyes wide open in fear of a sudden attack from the animal they are devoted to protect.

We embed with poachers who walk miles deep into the jungle hoping to shoot out of the sky the giant helmeted hornbill – a black bird with a six-foot wingspan that resembles a flying dinosaur. Its crest, made of what is known as red ivory, is prized by the Chinese, who carve it into ornaments for sale in the markets of Hong Kong and Shanghai. More valuable than the tusks from elephants, demand for it has driven this rare bird, which mates for life, to the brink of extinction faster than any other species. At this rate, the loud thump of its wings high up in the canopy will be but a memory within three generations. While it is easy to revile the men who shoot these magnificent birds, it is necessary to know them and understand what drives them to do what they do.

Perhaps the most in demand resident of Leuser is the orangutan. As more land is cleared for palm, orangutans are left clustered in small islands of trees bordered by villages that encroach on their territory. Stranded with limited food sources, the hungry apes inevitably venture into neighborhoods, putting them into precarious contact with villagers who perceive them not as invaluable members of a complex ecosystem but as a nuisance, threat or commodity for the black market.

According to Dr. Ian Singleton, the villagers attack and kill the adults with clubs, knives, bows and arrows or air rifles in horrific displays of violence. Young orphans are kept alive for distribution to the pet trade.

An orphaned baby orangutan being taught forest survival skills so that it can one day be released into the wild.

Our team has access to a highly sensitive sting operation, which is tracking the distribution of young orangutans through Medan International Airport to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta and into the Middle East and Europe. The massive organization requires the coordination of poachers, traders, airport security, police and, ultimately, the kingpins in charge.

We embed with the police as they conduct surveillance on a driver who transports an orangutan from a village to Medan Airport. Their source? A former trader now working undercover. He explains how the operation works, and wears a button camera to secretly capture footage inside the operation.

We follow the police through months of investigations as they assemble the puzzle, one piece at a time. Finally, the time has come. Strike teams in the Middle East and Europe descend upon the men and women behind the illegal trade. Their arrests generate international headlines.

The Local Warriors

A unique cadre of local characters – all with their own drives, passions and obsessions that led them to this remote and ancient land – gives us hope that Leuser can be saved.

Orangutan Information Centre staff preparing to dart a wild orangutan so that it can be relocated to dense, protected forest.

Farwiza Farhan (Wiza), co-founder of the Forest Nature and Environment Aceh (HAkA), isn’t scared of anybody. She’ll tell you that she’s had a hit put on her for her efforts to expose the palm oil trade, but that doesn’t stop her from forging ahead. Charismatic and fearless, Wiza heads a lawsuit filed against the national Indonesian government to force the provincial Acehnese government to consider Leuser in their spatial plan – in other words, don’t destroy it for the sake of roads, bridges, more palm plantations and geothermal energy plants. While their claim presently stands rejected, neither Wiza nor her cohorts are done with this fight.

Rudi Putra is quiet, reserved and diminutive. But he’s steely and willing to stand up to the illegal palm oil plantations. He’s shut them down in the past by educating local communities on the necessary flood protection that a healthy rainforest provides. He and his band of brothers venture into palm oil territory and cut the trees down, one by one, replanting them with native vegetation.

Panut Hadisiswoyo, whom we met when we rescued Irmelin, is an outspoken and passionate defender of one of our closest cousins. He and his Orangutan Information Center team utilize information provided by informants to locate captive apes. And when they’re not on rescue missions, they’re venturing into regions ripe for deforestation to dart orangutans out of the canopy and release them into more protected areas. It’s a desperate, and at times brutal, measure to save the “person of the forest.”

And then there are the Acehnese warriors – fierce militia fighters who fought in a civil war between 1976 – 2005 to secede from Indonesia, before a truce brought an end to the insurgency. These men will do anything to protect their jungle, including torching the illegal excavators that consume Leuser, destroying their livelihood. While violence is a recourse, they are savvy enough to take part in Wiza’s lawsuit – so there they sit, in court, as rulings are read determining the fate of their land they depend on to protect their villages from flooding, the land they have roamed for centuries.

The Reckoning

The team presents concrete evidence of conflict palm oil shipped directly to Pepsi Co., evidence supported by filmed footage and data collected by the Rainforest Action Network. Will Pepsi executives respond on camera? Will they attempt to brush off the allegations with carefully worded statements? How will they react when footage is released on social media, igniting world-wide indignation?

Irmelin’s Release

Eighteen months have passed since Irmelin was rescued from the alleyway. Her caretakers at Dr. Singleton’s sanctuary outside Medan are impressed with her rehabilitation. Since she likely received little human contact while in custody, Irmelin retained her wild nature and has quickly learned the behaviors necessary to prosper – foraging for food, nest building, and socialization with other orangutans.

We’re at the northern reaches of Leuser, hundreds of miles from where Irmelin was captured. The terrain is difficult and requires all the horsepower our trucks can muster to navigate the swampy terrain. Finally, after two days of driving, we reach our destination. Or rather, Irmelin’s. Dr. Singleton and Panut remove the crate from the truck. Peering through the bars, Irmelin’s inquisitive and soulful eyes seem human.

Irmelin’s crate is placed against a large metal cage. Both doors are opened and she quickly scampers into her new temporary home, where she’ll remain for two months getting acclimated to her new surroundings – the sights, smells and sounds of deep rainforest and the other orangutan that were released here by Ian’s team.

Finally, it’s time. As Ian and his team watch anxiously, Irmelin’s door is opened and she is set free. She goes straight to ground and glides to the base of a 100 foot tree. She peers back one time, as if to say goodbye and thank you, before climbing straight up towards a large male who’s been watching her since her arrival.

Drones and cameras filming from the canopy capture her first truly free moments in nearly two years and some truly remarkable behavior. Oscar, the large male, helps Irmelin learn how to move from tree to tree, even offering his back as support. It’s a learned behavior that is taught by mothers to their offspring. Ian remarks that it’s the first time he’s witnessed a male teaching a young orangutan. But perhaps this is a sign of the true intelligence of this remarkable species. Now they’re both free to roam the forests without threat, destined to become ancestors of a new, thriving population of orangutan.

A relocated orangutan swiftly takes to her new home.

One Last Shot

Generic music plays – it’s the mundane soundtrack of everyday life. From high above, a wide-angle view of shoppers pushing carts through a supermarket. Choosing, purchasing, consuming, oblivious of the world that exists thousands of miles away known as “the last place on earth.”