A species in trouble

Population and habitat viability assessments show that Bornean orangutan populations of fewer than 50 individuals are not viable in the long term. In such small groups, closely related orangutans are more likely to mate with one another, often allowing genetic defects to surface. When numbers dip too low, any stressor — an extreme storm or a disease outbreak, perhaps — can snuff out the entire group.

The IUCN expects dozens of small orangutan populations to wink out of existence in the next few generations across Borneo, as obstacles such as roads or plantations isolate them in forest fragments. Without an infusion of new genetics and relief from the pressures of hunting and logging, the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya orangutans could be one of these groups sliding toward oblivion.

International Animal Rescue works from a model of “rescue, rehabilitation, release and monitor.” In 2013, the group opened western Borneo’s first orangutan rescue center. It filled quickly with more than 100 orangutans.

The rescue center helps law enforcement tackle the illegal wildlife trade by providing a safe place for orangutans confiscated from pet owners and traffickers.

“If we did not have somewhere to put these animals, they would sit in people’s houses and they would die, and the wild population would be dwindling,” Campbell-Smith said.

“The reason that we find these animals, we bring them in, we rehabilitate them, and we put them back out into the world is to bolster the population that’s already present, because they’re being reduced every single day,” she said.

International Animal Rescue gets a call when a wild orangutan finds itself in trouble — forced into a town by fire, stranded by deforestation, or caught eating a farmer’s crops, for example. If the animal is a healthy adult, International Animal Rescue works with the local government to capture and relocate it to a safer forest. This process is called “translocation.”

Marsela, after five years of rehabilitation, emerges to explore her new home in the rainforest of central Borneo. Image courtesy of Heribertus/IAR Indonesia.

For a rescued pet, juvenile or sick orangutan, a separate “reintroduction” process can take much longer. Veterinarians and caregivers at the rescue center feed and nurture orangutans under 2 years of age in a forest enclosure called “preschool.” Next comes “baby school,” where young orangutans become confident at climbing, foraging, and sleeping outside. At “forest school,” older orangutans hone nest-building skills and socialize with one another instead of with humans.

In the final stage, the apes move to one of International Animal Rescue’s four “islands” — forest plots surrounded by fences or moats where staff members keep an eye on their behavior and choose the most competent orangutans for release. In all, reintroduction can take up to eight years.

Since 2016, International Animal Rescue has released 36 orangutans in Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park. One of the first was Johnny, an 8-year-old male rescued as a pet and rehabilitated for four years. Another was Sabtu, a 25-year-old male with magnificent, flaring cheek pads who had ventured into a farmer’s field after his forest was destroyed by fire.

Two females, Butan and Marsela, were infants found in the remains of forest cleared for oil palm plantations. Neither had the skills to survive on her own, since orangutans usually live with their mothers until they are 7 or 8 years old. Marsela received treatment for severe malaria, and both youngsters learned to climb, forage and build nests in forest school.

When their transport cages were opened in the park, each of these animals immediately ascended into the canopy and began to forage.

Human pressures

The infusion of orangutans into Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park is a huge step forward, but it won’t be enough to ensure the population’s survival. Illegal logging and hunting, the forces that nearly wiped out most of the forest’s original orangutans, are still primary sources of income for communities living on the border of the park.

“In order to protect this forest from logging and hunting, we had to identify the main reasons why people hunt and log,” Sánchez said. “People are really poor in this area and lack potential economic resources. One of the main problems we identified is that people log in order to obtain money to pay for food, education and health.”

That’s why International Animal Rescue reached out to Health In Harmony, an innovative planetary-health organization featured on Mongabay’s April podcast.

Health In Harmony and its Indonesian partner NGO, Alam Sehat Lestari, were founded by Kinari Webb, a medical doctor from the U.S. Since 2007, these two organizations have centered their work on Gunung Palung National Park, a protected rainforest on Indonesian Borneo’s western coast. Health In Harmony relies on community members to identify the issues that are causing local deforestation and design solutions to tackle them, a process Webb calls “radical listening.”

A mobile clinic visits the communities surrounding Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park once a month to support healthcare efforts. The journey involves two days of flights, drives and motorized canoes in each direction. Image by Nina Finley for Mongabay.

These radical listening sessions encouraged Webb to think beyond the boundaries of typical conservation actions. To save orangutan habitat, community members said, Health In Harmony should provide access to affordable, high-quality health care, as much of the income people make from logging goes toward paying medical bills. The community members also requested training in organic farming to provide an alternative livelihood.

Health In Harmony took this advice, and by its measures, the results have been an astonishing success. Surveys by the organization show an 88 percent decrease in the number of households engaged in logging and a 67 percent decrease in infant mortality around Gunung Palung National Park since 2007. Satellite imagery shows 210 square kilometers (81 square miles) of secondary forest regrowth in degraded areas of the park in the same time period.

Sánchez of International Animal Rescue said Health In Harmony had made “amazing progress” for rainforest conservation.

“Why should we reinvent the wheel?” Campbell-Smith asked. “I think actually our partnership is very unique, and I think it’s amazing and it’s needed.”

Introducing a proven model

Health In Harmony was eager to accept International Animal Rescue’s invitation to partner at Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, which lies 280 kilometers (174 miles) inland from Gunung Palung National Park, toward the center of Borneo. Despite their proximity, the two parks aren’t connected by roads. Traveling from one to the other requires two flights, a jostling six-hour drive, and a ride in a motorized canoe.

