Saving Orangutans in Borneo
Orangutan in Borneo, photo by Rhett Butler
Saving Orangutans in Borneo
Rhett Butler, mongabay.com
May 24, 2006
The air is warm and heavy with the morning humidity typical of the Borneo rain forest as our kelotok, a traditional boat, motors up a river so black in color it could be mistaken for ink. The raucous calls of a pair of hornbills can be heard over the rumble of the engine as they fly overhead with their gaudy and over-sized beak adornments.
I scan the surrounding primeval swamp forest for signs of life. Suddenly Thomas cries, “There, in the Nipa palm. An adult male orangutan!” I look up to see a giant red ape casually picking fresh leaves near the top of a riverside palm tree. He watches us before quietly moving back into the forest.
This is the first of many wild orangutans we will encounter over the next few days.
I’m in Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. At 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) Tanjung Puting is the largest protected expanse of coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest in southeast Asia. It’s also one of the biggest remaining habitats for the critically endangered orangutan, the population of which has been great diminished in recent years due to habitat destruction and poaching. Orangutans have become the focus of a much wider effort to save Borneo’s natural environment.
We are headed to Campy Leakey, named for the renowned Kenyan paleontologist Louis Leakey. Here lies the center of the Orangutan Research Conservation Project. Established by Biruté Mary Galdikas, a preeminent primatologist and founder of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), the project seeks to support the conservation and understanding of the orangutan and its rain forest habitat while rehabilitating ex-captive individuals. The Orangutan Research Conservation Project is the public face of orangutan conservation in this part of Kalimantan, the Indonesia-controlled part of Borneo.
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once home to some of the world’s most majestic, and forbidding forests. With swampy coastal areas fringed by mangrove forests and a mountainous interior, much of the terrain was virtually impassable and unexplored. Headhunters ruled the remote parts of the island until a century ago.
Young orangutan feeding while hanging from tree. Photo by Rhett Butler.
In the 1980s and 1990s Borneo underwent a remarkable transition. Its forests were leveled at a rate unparalleled in human history. Its rain forests went to industrialized countries like Japan and the United States in the form of garden furniture, paper pulp and chopsticks. Initially most of the timber was taken from the Malaysian part of the island in the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Later, forests in the southern part of Borneo, an area belonging to Indonesia and known as Kalimantan, became the primary source for tropical timber.
Today the forests of Borneo are but a shadow of those of legend. Less than half of the island’s original rain forest remains, and development threatens much of what still stands. With rich gold and mineral deposits, timber resources, hydroelectric potential and low population density in an increasingly crowded region, the island is seen as key to Indonesia’s economic future.
The area around Tanjung Puting, near the city of Pangkalan Bun, provides a good example of what can result from unmanaged exploitation of resources. This region once produced rattan, a vine used for timber, and timber—including ironwood, meranti, sandalwood, and ramin—but these are no longer viable industries due to deforestation. Today most of the countryside is a landscape of savanna and dried peat lands scorched by periodic fires like those that burned nearly 20,000 square miles of forest across Borneo in 1982-1983 and another 4,000 square miles in 1997-1998. Though there are few jobs outside the oil palm plantations, migrants from Java continue to arrive by the boatload on a weekly basis. Some migrants take work in the informal mining sector, which has recently shifted from extracting gold—the deposits of which have been largely exhausted—to silica sand used for industrial purposes in Chinese factories.
Galdikas says that mining has had a noticeable impact on the local environment. The Sekonyer river which naturally runs black, takes on a cafe-au-lait appearance with large amounts of sediment washed downstream from mining operations. Galdikas suggests that an increase in fatal crocodile attacks in recent years—including a British tourist in 2002—may be linked to diminished visibility in the river. She is also concerned by the levels of mercury in the river, since the metal has been linked to diminished mental capacity in newborns, and subsistence fisherman in and around the riverside town of Kumai are dependent on local fish for food.
