Maria Agatha van Noordwijk: Delving deeper into orangutan conservation

The Jakarta Post : Ridwan Max Sijabat: 4 January 2012

Maria Agatha van Noordwijk raised her eyebrow as she crossed out several Indonesian names on the list of orangutans she and her fellow experts and students studied in conservation projects in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

"We have to cross out their names on the list since they were killed recently," she told The Jakarta Post at her office at the Anthropology Department of the University of Irchel in Zurich.

The 58-year-old biologist, who has spent years in orangutan research and conservation, said she was sad to hear of the recent discovery of the remains of several orangutans in a forest concession area near Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan.

"Of course such reports make me very sad. From long-term field studies we know female orangutans have very stable ranges throughout their lives and cannot easily move to another area where other females already have their ranges. Every female needs 300 to 800 hectares, depending on the kind of forest and local conditions. Although females can share the use of an area, they never welcome strangers and will try to keep their distance from newcomers while continuing to try to chase them away. So for most female orangutans it is very difficult to move, even when their own forest is destroyed, because it is very hard for them to settle somewhere else," she said.

Another consequence of logging is that orangutans in the surrounding area are affected by those desperate individuals that now try to move into their forest. For males, which have much larger ranges, it is easier to move to another area, but they may come back to visit again later or try to move through their former forest after it is converted into something else.

Large-scale conversions of natural forest threaten not only orangutans but also many other species, a fact that is usually less visible and does not make it into the news. But the consequences of logging and conversions of natural forest are now predictable, and plans to deal with the disturbances can and should be made in advance.

Van Noordwijk, born on July 10, 1954 in Amsterdam, has annual short visits to Indonesia as part of her participation in the great ape conservation program in Gunung Leuser, Aceh, and the endangered species habitats in Central and East Kalimantan.

Under support from international agencies and NGOs, Zurich University has carried out long-term projects with the National University in Jakarta, the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, Indonesian NGOs and the Indonesian government. Van Noordwijk stressed, however, the vital role that the Indonesian people and experts should play in conservation programs.

"We established BOSF [the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation] in Kalimantan and SOCP [the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program] in Sumatra. All of our projects involve an entire team of people. As scientists, our main role is to provide our knowledge, dedication and funds for conducting long-term research, to help educate Indonesian students and to inform our Indonesian partners and authorities about our findings," she said.

Orangutans can live for 50 years or more and females only have babies once every seven to nine years and can survive for long periods under rather poor conditions, especially in Kalimantan. To really understand the life of orangutans, long-term studies are needed.

All research projects are collaborative efforts involving students from other universities, both Indonesian and foreign, and local assistants who have considerable knowledge of the forest.

Zurich University students always work closely with Indonesian counterparts at field sites where their main tasks are to research and make information available.

Orangutans are found only in Sumatra and Borneo. Their population is around 57,000, including 7,000 in Gunung Leuser and the Bohorok area in Langkat, North Sumatra.

Asked to comment on the conflict between development and protected species, Van Noordwijk, who has published at least 50 books and articles on orangutans since 2005, said it is a crucial and complicated issue.

"Once it has been decided that a natural area, or a particular species, should be protected, the critical factor is enforcement of that decision. For example, if permission has been given to destroy an area covered with natural forest to use the area for something other than a suitable habitat for protected species, a solution needs to be found beforehand for those species and others inhabiting the area," she said.

Maria said she appreciated the orangutan rescue centers in Kalimantan and Sumatra, which have done a great job caring for orangutans that can no longer live where they were born due to human activity.

In addition to their efforts in caring for and locating suitable areas for the release of captured and displaced orangutans, these centers have been important in drawing attention to the fate of the only great apes in Asia.

In a way, Indonesia is lucky to be the home of this species that is so closely related to humans.

However, this luck also comes with the responsibility for their survival, and it is reasonable to demand that the international community lends its support to these efforts.

"The rescue centers are like the emergency room of a hospital: It is very important that they exist, but it would be even better if we did not need them because we prevent the conditions that lead to their need."