Baim: the story of a rescued baby orangutan in the Heart of Borneo
Baim has precious little in common with his Indonesian celebrity namesake. He is tiny—less than two feet stretched end to end—and weighs scarcely more than the cardboard box that he clutches at with desperation. His face has traces of dried baby formula and his wrinkled frame is surrounded by a nimbus of soft rust red hair. His eyes hold the gaze of the humans peering down at him while he keens, terrified to find himself separated from his mother.
“Orangutan mothers never willingly give up their babies, so in most cases we must assume the worst—that the mother was killed by poachers in order to get the infant,” says Jimmy, WWF-Indonesia’s communications coordinator in West Kalimantan.
“While I’m happy that this orangutan was rescued, it is a real tragedy to lose even a single member of this subspecies from the wild because their numbers are already dangerously low.”
Baim belongs to the most threatened subspecies of Bornean orangutans. Experts estimate less than 4,500 Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus are left in the fast disappearing forests of West Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Sarawak (Malaysia). Disappearing forest homes and a rabid demand for baby orangutans to supply the illegal wildlife pet trade are taking their toll.
The baby Bornean orangutan is the second to be rescued by villagers in the remote hamlet of Lanjak in just a month. Forest ranger Andy Tarsita has already named the orangutan Baim when he shares the news at WWF’s project office in Lanjak.
“I think Baim is lucky because if we hadn’t found him then he would have been sold as a pet or abandoned, but at least now he has a chance of being released back into the wild,” says Tarsita.
“Of course, the luckiest future for this little fellow would’ve been to live in peace with his mother in the forests.”
If Baim is truly lucky his journey will end where it began, back in the forests at the Heart of Borneo. But the way back home begins with the decision of district officials at Lanjak to entrust Baim’s care to WWF until he can be handed over to the correct authorities in faraway Pontianak.
Ahead lay a five-hour drive over rough roads and a noisy airplane ride into the provincial capital of West Kalimantan. There, among much fanfare, he will be given to the care of BKSDA (Natural Resources Conservation Office), and put in an already overcrowded orangutan rehabilitation center where he will live for a few months, a few years, or the rest of his life if he is not released back into the wild.
The lush, fertile alluvial plains and lowland valleys of Borneo are home not only to Bornean orangutans and other wildlife but to humans as well.
The past few decades have seen an influx of migrants coupled with aggressive and ambitious economic development plans. A map of the last forests on the world’s third largest island are overlaid with a grid of interlocking concessions that the government has already parceled out to be cleared and replaced with vast plantations for oil palm and acacia.
Between 1980 and 2000, it is estimated that more timber was harvested from Borneo than was exported from the Amazon and Congo basins combined. As more of Borneo falls to the axe, orangutans are getting squeezed into ever shrinking forests.
Jimmy had come to Lanjak to meet community leaders from the Dayak tribes to assess forest restoration programs and the community-led monitoring of wild orangutans. Several villages in the forest corridor connecting Danau Sentarum and Betung Kerihun national parks are involved.
“The sad truth is that Baim is not the first or the last orangutan rescued as new roads open up the forests to illegal logging and poachers whose only concern is turning a profit,” says Jimmy.
“We need to step up our anti-poaching work and redouble outreach to local people to show them that conservation pays through alternative income schemes and eco-tourism.”
In 2007, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei signed an historic agreement to save the Heart of Borneo. WWF is working with these nations to conserve 220,000 km2 of rainforest, almost a third of the island, through a network of protected areas and sustainably-managed forests.
At the UN climate change conference in Bali that same year, Indonesian President Yudhoyono outlined a national strategy to protect orangutans, stating that by 2015 all orangutans still in rehabilitation centers would be returned to the wild.
“The good news is that it is possible to reintroduce rescued orangutans into the wild and we’ve seen it happen with success in some areas,” says Dr. Barney Long, WWF’s Asian species expert.
“Unfortunately, in the bigger picture, rescue and rehabilitation doesn’t address the double threat facing wild orangutans—severely reduced habitat and the persistent demand for the illegal pet trade.”
Logging, land-clearing and conversion to oil palm plantations are the biggest threats for the remaining rainforests in Borneo and the species that inhabit them. The Heart of Borneo is a refuge to orangutans, elephants and rhinos, and lesser-known species such as the sunda clouded leopard, sun bear, banteng (wild ox) and endemic Muller Bornean gibbon, as well as indigenous Dayak people.
“Good intentions require committed action if they are to make a difference,” says Long.
“If orangutans go the way of the Javan and Bali tiger, then Asia will lose its great apes, and humans will have put a full stop to the existence of one our closest relatives.”
For now, Baim resides at Ketapang Orangutan Centre of International Animal Rescue-Indonesia. He will grow to adulthood here and like the others, wait for a future that leads back home into the lush Heart of Borneo.