Finally, the miners show no love for tourists who they feel threaten their livelihood by their presence. Thomas, my naturalist guide who was born on the Indonesian island of Flores but today is based here, says he has had confrontations with miners angry with tourists over taking pictures of the mining operations, fearing that negative exposure could spur a government crackdown.
The lure of mining is evident as we push upriver. Speedboats zip past us, ferrying miners and settlers to and from mining areas and villages. Thomas believes that the increasing population of miners and their proximity to the parklands is a concern.
“I guess 50 people a week go up there. They destroy the land and water but still the local government issues permits, wanting the tax revenue but not caring about the destruction,” he says. “Jakarta doesn’t provide enough funding, so the local government has to find ways to earn money. They want money even if it means the destruction of the forest and pollution of the water.”
While mining currently goes on mainly in already deforested areas, the influx of workers is pressuring forests for building material, fuel wood, and agricultural land.
For now at least. the ubiquitous proboscis monkeys, funny-looking primates characterized by distinctively large noses, don’t seem to mind the passing speedboats. Thomas says they have actually modified their behavior to take advantage of the crocodile’s propensity to avoid these fast-moving vessels. To guard against crocodile attacks when they cross the river, the monkeys generally swim just after a noisy speedboat has passed. If no speedboats are handy, they employ a riskier “guinea pig” strategy, sending a single swimmer as bait. If the swimmer makes it safely across, the rest of the group follows.
The proboscis monkey is just one of nine species of primates found in Tanjung Puting. Overall, Borneo’s richness of species is well-documented, and there are many species still virtually unknown to science. The island was an important influence for Alfred Wallace, a naturalist who devised the theory of natural selection independently and simultaneously with Charles Darwin. Scientists to this day are still turning up species in Borneo that are new to science. The World Wildlife Fund, a conservation organization particularly active in Borneo, reports that researchers discovered 361 species of animals and 441 species of plants between 1994 and 2004.
Just last year, the scientific community was abuzz after a remote camera trap captured two photos of an unknown fox-like creature. The species is apparently so rare that even local hunters failed to recognize it. Meanwhile, the island’s treasure trove of plants houses species with fantastic properties, including one tree that produces a drug—Calanolide A—currently in FDA trials for its anti-HIV properties. Ironically, the potentially life-saving plant was nearly lost to deforestation before its discovery.
These discoveries in tandem with impending development threats have made Borneo the renewed focus of conservation efforts. With the charismatic orangutan as the flagship species for the protected-areas push, groups are pressuring the Indonesian government to reduce logging and cancel massive agricultural projects while more effectively managing parklands. Today most of the focus is on the so-called “Heart of Borneo” in the central part of the island, but ongoing conservation work in Tanjung Puting is of critical importance.
A fragment of forest in a deforested landscape, Tanjung Puting serves as a refuge for rare primates and countless other types of plants and animals. The most famous of these is the orangutan, an ape once distributed throughout southeast Asia but now limited to remnant populations in Sumatra and Borneo due to habitat loss and persistent hunting by mankind. Orangutans share 97 percent of our genetic material and have along been known for their intelligence, which in some tests tops that of a two-year-old human.
In Indonesia, orangutans are currently most threatened by forest destruction, bush meat hunting, and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade. WWF estimates that between 250 and 1,000 wild orangutans are captured and sold on the black market each year. With a total population of fewer than 30,000 individuals and a slow reproductive rate (females rarely give birth to more than three young in a lifetime), this loss is having a significant impact on the population and genetic diversity of the species. Some scientists fear that declining population could reduce the genetic viability of the species and result in its eventual extinction.
