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Saving the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo


Shawn Thompson looks at the conservation schemes that have been established to protect the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo and what to consider before booking a trip to see the great apes in their natural habitat

It is not yet considered ‘murder’ to kill an orangutan, or cannibalism to eat one – and may never be, despite the great apes’ genetic and cognitive similarities to human beings – but in February 2014 a Malaysian court sentenced two Filipino plantaton workers to two year's imprisonment each for killing an orangutan in the eastern state of Sabah in Borneo.

The trial illustrated the reasons for the threat of extinction to orangutans, while the subsequent publicity has demonstrated the role that eco tourism can play in raising awareness of their plight, in addition to the influence of politics and the legal system.

Young orangutan in Lamandau Wildlife Reserve

Young orangutan in Lamandau Wildlife Reserve

Over the last century the population of orangutans has been declining rapidly on their native islands of Borneo and Sumatra. One widely quoted estimate says that 300,000 orangutans may have existed in 1900, meaning that about 80 per cent of the population has been lost since then. There are now an estimated 60,600 wild orangutans remaining, with most of these living on the largely Indonesian island of Borneo.

One of the main reasons usually given for the decline of the shaggy red ape is loss of rainforest habitat for oil palm plantations. In turn, the palm plantations are supported by consumers who buy products with that ingredient in chocolate, ice cream, margarine, toothpaste, soap, cereal and cosmetics. Palm oil is also found in cooking oil and biofuel.

However, orangutan scientist Erik Meijaard puts the main blame for the drastic decline of orangutans on hunting and loss of lowland forests and estimates that palm oil is only a relatively recent minor factor emerging in the 1990s. A study by Meijaard surveying 7,000 Indonesians found that between 1,950 and 3,100 orangutans on average were being killed every year, with around half of those killed to eat.

The court case about the orangutan killings “strongly resonates among Kalimantan’s people,” says Meijaard. But in Indonesia, the scientist says, feeding a hungry family with “bush meat” is more important. “And to be honest, I cannot blame people for thinking that way.” Nevertheless, he doesn’t condone killing orangutans.

As for the survival of orangutans as a species, Meijaard, a 44-year-old Dutchman who has spent 15 years in Indonesia and lives with his wife and daughter in Jakarta, says the prospects are grim, although he adds: “I am an optimist. I expect the orang-utan to outlive me.”

Meijaard won’t go as far as some to argue legal rights for orangutans based on their intelligence and biological kinship with human beings.

Borneo orangutan with baby in Tanjung Puting National Park

Borneo orangutan with baby in Tanjung Puting National Park

Human beings and orangutans share a common ancestor, before orangutans split from the evolutionary line between 12 and 16 million years ago, and long before there was even a human species. We share 97.4 per cent of our DNA with orangutans and, despite the differences, scientists say that we have the same basic patterns of thought, feeling and culture.

Some groups, like the Great Ape Project or GAP, argue that apes meet the threshold of “persons” and propose basic legal rights for orangutans and other apes. Some progress has been made already. In 1999 New Zealand gave basic rights to apes forbidding their use in research, testing or teaching and other countries (the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and Austria) forbade their use in laboratory testing.

Even with the advances that science is making in understanding apes, it is not clear how the issue of basic rights will be resolved. History shows that it was difficult enough to get a consensus of scientists over global climate change with more empirical information than is available for the debate about orangutans.

In the meantime, scientists like Meijaard take the threat of extinction to orangutans seriously, which raises the question of whether ecotourism is useful in raising awareness and creating funds for the protection of orangutans.

According to Meijaard one of the best places in the world to see orangutans wandering freely is Tanjung Putting National Park in southern Kalimantan, Borneo. This has become a bastion for the survival of orangutans largely because of the persistence of the Canadian primatologist Biruté Galdikas, who established a field research camp there in 1971 with her husband Rod Brindamour during the infancy of orangutan field studies.

“Money and media attention play a role,” says Meijaard, “but conservation is won by individuals.”

