Could orangutan conservation be helped by the heavens?


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KALIMANTAN, Indonesia (21 April, 2011)_Like many indigenous peoples around the world, some of the Dayak tribes of Indonesia still believe in a form of spiritual animism; that their ancestors embody the plants, animals and objects around them. Dayak folklore says that people descended from the iconic orangutan, which is now under threat in the region. A community based approach to orangutan conservation, utilising the traditions of indigenous forest dwellers may be the strategy this cause is desperate for.

An orangutan foraging for food in Kutai National Park. There are dozens of orangutans in this community of primates, with rambutan and other tropical fruit being some of their favorites. ©Center For International Forestry Research/Moses Ceaser

In the late nineties the Danau Sentarum National Park in West Kalimantan was home to over 2,000 orangutans, making up 15 to 20 percent of the entire orangutan population of Borneo.


“We could easily find orangutans in the past,” says Ramli, a local Iban Dayak tribe member in a short film produced by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The spike in illegal logging, habitat destruction from conversion to palm oil and rubber plantations over the last few decades means Ramli and his tribe have witnessed a decline in the species sacred to their traditions. Poaching and illegal trade has further threatened orangutan numbers. This may be because most people in the Danau Sentarum region lack the same appreciation of orangutans and the environment that the traditional Iban Dayak people hold dear.

A collaboration between CIFOR and local NGO Riak Bumi funded by the Great Ape Conservation Fund and the US Fish and Wildlife Service aims to significantly reduce the current rate of deforestation and land conversion to secure long-term protection for the remaining orangutan population. The project – spanning 3 years – incorporates local communities, governments as well as the National Park Authority to educate the local people and government personnel.

Estimating current orangutan populations in the Danau Sentarum area and identifing strategies that can minimise threats to these creatures is a main aim of the project. However, part of its unique strategy is to use interactive awareness programmes developed from local tradition and folklores, such as story-telling and art programmes for children and youth.

The hope is to bring the same respect for the environment to the more modernised local communities as the traditional Iban Dayak elders have through their spiritual beliefs and folklore.

“It is an important way to raise the profile and importance of orangutans to help push for their conservation,” said project leader Linda Yuliani, a research officer in CIFOR’s Forests and Livelihoods program.

People of Pengerak village taking part in orangutan awareness programs in their village. ©Center For International Forestry Research/Ramadian Bachtiar

Yuliani recalls one Dayak elder referring to the passing of stories of the forests and customary lore: “now the youth would like to listen to us. They used to think we were just old-fashioned.”

Visiting CIFOR researcher Julia Aglionby studied the governance of local communities and law enforcement in the national park. Agionby’s study compared common land governance in Danau Sentarum National Park and the Lakes District in England through an appreciative inquiry approach. Working with Riak Bumi and other local groups, she found that many local people didn’t know they lived in a National Park, further strengthening the need for awareness.

The beliefs and folklore of the Iban Dayak do not hold the answer for broad scale conservation for tropical forests and their biodiversity. But in one corner of the Indonesian forest, an awakening of these traditions and stories and a new approach to awareness is giving orangutans some divine protection.

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