Galdikas is working to stem this risk by studying the habits of orangutans and reintroducing captured orangutans into their native rain forest. Her program is the largest of its kind in the world and has reintroduced more than 150 orangutans into the forests of Tanjung Puting. Her program works by rehabilitating orangutans that have been captured in raids or turned over voluntarily to authorities, usually once the orangutan has fallen ill or outgrown the keeper’s capacity to care for the animal. (While baby orangutans may be a cute novelty, adolescent and adult orangutans are strong and intelligent animals capable of mischief or much worse.) Today most orphans come from oil palm plantations. With deforestation, hungry orangutan mothers go into plantations for food. When caught they are killed and their babies kept for sale on the black market or turned over to authorities, who bring them to the care center.
Orphaned orangutans are taken to the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine Facility in the town of Pasir Panjung. Staffed by three full-time veterinarians, plus local assistants and volunteers who take them to the training forest, and equipped with donated medical equipment and supplies, the center enables the staff to provide an excellent level of care for orangutans including surgery and treatment of disease. But beyond physical rehabilitation, many young orangutans—especially orphans—require psychological and social conditioning so they can eventually return to the wild and live as normal orangutans.
Thus the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine Facility features a “training forest” where juvenile orangutans can develop arboreal skills as well as have opportunities to pair up with surrogate mothers who sometimes will raise them as their own. Ideally, these orphans are reintroduced into the wild at six to eight years of age.
Typically when an orangutan is ready for reintroduction, it is taken to a remote forest station within Tanjung Puting. The orangutan is released, but twice a day bananas, rambutan fruit, and milk are left on a feeding platform. Initially a newly released orangutan may rely heavily on the handouts, but in time they become more independent. I had the opportunity to visit several of these platforms at feeding time, including the one at Camp Leakey. Since it was past the peak fruit season, a number of orangutans, ranging from mothers with babies to giant dominant males, showed up, climbing down from the canopy and feeding from the wooden platform.
The feedings not only provide orangutans with nourishment but serve as an important outreach and educational function to the local community, building interest and appreciation for wildlife and the rain forest ecosystem among children and adults alike. Campy Leakey is a popular weekend destination for locals. During the peak season, more than 200 people may visit on a Sunday, paying about 50 cents each to watch the orangutans feed. They are also encouraged to visit the educational exhibit, which explains the rain forest ecology and the importance of the environment.
While Galdikas’ program has successfully reintroduced 200 or more orangutans, bolstered park protection, established economic alternatives for locals, and educated local children about the rain forest, her job has not been easy. Along the way, the professor—as she is known to visitors and staff who have trouble pronouncing her name—has faced tough battles ranging from rival conservation organizations trying to undermine her work in order to curry favor with Indonesian government officials to illegal loggers and oil palm developers making threats on her life.
Galdikas says things were particularly difficult in the aftermath of the downfall of former dictator Suharto, who used strongman tactics to rule the country for 30 years. In the absence of law enforcement, chaos ensued, and the park was invaded by illegal loggers who extracted large amounts of valuable ramin, a white hardwood used for furniture and window blinds, from the forest. Day and night, rafts of logs floated downstream as most of the accessible ramin trees were felled. Galdikas estimates that $120 million of ramin were removed from the park each year during that time. Thomas remembers it well.
“Four to five years ago you would see large rafts of logs coming downstream all hours of the day, even in the middle of the night,” he says, as we admire some giant pitcher plants on the forest floor. “It is easy to cut the trees. With a chainsaw it takes 10 to 15 minutes and a big tree falls. It takes 70-80 years for that tree to regrow. It’s very slow.”
But Thomas says things are changing. “In the last year, the government has gotten very strict to control illegal logging and it appears to be working. With local patrols and OFI’s projects, I think illegal logging is much rarer today,” he says.
Nevertheless, the effects of illegal logging on the park have been significant. A 2004 geographic information system survey found that 40 percent of the park had been stripped of vegetation. Agricultural encroachment—especially rice and shrimp farming, mining (gold and silica), and oil palm plantations established following logging—contributed most to deforestation.
Still, Galdikas stood her ground, enlisting the support of international aid organizations, Orangutan Foundation International donors and, importantly, the local community.
