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Would tourists in Indonesia pay $500 to see orangutans?

New models of tourism were debated at the Great Ape Workshop at CIFOR HQ.

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Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Terry Sunderland/ CIFOR

KAJA ISLAND, Indonesia (2 February 2012)_Twenty-two dollars in Indonesia buys a 90-minute boat ride to watch orangutans. In Rwanda, to catch a glimpse of a mountain gorilla costs $500 – and the tourists are lining up.

Could Indonesia charge foreign tourists $500 to see its great apes?

“When we started (gorilla) tourism in Rwanda, people were paying $50. Now we are at $500,” Antoine Mudakikwa from the Rwanda Development Board, told a workshop on great apes at the Center for International Forestry Research. “Countries like Indonesia with a lot of natural resources have the potential to learn a lot from a country like Rwanda.”

Both orangutans and mountain gorillas are classified as endangered species. Some 57,000 orangutans live in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo. Mountain gorillas, which live in Central Africa, are thought to number only about 800.

Mudakikwa said that one of the keys to charging tourists significant fees to see the animals was to give visitors a feeling that they are privileged. “You can make the visit exclusive,” he said on a field trip with about 20 other great ape experts and conservation practitioners from Africa and Asia to Kaja island, home of about 45 rehabilitated orangutans in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Villagers from the nearby Sei Gohong community established the boat tours three months ago, hoping to attract as many tourists as possible who want to watch orangutans in their natural habitat. From the $22 that visitors pay, nothing goes to the government.

Anne Russon, a leading orangutan scientist from York University, raised several concerns about such tourism initiatives. She said that to ensure that conservation of endangered orangutans remain the priority rather than organizations or governments seeking profit, orangutan-focused tourism should preferably not be operated or promoted.  If orangutan tourism is planned, the advice is to plan and prepare thoroughly and responsibly, proceed only if life-long support for the orangutans visited can be guaranteed, start small, and stay small.  Great apes, which also include gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos in Africa, are the closest species to humans and share the same needs, the same diseases (such as tuberculosis and hepatitis), and sophisticated learning abilities.  Tourism encourages them to learn how to manipulate humans and exploit the human world:  that learning is very dangerous and it is almost irreversible.

Russon said that financial incentives precipitated by tourism may also encourage bad practices such as overcrowding and inappropriate behavior to satisfy tourists’ curiosity, like touching and feeding the primates.  Regulations already in place to control these bad practices, such as banning eating or offering orangutans food, and avoiding contact with orangutans, have proven very difficult to control.   More stringent regulations are now recommended by the IUCN, however, such as limiting groups of tourists to no more than four people at a time, limiting visits to one hour a day, requiring all visitors to wear surgical quality masks while visiting orangutans, and keeping a distance of at least 10 meters from orangutans.

With reporting by Leony Aurora.


The workshop was the second of a series on “Great Apes and Poverty Linkages”, organized under the auspices of the Poverty and Conservation Learning Group (PCLG), and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Fish and Wildlife (USFW), the Arcus Foundation and the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP). The event was hosted by CIFOR and the Forestry Research and Development Agency (FORDA) of Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry.

Visit the workshop’s page to watch videos of presentations from the experts, read related blog stories and see pictures from the event and field trip to Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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