Fighting Deforestation with S.O.S.

Fighting Deforestation with S.O.S.

Indonesia is a country that's literally woven into everything we do at TAMGA. The majority of our production partners are on the islands of Java and Bali where our sustainable wood-based fabrics are spun, woven, knit and dyed. Over the years we've loved spending time in Sumatra, also known as ground zero for the deforestation crisis in Indonesia. On the eve of our Forest-Friendly Friday campaign we caught up with Rachel from the Sumatran Orangutan Society (S.O.S.) to chat about the role that fashion is playing in this crisis, and how consumers can help. 

TAMGA: Tell us a bit about the story behind S.O.S, how did it all start? Where do you work? 

Rachel: The charity was started in 1997 by Lucy Wisdom, who started her career as part of a circus act. Following treatment for breast cancer in 1994, she travelled to Sumatra where she started as a volunteer at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Bohorok, North Sumatra. She stayed on, leading the young apes up vines into the forest canopy to hone their skills in their natural environment.

Lucy soon realized that saving individual apes could not prevent the imminent extinction of the species as a result of the loss of the animals' habitat caused by logging, burning and palm oil plantations. In the process of setting up the Sumatran Orangutan Society, she embarked on a crash course of learning that included travelling to the third International Great Apes Conference at Kuching, Borneo, in 1998, where she met leading primatologists and animal rights advocates. Finding that she was the only attendee with raspberry-pink hair, she later toned down her flamboyance at official events. 

In 2001, SOS co-founded the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) with a group of Indonesian conservationists working with local communities living in North Sumatra and Aceh to protect orangutans as a keystone species in the rainforest ecosystem. S.O.S. evolved its policy of collaboration with local Sumatran programmes, helping to finance conservation classes, touring roadshows, tree-planting schemes and eco-treks.

 Sumatran Orangutan

As Lucy faced more illness in 2005, Helen Buckland was invited to take over as Director in 2005 and has led the Sumatran Orangutan Society ever since. Lucy sadly died in 2009, but is survived by her mother who still supports the charity.

Sticking with the principle of using local experts to implement programs where possible, our operations in the UK are lean and nimble. In Sumatra on the ground, in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces, we are proud to still be working with OIC, as well as with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) and other partners such as HaKa. Where necessary, we pull in expertise from around the world from other NGOs and consider this ability to respond as a situation arises as one of our key strengths in tackling the issues facing orangutans.

T: Half of Sumatra’s forests have been destroyed in just 20 years, what’s behind this massive deforestation?

R: There are a variety of reasons why deforestation in Sumatra has occurred at such a drastic rate over the last 20 years.

Population Growth

The Indonesian Population has more than tripled in that time, despite a proactive family planning policy which was introduced in 1967. This means there is even more demand on the natural resources needed to sustain families, especially in the more rural and poor areas, such as the areas bordering on the rainforest where orangutans live.

Palm Oil

Palm oil plantations have obviously played a huge part in this deforestation. The soil in rainforests is very fertile and things grow very fast. There has been a huge surge in demand for palm oil in the last 20 years. It’s in everything from biscuits to toothpaste and has led to Indonesian farmers and firms seeing huge potential for growing palm oil trees for profit. Thousands and thousands of hectares of pristine rainforest were bulldozed or burnt to make way for this lucrative crop. 

In April 2016, however, the Indonesian President declared a moratorium on any new palm oil concession licenses being issued. Whilst illegal palm oil plantations are still being planted, there seems to be a genuine willingness at both government and local level to tackle this.

Roads & Infrastructure Development

This is now the biggest threat to the orangutan’s forest home. The Indonesian government is under pressure to provide improved infrastructure, such as roads and electricity to all corners of Sumatra. This means that there are constant new suggestions and threats to build a new dam, a new road, a new mine right in the middle of pristine rainforest.


Local farmers copy what they see the big agribusinesses doing. They see the profit from palm oil and decide to plant their own few hectares. This small-scale activity chips away into the forest and creates a monoculture that effectively kills biodiversity.