Tree frog in the tropical forest of Borneo
Pitcher plant, Nepenthes reinwardtiana, in rain forest of Borneo
Orangutan climbing while holding a bunch of bananas in its mouth
During the transition period, Galdikas and her organization OFI largely took over the management of the park. Through a USAID grant she has posted “no logging” signs along the rivers and established guard posts in the forest, while OFI now employs some 200 local people in the rehabilitation and protection effort. Local guards now patrol the waterways and forests to report illegal logging and forest clearing. Villagers run reforestation projects aiming to restore trees in deforested areas within the park.
Still, the park is threatened by encroachment and a proposal by a local government minister to redistrict parts of the park for palm oil plantations. Apart from chronic corruption, where virtually any village leader can be bought off with a $1,000 motorcycle, the government is hard up for tax revenue. Oil palm simply provides the most tax revenue (and income) for the cash-strapped local governments (and officials).
As such, there are intense pressures to convert rain forest into palm oil plantations. Galdikas is particularly concerned about plans to reroute a major river to flow east instead of west, depriving the remaining swamp forest in the south of water and effectively setting up the area for oil palm development.
Oil palm is the hot industry in southern Borneo at the moment. Sky-high oil prices have lead to a boom in palm oil, pushing prices to about $400 per metric ton or about $54 a barrel. This has led to the clearing of thousands of square miles of forest in the past few years. In this part of Borneo, swamp forest is generally converted after it has been logged for valuable hardwoods. A drainage canal is then built and the forest is drained. The remaining trees are destroyed through slash-and-burn techniques, and the land is then planted with oil palm seedlings. Within a few years, the oil palm fruits can be harvested and processed for palm oil which yields more oil per unit of area than any other oil seed. A single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 liters of crude. By comparison, soybeans and corn—crops often heralded as top biofuel sources—generate only 446 and 172 liters per hectare, respectively.
Beyond forest conversion, the impact of oil palm on the environment is significant. Oil palm has been shown to deplete the soil of nutrients while palm oil processing factories release damaging palm oil mill effluent, a polluted mix of crushed shells, water and fat residues, into local waterways. Further, the liberal use of petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers ensures that most palm oil cultivation is not only polluting on a local level but also contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Indonesian plantations are so damaging that after a 25-year harvest, oil palm lands are often abandoned for scrubland. Soils may be so leached of nutrients, especially in acidic environments, that few other plants will grow, leaving the area essentially devoid of vegetation other than weedy grasses which serve as tinder for wildfires.
“Oil palm is a very poor crop for the Indonesian people and the environment,” Thomas says as we walk through a blazingly hot area of cleared forest. “All oil palm is good for is government taxes and corruption.”
Oil palm plantations also threaten orangutans drawn to palm fruit and shoots. Galdikas says that plantations bordering forested areas are an especial concern since they tempt orangutans, who are usually shot when spotted and then eaten by plantation workers. Pressure for oil palm development is intense along the northern and western borders of the park.
Despite these threats, a weary Galdikas is cautiously optimistic for the future. She hopes that an increase in the fees—currently $5 per day per person—that tourists pay to visit the park can generated more revenue and encourage the local government to see the economic virtues of ecotourism.
“The local government’s primary concern is revenue,” Galdikas says, as she is joined by an adult female orangutan on the porch of her jungle residence. “If they can earn income from protecting Tanjung Puting for tourists then they will probably do it. But right now oil palm provides the best tax base.”
Moreover, other projects launched by Galdikas and OFI may help win over officials.
“We’ve done a lot to show the local government that our projects have a positive benefit for the local community. For example, our crop diversification project near Kumai avoided catastrophe for a number of families that otherwise would not have been able to feed themselves after the rice crop failed,” she says. “And all the school children love coming out to see the orangutans. On holidays we are almost overwhelmed by visitors.”
For the sake of Borneo’s orangutans let’s hope she’s right.
Orangutan Foundation International [web site: orangutan.org]