By Birute Mary Galdikas, president and co-founder of Orangutan Foundation International in Los Angeles and a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/01/07):
Once again, I am driving, under the blazing equatorial sun, down an uncomfortable, rutty relic of a road into the interior of central Borneo. With me are two uniformed police men, one armed with a machine gun. The landscape is bleak, no trees, no shade as far as the eye can see. Our mission is to confiscate orangutan orphans whose mothers have been killed as a result of the sweeping forest clearance taking place throughout Borneo.
Many years ago, Louis Leakey, the great paleo-anthropologist whose work at Olduvai Gorge and other sites in East Africa revolutionized our knowledge of human origins, encouraged me to study wild orangutans — just as he had encouraged Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees and Dian Fossey to study gorillas. Later, he laughingly called us the “trimates,” or the three primates.
Orangutans are not as well known as chimpanzees and gorillas. But like their African cousins, orangutans are great apes, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, and the most intelligent animals, with the exception of humans, to have evolved on land. Orangutans are reclusive, semi-solitary, quiet, highly arboreal and red, facts that come as a surprise to some people. Their name is derived from the Malay words “orang hutan,” which literally mean “person of the forest.” And it is the orangutan’s profound connection to the forest that is driving it to extinction.
Without forests, orangutans cannot survive. They spend more than 95 percent of their time in the trees, which, along with vines and termites, provide more than 99 percent of their food. Two forests form their only habitat, and they are the tropical rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
Sumatra is exclusively Indonesian, as is the two thirds of the island of Borneo known as Kalimantan. That places 80 to 90 percent of the orangutan population, which numbers only 40,000 to 50,000, in Indonesia, with the remainder in Malaysian Borneo. What happens in Indonesia, particularly Kalimantan, will determine the orangutan’s future.
When I first arrived in Central Kalimantan in 1971, orangutans were already endangered because of poaching (for the pet trade and for the cooking pot) and deforestation (by loggers and by villagers making way for gardens and rice fields).
But it was all relatively small-time. The forests of Kalimantan were vast — Indonesia’s are the second largest tropical rain forests in the world, after Brazil’s — and forest conversion rates small. People still used axes and saws to cut down trees and traveled by dugout canoes or small boats with inboard engines.
I went straight to work, beginning a wild orangutan study that continues to this day, and establishing an orangutan rehabilitation program, the first in Kalimantan, which has returned more than 300 ex-captive orangutans to the wild.
But the wild is increasingly difficult to find. In the late 1980s, as it entered the global economy, Indonesia decided to become a major producer and exporter of palm oil, pulp and paper. Before this, the government had endorsed selective logging. Now vast areas of forest were slated for conversion to plantations to grow trees for palm oil and paper production. Monster-sized bulldozers, replacing the chain saws of the early logging boom, tore up the forest, clear-cutting as many as 250,000 acres at once for palm oil plantations.
At the same time, the price of wood, particularly the valuable hardwoods that grow in Indonesia’s rain forests and fetch a high price on the black market, increased. Illegal logging became rampant, even in national parks and reserves.
While illegal logging degrades the forest, plantations absolutely destroy it. And the destruction is not only immediate, but also long-term. Forest-clearing leaves huge amounts of dry branches and other wood litter on forest floors; a small spark can ignite enormous forest fires, particularly in times of drought. During the 1997 El Niño drought, approximately 25 million acres, an area about half the size of Oklahoma, burned in Indonesia. Thousands of orangutans died.
Indonesia has achieved its goal of becoming one of the two largest palm-oil producers and exporters in the world. But at what cost? At least half of the world’s wild orangutans have disappeared in the last 20 years; biologically viable populations of orangutans have been radically reduced in size and number; and 80 percent of the orangutan habitat has either been depopulated or totally destroyed. The trend shows no sign of abating: government maps of future planned land use show more of the same, on an increasing scale.
We’re back in the jeep. The police view the trip inland as a success. They confiscated five orangutans and one woman volunteered her crab-eating macaque, an unprotected species. Two of the orangutan owners, both women, shed tears, but we invited them to visit their “pets” at the Orangutan Foundation International’s Care Center and Quarantine, where they will be rehabilitated and eventually released to the wild.
I am pleased to think that five more orphan orangutans will once again feel the branches and leaves under their feet as they swing through the trees. Yet I am somewhat melancholy. The fragile forests that make orangutan life possible are fast disappearing. Where, I wonder, are the billionaire philanthropists and the international policies that will prevent orangutans — and all great apes — from going extinct?
Indonesia is a vast, densely populated country where millions live in or near poverty. The temptation to exploit natural resources to feed people today, never mind tomorrow, and to expand the economy, is great. And the plantations are but one example. Surface-mining of gold in the alluvial fans of white sand has been practiced for two decades, leaving virtual moonscapes near the National Park where I work. Now zircon mining has entrenched itself all over Central Kalimantan, with each zircon mine obliterating 1,000 acres of rain forest. Two years ago nobody, myself included, even knew what zircon was.
The international community must recognize that it has some responsibility for what happens to the great rain forests of Indonesian Borneo. Foreign investment in local development programs needs to be expanded. Village level projects, like the one financed by the United States Agency for International Development and run by Boston-based World Education near where I work, have empowered farmers, strengthened village economies and employed local people, giving them a stake in preserving the forest.
We need more of these programs. Indonesia could also impose a special tax on companies that profit from rain forest destruction, with the revenues dedicated to forest and orangutan conservation. Proper labeling of palm oil content could allow a consumer boycott of soap, crackers, cookies and other products that contain it. Finally, Indonesia needs to be more vigorous in enforcing the excellent laws it already has to protect its forests.
When I arrived in 1971, Borneo was almost a Garden of Eden, the most remote place on earth. Now it has been drawn into the global economy, one government decision, one business plan at a time. But the destruction of Borneo’s forests and the extinction of the orangutans are not inevitable. It is possible to protect our ancient heritage and closest of kin — one orangutan, one national park, one piece of irreplaceable forest at a time. We only need to decide to do it.