Loggers & Poachers

These are the opportunistic side effects of poor forest governance. Once people cut down a few trees, someone else cuts down more. This then creates easier access to the forest and the forest animals, which leads in turn to poaching. Despite the fact that keeping orangutans as a pet has long been illegal, they still fetch a considerable sum on the black market.

Sumatra Rainforest Batang Toru

Batang Toru rainforest in North Sumatra (credit: Sumatran Orangutan Society)

T: The role of Rayon-Viscose fabric in deforestation has only been exposed in recent years with the help of great organizations like Canopy. How important is it that fashion consumers take notice?

R: Believe it or not, 70 million trees disappear every year into the clothing we all wear. We have no problem with fabric made from sustainably managed forests, which are replanted soon after being harvested, but there is a large amount of fabric on the market from ancient and endangered forests – including the tropical rainforests of Indonesia. Some of these forests are being logged, pulped and turned into fabrics that show up on runways, in boutiques and on the shelves of your local mall. It’s a growing and harmful trend.

Demand for clothing made with rayon, viscose and other wood-based fabrics is mounting, which means fashion is increasingly behind the devastating loss of endangered forests around the globe.

"We would like consumers to sit up and take notice. That means asking where the manufacturer sourced their materials from. And if they can’t answer, don’t buy it." 

Captured Orangutan

Sumatran Orangutan

T: Part of your work is rescuing orangutans and returning them to safe forests, which sounds pretty dangerous. How do you do it?

R: The Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) has two units which are active in Sumatra. They rescue orangutans from two different scenarios:

1) An orangutan has become isolated in an area where deforestation means that they may starve or come into conflict with farmers for crop raising.

2) They receive a report that an orangutan is being kept illegally somewhere and are sent to investigate.

Around two thirds of cases are rescues from an unsafe area of forest. In this instance, the team will track and search for the orangutan. This can sometimes take a day or two, as there is usually an unavoidable time-lag between a report and the team arriving to check it out. When they find the orangutan, they carefully line a net up underneath the orangutan and hold it in position. A skilled marksman then fires a tranquiliser at the orangutan. If successful this then takes a few seconds to work and causes the orangutan to fall into the net.

A vet will then do a quick field medical to determine whether the orangutan is healthy enough to be re-released immediately. If so, the orangutan will be put in a crate and carefully carried back to the van. It will then be driven (and carried if necessary) to a deeper part of the forest for release on the same day.

If the orangutan seems ill or starving, he or she will be taken to SOCP’s rehabilitation centre for monitoring and more thorough blood tests. Sometimes orangutans have been shot several times and will need considerable time to recover.

If an orangutan is being kept illegally as a pet, the team will go to rescue her and usually take the orangutan straight to the rehabilitation centre, as many have been kept in confined quarters for many years and have no idea how to fend for themselves sin the wild. It can takes months and years of training and forest school to equip them for the wild. Sadly, these situations can also be dangerous. Although it’s illegal to keep an orangutan as a pet, those responsible are often high up in the military, judiciary or police. This means the team have to tread a fine line between their desire to prosecute and the need to rescue the orangutan in question. In practice this means believing the official when they say they “only just found” the orangutan.

T: Any tips for our readers who want to make sure their purchases are not contributing to the problem?

R: My main tip would be “Look at labels, look at ingredients”. It can be boring, but you soon get to know who the companies are who are trying their best. Palm oil in itself isn’t necessarily bad – in fact it’s a very efficient crop – you can harvest way more palm oil per hectare of crop than you can of coconut oil or soya oil. What you need to think is “Has the manufacturer listed how they have sourced their palm oil?” “Has the manufacturer listed where they have sourced their Rayon?”  If they haven’t, it means they don’t know or haven’t tried to find out. It’s the same as if you want to buy organic. Anyone that’s gone to the trouble of growing organic will tell you. Look for the guys who are boasting about their supply chain. They wouldn’t dare if they weren’t sure!

Rachel Groves


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