By Jikkie Jonkman
The rust-colored orang-utan flatly refuses to come down from his nest high up in the trees. He’s been sitting up there for more than an hour eating some fruit, barely paying attention to his many adoring fans down below on the ground. This particular Borneo orang-utan is used to visitors coming to his home at the recently protected Sebangau National Park, located in the southern part of Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province on the island of Borneo. His movements are also being meticulously watched by researchers, dedicated to the conservation of this threatened species whose forest habitat is being destroyed at a rapid rate throughout Southeast Asia.
“We are studying this ape species to see what effect deforestation is having on its population,” said primate expert Simon Husson.
The British biologist and his wife have spent the last ten years living in an Indonesian peat forest slightly larger than the greater London area to study orang-utans as part of the Orang-utan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), an independent research and conservation project.
“When we first came here in 1995 there were still about 13,000 orang-utans,” Husson added. “But as a result of intensive logging their habitat has shrunk and they have ended up packed together in this small area. Luckily, the population still living in the forest seems to be managing.”
Today, there are about 6,900 orang-utans in Sebangau National Park, one of the largest known populations.
Miriam van Gool, responsible for global programmes and policy at WWF in the Netherlands, has been involved with the orang-utan project in Sebangau from the start. The first time she visited the area, about three years ago, the situation was in dire straits. Boats were towing rafts of illegally-felled logs on the Sebangau River and endless stacks of logs lay awaiting transport.
Why invest in an area that looked like it was already under an environmental death sentence?
“The region is sick but not dead yet,” explained van Gool. “Sebangau and the neighbouring region of Mawas have extremely important peat bog forests and orang-utan populations. A great deal of them can still be saved.”
According to WWF, there are about 10,000 orang-utans living between Sebangau and Mawas, about one-fifth of the world’s orang-utan population. Thanks to the work of van Gool and others, Sebangau was declared a national park last October in a last ditch effort to save the forests and their inhabitants.
With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year – an area equivalent to about one third of the size of Switzerland – the rate is likely to rise due to pressure from a growing domestic population and the needs of international markets.
"The consequences of this scale of deforestation will not only result in a major loss of species but also disrupt water supplies and reduce future economic opportunities, such as tourism, and subsistence for local communities," said Dr Chris Elliott, Director of WWF’s Global Forest Programme.
One of the main problems the Sebangau area has been facing is the destruction of fragile peat forests, particularly as a result of loggers digging wide channels to tow away logs during the rainy season. Because of increased drainage, the peat forest is drying out and is more prone to forest fires during the dry season.
Peat forests are found in parts of Africa and South America, and in large areas of Southeast Asia, especially Borneo and Sumatra. These swamp forests appear in places where dead vegetation becomes waterlogged and accumulates as peat, which acts as a sort of sponge that withholds moisture at times of little rainfall and absorbs monsoon rains. When peat swamp forests are drained for logging purposes or agricultural projects, they become highly susceptible to combustion. Under the dry el Niño conditions of 1997-98 thousands of fires raged throughout the peat swamps of Indonesia.
WWF, together with the local government and other organizations, including OuTrop and Wetlands International, has begun to close the canals with dams to control the damage.
“We hope this will decrease the chances of forest fires in this area and at the same time protect the orang-utans habitat,” van Gool said.
Orang-utan, which means “the human of the forest” in the Malay language, is truly a remarkable animal. With only about 55,000 found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, its natural habitat has become fragmented or disappeared altogether as result of logging, forest fires, and the conversion of forest lands into commercial oil palm plantations. If that wasn’t enough, the species has fallen victim to the growing and profitable illegal wildlife trade.
Orang-utans are protected in Indonesia, but many are still kept illegally as pets. According to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network – a joint programme of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union – about twenty orang-utans are traded each month from the Indonesian part of Borneo. Some are sold for as low as US$45.
If a caged animal is lucky enough to be rescued, it will go to one of the island’s many animals sanctuaries, like the Nyaru Menteng, a centre run by the Borneo Orang-utan Survival (BOS) Foundation in Indonesia’s central Kalimantan region.
