Even in the first light of dawn in the Tripa swamp forest of Sumatra, Indonesia, it is clear that something is terribly wrong. Where there should be lush foliage stretching away toward the horizon, there are only the skeletons of trees. Smoke drifts across a scene of devastation.
Tripa is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the world’s most ecologically important rainforests and once home to its densest population of Sumatran orangutans.
As recently as 1990, there were 60,000 hectares of swamp forest in Tripa: Now just 10,000 remain, the rest grubbed up to make way for palm oil plantations servicing the needs of some of the world’s biggest brands.
Over the same period, the population of 2,000 orangutans has dwindled to just 200.
In the face of international protests, Indonesia banned any fresh felling of forests two years ago, but battles continue in the courts over existing plantation concessions.
Here, on the edge of one of the remaining stands of forest, it is clear that the destruction is continuing.
Deep trenches have been driven through the peat, draining away the water, killing the trees, which have been burnt and bulldozed. The smell of wood smoke is everywhere. However, of the orangutans who once lived here, there is not a trace.
This is the tough physical landscape in which environmental campaigners fighting to save the last of the orangutans are taking on the plantation companies, trying to keep track of what is happening on the ground so that they can intervene to rescue apes stranded by the destruction.
However, physically entering the plantations is dangerous and often impractical; where the water has not been drained away, the ground is a swamp, inhabited by crocodiles.
Where canals have been cut to drain away the water, the dried peat is thick and crumbly and it is easy to sink up to the knees. Walking even short distances away from the roads is physically draining and the network of wide canals has to be bridged with logs. The plantations do not welcome visitors, and reporters have to evade security guards to gain entrance.
To overcome these problems, campaigners have turned to a technology that has become controversial for its military usage, but that in this case could help to save the orangutans and their forest: drones.
Graham Usher, from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP), produces a large flight case and starts to unpack his prized possession, a polystyrene Raptor aircraft with a 2m wingspan and cameras facing forward and down.
The ￡2,000 (US$3,300) drone can fly for more than half an hour over a range of 30km to 40km, controlled by a computer, recording the extent of the destruction of the forest.
“The main use of it is to get real time data on forest loss and confirm what’s going on with fires,” he says.
They can also use the drone to track animals that have been fitted with radio collars.
Graham opens his computer and clicks on a video. Immediately, the screen fills with an aerial view of forest, then a cleared patch of land and then new plantation as the drone passes overhead.
“We are getting very powerful images of what is going on in the field,” he says.
The footage is helping them to establish where new burning is taking place and which plantations are potentially breaking the law.
Areas of forest where the peat is deeper than 3m should be protected — the peat is a carbon trap — but in practice many plantations do not measure the depth.