Today, there are an estimated 6,000 orangutans living in the tropical forests of the park. wandering without barriers or human beings to confine them. But is this good for orangutans and is this a good form of ecotourism? How should the risk to a few orangutans be weighed against the benefits of ecotourism to a species facing extinction? It depends who you ask. For Meijaard, the principles of ecotourism and the benefits to an endangered species are what matter most.

“It is a good thing,” he says, “because it educates people from overseas. It is a good thing because it can bring in some money into conservation. But I am not convinced that in Indonesia it is a useful conservation tool, at least not yet.”

A young ape gets some TLC at the Orangutan Care Centre, Pangkalan Bun"Others, like Ian Singleton, with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, and Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, agree that ecotourism can be good under strict conditions, such as the guidelines of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sees a benefit if the end is conservation and not exploitation.

The IUCN guidelines say that ‘tourism should not be carried out with ex-captive apes’, but, in those places where it already is, the advice is to follow the protocols for wild apes. The guidelines limit viewing of wild apes to one hour a day, in small groups and no closer than seven metres, with observers wearing surgical N95 respirator masks.

With these measures, says Singleton, ecotourism would be “desirable in Indonesia, much as it helps gorillas and chimpanzees in some countries.” However, he believes that the close contact practiced at Camp Leakey and elsewhere exposes human beings to possible physical attacks and orangutans to disease. As for the hope that tourism will fund efforts to save orangutans, “too small a percentage is actually going back into conservation or welfare,” says Desilets.

Meanwhile, the orangutans in Tanjung Puting may be among the few living in a reasonably secure forest. The orangutans at Camp Leakey − like the orang-utan Princess, who was taught sign language by U.S. scientist Gary Shapiro and who, as an infant, made the cover of the 1980 issue of National Geographic magazine bathing in a tub at Camp Leakey with Galdikas’s three-year-old son Binti − have become accustomed to watching the procession of human beings pass through their jungle.

Princess is now a 38-year-old single parent raising her fifth child, Putri, which is quite an accomplishment considering the orangutans’ biological one-child-at-a-time policy. But then orangutans, like their human kin, don’t always choose the easiest way, and the ultimate fate of this endangered species is still undecided. 


What sets the Borneo and Sumatran orangutans apart?

Borneo orangutan

Borneo orangutan

If you want to know the difference between the species of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra, Ian Singleton, a 46-year-old British scientist based in Sumatra with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, is your man. He has lived in Indonesia and has studied the apes for 17 years.

 “Essentially Sumatrans are good looking and Borneans are not so good looking,” he says. “Physically, Borneans tend to be darker on average and have big eye rings when kids and adolescent, and straggly beards. Sumatrans are lighter coloured, have less obvious eye rings and long, luxuriant beards.

“I also find Borneans a bit more extroverted than Sumatrans, more thuggish in their behaviour when young and more likely to interact with people. Sumatrans are a bit more introverted and sensitive.”

There are an estimated 6,600 Sumatran orangutans and 54,000 Bornean orangutans. Between these two species of red ape, there is a 0.32 percent difference in the DNA, compared to the 0.3 percent. Difference in the primary findings of DNA between humans and Neanderthals, according to anthropologist Michael Kruetzen.

Sumatran orangutan

Sumatran orangutan

Between human DNA and orangutans there is a 2.6 percent difference, or “approximately10 times more than the difference between the two orangutan species,” says Cardiff University conservation geneticist Mike Bruford. Since some of the genomes do nothing, the amount of difference could be smaller. As for the behavioural differences of the two red ape species, Sumatran orangutans  benefit from richer soil and a greater abundance of fruit.

“Sumatrans also eat more insects,” says Singleton, “and even eat slow loris whenever they can find and catch them. But slow-loris-eating has never been seen in Borneo.” He adds

That orangutans in the peat swamps of Sumatra use sticks to eat honey from bee nests, but not in dry areas of the island or on the island of Borneo.

The greater abundance of fruit on Sumatra allows the apes, known for their relatively solitary lifestyle, to live closer together. That, inturn, affects behaviour and relationships, says Singleton. Since orangutans in Borneo spread out more in the forest, that complicates dominance and sexual relationships for the males. “It’s much harder for a dominant male to monopolize the females,” adds the scientist. But that may be an advantage for the females to exploit.