Indonesia’s orangutans may be extinct within years, says expert

BOGOR, Indonesia (24 October, 2011)_As swathes of Indonesia’s forests are converted into timber and oil palm plantations, orangutans are being split into small and isolated population pockets, and most of the animals will be dead within years, warns Dr. Biruté Galdikas, the world’s foremost expert on the primate.

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Photo courtesy of Moussa/flickr.

BOGOR, Indonesia (24 October, 2011)_As swathes of Indonesia’s forests are converted into timber and oil palm plantations, orangutans are being split into small and isolated population pockets, and most of the animals will be dead within years, warns Dr. Biruté Galdikas, the world’s foremost expert on the primate.

“The orangutans in Borneo are endangered, and most of those small populations are going to go extinct. We think there’s anywhere between 40,000 to 50,000 orangutans left on the island of Borneo and just under 10,000 left on Sumatra,” she said.

Galdikas says she has watched orangutan numbers shrink by 80 percent over the past 40 years.

“The globalisation of the economy has made conservation much harder. The understanding of conservation at the local level may be much more sophisticated, but who’s going to win? The corporation that can provide a thousand jobs, or the forest that has some orangutans and protected birds in it?” says Galdikas.

Most of the world’s orangutans currently call the forests of Borneo home. However with the rise of large-scale timber and oil palm plantations, illegal logging, and forest fires that grow more intense as the climate changes, less than 20 percent of the forests of Central Kalimantan remain free from threat, Galdikas explains. Increasingly exposed because of their shrinking habitat, orangutans are hunted for their meat and the black market pet trade despite being protected under Indonesian law.

Working at the helm of the organisation she founded, Orangutan Foundation International, based in the forests of Tanjung Puting National Park on Borneo, Galdikas has dedicated herself to forest conservation and the protection of Indonesia’s orangutans for four decades.

Despite the dire forecast for the orangutan’s future, increasing concerns globally about climate change offer some hope of new opportunities for funding conservation work like that done by Galdikas.

A proposed global mechanism known by as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) aims to reward developing nations like Indonesia for protecting, restoring and sustainably managing forests. It offers one of the cheapest options for cutting global greenhouses gases.

While Indonesia has one of the most REDD+ pilot projects of any country worldwide, concerns have been raised in the media over delays of one pilot project, Rimba Raya, of which the Orangutan Foundation International would be a beneficiary.

The Rimba Raya project proposes to add a conservation buffer zone to the eastern border of Tanjung Puting National Park. This proposed conservation area contains carbon-rich deep peatland forest, and its preservation was projected to cut Indonesia’s carbon emissions by nearly 100 million tons over 30 years.

However, the area is also considered prime land for oil palm plantations.

Despite the obstacles, Galdikas remains hopeful that orangutans can be saved from extinction. She sees Indonesian people’s level of awareness about orangutan conservation increasing every day.

“Once people learn that orangutans are protected and discover that they share 97 percent of our genetic material, their attitudes change. And one of the best things that non-government organisations can do is go into schools and villages and talk about conservation and what orangutans do for the environment,” she said.

“To bring orangutans back from the brink, they need to be made more important to the general public, and I think we’re beginning to see that change.”

During a recent visit to the Center for International Forestry Research’s headquarters in Bogor, Galdikas sat down for an informal interview with friend and fellow primatologist, Jacqui Sunderland-Groves. Sunderland-Groves is currently a Senior Advisor to the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Indonesia.

Here Galdikas reflects on four decades of experience, and speaks with Sunderland-Groves about the importance of forest conservation for the survival of the orangutan.



Q: You’ve been involved with orangutans for a long time, how did you originally become involved?

There’s something about them that spoke to me, even as a youngster. I felt a connection with them through the power of their eyes. I wanted to study them, and as soon as you begin studying you realise they are in grave danger of extinction, so I started conservation work almost at the same time that I started studying them in the wilds of Borneo.

Q: When you arrived in Indonesia in 1971, what was the state of orangutan populations compared to now?

No comparison. Places that don’t even exist now had forests full of orangutans. The devastation of the past 40 years has been overwhelming. Many forest habitats and populations are completely fragmented; the amount of forest and the number of orangutans has plummeted, populations have reduced in size maybe by 80 per cent.

Q: Compared to the early days when orangutans were much more far-ranging, and habitats were more intact, what are the current figures for orangutans?

We think there’s anywhere between 40,000-50,000 orangutans left on the island of Borneo. There are under 10,000 orangutans left on Sumatra – the latest figures are 7,000 or less – so the orangutans in Sumatra are classified as critically endangered.

The orangutans in Borneo are equally critically endangered, because their populations are small and fragmented throughout Borneo, and most of those small populations are going to go extinct. In Borneo there are just several large populations, of which Tanjung Puting National Park’s is one.

Q: Tell us a bit about your rehabilitation centre, which is one of two or three in Kalimantan.