“Our rescue teams are removing more and more young orphans as forests are being cut down to make room for palm oil plantations,” said BOS spokesman Jo-lan van Leeuwen.
“In the absence of forest the orang-utans tend to stay near the plantations where they eat the young oil palm shoots, but it’s not enough for them to live on,” she added.
“What’s more, they’re often killed by plantation owners because they destroy the young trees or take the young ones off to the villages to keep as pets or to sell them. Fortunately, we manage to find some of the animals before they end up being trafficked.”
It is impossible to walk across the grounds of Nyaru Menteng and not be endeared by the orphaned orang-utans. A group of about twenty apes are looked after by surrogate females, and women from the nearby village work shifts to tend after the little ones 24 hours a day.
“Without maternal care these babies are doomed,” van Leeuwen added. “We are trying to rear them before returning them to the wild. Visitors to this part of the sanctuary are not allowed so that they don’t get too accustomed to people.”
For many of the orphans, it was people that got them into trouble in the first place. One orphan's mother, for example, was killed on an oil palm plantation, probably with machetes as the infant orang-utan is missing a hand. The wound healed before she was found, but she would have starved without help. Even more shocking is the story of another female ape who spent eight years in a ‘brothel village’ where crime and lawlessness go together. She was found chained, shaved, and abused.
“We have nothing to indicate that sexual abuse of orang-utans is happening systematically,” van Leeuwen said. "This case seems to be exceptional, but the increasing flow of animals from plantations is certainly disturbing.”
With all one’s heart
The figures available about the growing number of oil palm plantations do nothing to allay fears. Quit the contrary, in fact. A recent WWF report – Treasure Island at Risk – shows that there are about 2.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Borneo, and that more forest land is expected to be cleared to make room for more. It also reveals that, although banned, logging is still frequent in the national parks of Kalimantan. If the plans of companies and local government are anything to go on, that area could grow in the coming years to ten million hectares – about one-seventh of the whole of Borneo.
All this is more than enough reason for organizations like WWF to get involved. Through the newly created ‘Heart of Borneo’ initiative – a huge transboundary initiative to conserve one of the last remaining frontier forests – the global conservation organization aims to assist Borneo’s three nations (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) to conserve 220,000km2 of equatorial rainforest through a network of protected areas and sustainably-managed forests.
“Borneo is undoubtedly one of the most important centres of biodiversity in the world,” said Dr Mubariq Ahmad, Executive Director of WWF-Indonesia.
“By acting now, we can ensure that the heart of Borneo remains a haven for both well-known and newly discovered species.”
The protection of the Heart of Borneo would not only benefit wildlife like orang-utans, but also help alleviate poverty by increasing water and food security, and cultural survival for the people of Borneo. In the long term, it will save the island from the ultimate threat of deforestation and increased impacts from droughts and fires.
* Jikkie Jonkman is a press officer with WWF-Netherlands.
• The Sumatran orang-utan (Pongo abelii) is the most endangered of the two orang-utan species, with approximately 7,500 remaining in the wild. Found only in the northern and western provinces of Sumatra, Indonesia, the species is fast losing its natural habitat to agriculture and human settlement. Although not as endangered as its Sumatran cousin, the habitat of the Borneo orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus) is increasingly fragmented in the remaining swamp and lowland dipterocarp forests of Central and West Kalimantan.
• It is estimated that about one third of Borneo’s orang-utan populations were lost during the 1997–98 forest fires. Although some populations live inside protected areas, illegal logging still takes place within and hence remains a major threat to the survival of this species.
• More than 210 mammals, including 44 which are found nowhere else in the world, live on Borneo. A recent WWF report – Borneo’s Lost World – shows that at least 361 new species have been identified and described on the island between 1994 and 2004. They include 260 insects, 50 plants, and 30 freshwater fish. The report suggests that thousands more have not yet been studied, particularly in the 22 million hectare inner region, which is relatively inaccessible and home to some of the most pristine forests left on the island.