At Bukit Baka Bukit Raya, Health In Harmony’s first step was to conduct radical listening sessions in nine remote villages on the park’s border. The response was clear: To stop logging and hunting, the majority of community members said, they would need access to health care, as residents around Gunung Palung National Park had. They also asked for cellphone service, access to education for their children, and training in soil restoration techniques as an alternative to the declining yields of slash-and-burn agriculture.

Most urgently, the communities asked for midwives to provide maternal care and birth control. Women were often unable to make the five-hour round trip over rutted, muddy roads to access contraception at the nearest government clinic. These communities reported that two to three women died every year in childbirth, out of a population of 2,000.

Health In Harmony responded quickly by establishing two small health clinics staffed by two midwives and a nurse. The main Alam Sehat Lestari Medical Center supports the effort by sending a mobile clinic and a doctor or dentist each month. In June 2019, a medical doctor will begin to staff the clinic full-time.

Since the clinics opened in November 2018, they have safely delivered seven babies and treated more than 500 patients.

Vini Talenta, one of the midwives, modestly describes her work as “difficult.” The hardest part is the remoteness, she said: no cell signal, no electricity, and a day’s drive to the nearest large town. In the rainy season, floods often make the dirt road impassable.

“But now, I start to enjoy my work here,” Talenta said through a translator. “I feel grateful when I can help people heal.”

Talenta offers her patients reliable birth control pills, implants or injections, and she plans to offer copper intrauterine devices soon. She already has a growing list of interested patients, she said.

Vini Talenta stands in front of her pharmacy holding a woven basket a patient used to pay for healthcare. Image by Nina Finley for Mongabay.

But the Alam Sehat Lestari medical team provides far more than just maternal care. During a recent mobile clinic visit — over the course of just four days — the team cared for an unconscious man in a hypoglycemic coma from alcohol consumption; a woman with bleeding stomach ulcers; a man whose finger was severed down to the first knuckle when his cow jerked the rope he was holding; a whole family with drug-resistant tuberculosis; an elderly woman with heart failure; and a farmer with a painful skin reaction to the weed killer Roundup. And that’s just a sample of the cases they’ve handled.

Prior to the arrival of the Health In Harmony clinics, many of these patients would have been forced to cut down trees in the national park to pay for these treatments and the costly transportation to a distant facility.

Margareta, a woman who has lived on the border of Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park for 20 years, says logging is common.

She said that in her community, the only three options for work are slash-and-burn rice cultivation, rubber tree plantations, and logging. “So pretty much everyone logs. We always have,” Margareta told Mongabay through a translator. “If anyone [here] tells you they haven’t logged to pay for health care, they are lying.”

This deforestation is bad news for Johnny, Sabtu, Butan, Marsela and the other orangutans in the park. And loggers risk physical injury and arrest with every trip into the park.

“Why would anyone want to do logging? It’s such hard work. If there was other work, we would definitely choose it,” Margareta said.

Health In Harmony offers an alternative by bringing care to where it’s needed and by making it affordable to everyone, even patients without access to cash. The clinics welcome payments of labor or handicrafts, which have included stunning rattan baskets dyed with charcoal and tree pigments, and rainbow floor mats woven from used plastic straws.

Protecting the forest — and human health

Last month, Health In Harmony selected nine community members to become “forest guardians” who will monitor illegal logging activity and help their neighbors access health services. This program, originally designed by the communities around Gunung Palung National Park, has been a cornerstone of Health In Harmony’s success.

Workshops in composting and soil regeneration are set to begin in June, and Health In Harmony is talking with telecommunications companies to see if cell service and online classes can be arranged.

Webb attributes the rapid pace of work at Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park in part to the 12 years of experience that Health In Harmony has gained at Gunung Palung.

“We want to show that what we accomplished over 10 years at Gunung Palung [National Park] can be accomplished much more quickly — ideally [in] three years. Our goal is to dramatically improve human wellbeing and thereby drop logging rates to nearly zero,” Webb said.

Webb envisions spreading Health In Harmony’s model to every place where people are forced to destroy their ecosystems to survive. With the lessons learned in Gunung Palung and Bukit Baka Bukit Raya, the organization is headed to Madagascar and Brazil for its forays using this model.

“People are having to choose between their present and their future,” Webb said. “This isn’t just Indonesia — it’s everywhere.”

As natural as it may seem, conservationists are just beginning to see investments in human health care as a strategy for protecting wildlife. Collaborations like this seem radical now, but soon, perhaps they won’t be.

Campbell-Smith of International Animal Rescue now considers human health care “a necessity” for the Bornean orangutan’s survival. “It has to be part of conservation,” she said.

Mahardika Putra Purba, director of conservation programs at Alam Sehat Lestari, summed up the future of conservation as he sees it.

“Working with collaborative efforts makes things that seem impossible, possible,” he said. “Nobody should have to choose between human and environment, because we know we can choose both, and both can win.”

Banner image of a baby orangutan in Indonesia by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Nina Finley is a Mongabay intern and a disease ecologist collecting stories of collaborative survival with microbes. Read them at www.ninafinley.com.


Ancrenaz, M., Gumal, M., Marshall, A. J., Meijaard, E., Wich, S. A., & Husson, S. (2016). Pongo pygmaeus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T17975A123809220. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T17975A17966347.en. Downloaded on 21 May 2019.

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