We are the oldest rehabilitation centre in Kalimantan, if not in Indonesia. I have been working to rehabilitate orangutans since 1971. One thing is very important when rehabilitating orangutans: you need to protect the forest into which you are placing them.

Our rehabilitation work has always had a strong forest protection side to it. We use the rehabilitation program to save the Tanjung Puting National Park. In the early days when officials would come through, the importance of the park was emphasised by the fact that officials coming through could see wild orangutans up close and interact with them.

In one case, the man who later became Governor of Kalimantan actually slept on the floor of our hut, with orangutans next to him. That made an impression. That governor went back and did everything in his power to protect orangutans and to protect Tanjung Puting National Park (which was then a reserve). The wild-born ex-captives have been very powerful in saving the forests of Tanjung Puting.

Q: From your many years of involvement, what would be your proudest moment?

I’ve had a few proud moments, a few not so proud. The proudest moment was probably when the Minister of Forestry, two days before resigning from cabinet, established Lamandau Wildlife Reserve as a place where we could realise wild-born orangutans.

At the time, that 76,000 ha of forest, slated to become palm oil, was saved. Another proud moment was when the Regent signed 411 ha of peat swamp forest as village-protected forest, but that 411 ha of forest has since been totally demolished. And there have been a lot of very proud moments with orangutans, when you see them being successful as wild creatures having gone back to their birthright, which is the forest.

Q: You’ve now been involved in conservation in Indonesia for 40 years, would you say it’s getting easier or harder?

It’s getting easier and it’s getting harder. It’s getting easier because the level of awareness among the Indonesian people, especially Indonesian youth and students, has increased exponentially. When I talk to Indonesian students about conservation, sometimes they’re much more sophisticated than me in their understanding of the issues.

On the other hand it’s gotten much worse, because the economy in Indonesia has become globalised. When I first went to Kalimantan 40 years ago, we were dealing with local people who were dry-rice farmers. They’d open up a few hectares of forest, burn it, harvest their crop and move on. Those people were relatively easy to deal with, because you could talk to them and persuade them to go someplace else.

The foresty department did its job too; for instance, the foresty department in Tanjung Puting moved a whole village from the park across the river – those were local issues, easy to deal with.

But now you have palm oil plantations and timber estates, you’re talking big money. You’re not talking millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars, you’re talking billions of dollars. You look at the list of who are the wealthiest in Indonesia: the only family that hasn’t made its fortune in palm oil made its fortune in tobacco.

The globalisation of the economy has made conservation much harder. Local people, local government and even national government officials are much more aware and sophisticated in their understanding of conservation. But when you place that against the local economy and against corporations that can provide thousands of jobs to people, who’s going to win? The corporation that can provide a thousand jobs, or the protected forest that has some orangutans and protected birds in it?

I recently flew in a plane from Pangkalan Bun into the northernmost part of the province, and I had a woman with me who was interested in seeing the extent of tropical rainforest destruction in the area. By the time we left the plane, she was weeping. Between Pangkalan Bun and those northern mountains, there wasn’t one single piece of tropical rainforest left, except tiny little fragments that were totally degraded.

Q: I’ve read that in Sumatra they’ve probably lost 75 per cent of their rainforest in the last 20-30 years. What would you say the extent of forest loss is in Kalimantan?

I would guess that it is probably higher than in Sumatra. Certainly, in terms of total forest loss, it’s 50 per cent, but if you’re talking about forest that has been badly degraded or semi-destroyed by human contact or human activity, I would say 80 per cent. I would say less than 20 per cent of the forests of Central Indonesian Borneo are relatively intact. And one of those intact forests is the forest of Tanjung Puting National Park.

Q: You’ve had so much experience in this area, how do you feel that conservation in Indonesia can improve, and how can it be achieved?

I really believe that palm oil companies have to get involved. The key actually lies in those companies. They have to get involved and not only change their practices, but also support conservation in a big way. Some of them are already doing this in a small way, but they need to step up, because without the support of the palm oil companies, the amount of funding available is minimal.

I’m not talking about that little guy who has 200 or 500 hectares of forest and is doing quite well, I’m talking about the palm oil plantations that control hundreds of thousands of hectares and are making billions of dollars. They need to step up, they need to help, and they need to acknowledge that they are part of the problem.

Q: There are new funding mechanisms being put in place for forest conservation and long-term financial benefits to local communities and government alike, such as REDD+ projects. Do you think that these projects can benefit and contribute and actually work in these forest areas?

I think these are wonderful projects, but governments have to take advantage of them. I see the constraints being competition with palm oil, because palm oil is so lucrative. The problem is the destruction of the forest, and the fact that orangutans are being crowded together.

Orangutans that were in the forest, for years, are now coming back. That indicates to me that the habitat in the forest is not available to them as it used to be. For example, after almost thirty years, one of the wild orangutan females that is the subject of my long-term study started coming to the feeding platform.

There’s something happening out there. The dynamics are changing and that is the real threat.

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