No way to treat an orangutan...a very close primate relative


Wildlife Conservation Magazine, September/October 2008 -  Nancy Simmons

"Somebody stuck a crate in my face at the market in Balikpapan. Looking out between the slats were the very, very sad eyes of a baby orangutan. I couldn't forget them. That evening I went back after the market closed. Walking around in the dark, I heard a horrible gasping sound. The baby in its crate was on the garbage dump, dying. I picked her up. Someone sleeping under a table woke up and chased me, "Hey Sir. Mr. Money. Mr. Money." I didn't stop.
Willie Smits
Founder, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS)

In 1989, Willie Smits came across a sick baby orangutan in a vegetable market. He nursed her back to health and named her Uce for the labored sound she made while gasping for breath. More orangutan rescues followed. With small amounts of money contributed by thousands of schoolchildren in Indonesia, Smits began what became the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) to rehabilitate orphaned and misused orangutans and return them to a safe place in the wild. He confiscated orangutans people kept as pets, exploited as prostitutes, used in medical research, and trained to perform in shows, like the orangutan boxing matches that are staged in Thailand.

In June 2008, Willie Smits came to the United States to promote the release of his new book Thinkers of the Jungle (h.f. ullmann, 2007). Written with investigative journalist Gerd Schuster, and featuring images by photographer Jay Ullal, the book created a sensation when it was published in Germany. In New York City, Senior Editor Nancy Simmons talked with Smits about his hopes for the orangutans' future.

Uce was the beginning. Two weeks later, someone from the Ministry of Forestry gave me another sick orangutan baby - a male we named Dodoy. We pulled him through, too. At the time, my wife and I had two human babies at home, and she was pregnant with our third son. This was the basis of my understanding of orangutans. Any mother can see when her baby is hungry, or sleepy, or has a stomach-ache. She knows it without words. And it's the same thing with orangutans. They are so much like us.

No one can dispute that, once they look at the pictures in the bookùhow orangutans fish, how they swim, how they make art. These are beings that can feel, and they know what dangers they are facing.

One orangutan mother put her baby on the road alongside a burning forest. She knew her baby would die if she didn't. Only when she saw a truck driver stop and pick up her baby, did she turn around and go back into the smoke. This is like the story of Solomon's mother not wanting her child to be split in two would rather give up that child.

Smits believes that protecting orangutans in their habitat not only benefits our shaggy cousins but also the environment and biological diversity, the poorest of the poor in Borneo, and all the world's people.

On Borneo, the peat swamp forests are one of the few remaining refuges for orangutans. Now, that habitat is disappearing at a tremendous rate, due mainly to the spread of oil palm plantations.

Oil palm jobs are dirty, dangerous, and low paying. In some areas, the local people lose all the rights to their land, and they lose the forest. Not only that, the peat swamp forests turn into CO2 volcanoes when they are drained and burned to plant oil palms. They emit so much greenhouse gas that Indonesia has become the world's third largest producer of CO2.

So orangutans have to be the ambassadors for the wake-up call to the world. Consumption patterns in the West help fuel the orangutans' extinction in the East. More than 10 percent of the products in Western supermarkets contain palm oil, from cookies to cosmetics. Labels often just say vegetable oil. We need to push manufacturers to use only palm oil that comes from sustainable plantations. New oil palm plantations should be planted only on degraded land. No more of the peat forests should be cut. This can be verified by satellite radar monitoring.

If the current trend continues, there will not be a forest big enough to support 1,000 orangutans, the minimum needed for the population to survive in the long term. There will be orangutans in remote places, but no longer living as a species with all of its culture intact - the know-how of what plants to use for medicine, how to make tools, the knowledge of generations. The fact that we have 1,000 orangutans in our care means we have to work harder to save their habitat.

My hope is that people will read this book and get angry. And they will say, "We can't let this happen".

Smits has not given up. BOS is helping to regenerate lost forests.

It is not all doom and gloom. There is hope.

Samboja Lestari ["Samboja forever and ever," an area razed for timber] was grass desert with no wildlife at all. We are working with the local people to replant the area. Already, air temperatures have fallen 3 to 5 degrees centigrade, cloud cover has increased by 12 percent and rainfall by 25 percent. One hundred thirty-seven species of birds are found here. Other animals bring in seeds from far away to further enrich the biodiversity of the more than 1,000 plants we brought in to start the restoration. At the same time we've created jobs for local men and women in the tree nursery, the compost plant, as fire watchers and fighters, road and dam construction workers, and a lot more. Families use the land between the trees to plant their crops, and they will be able to tap the sugar palms that are growing as a source of income. These people have access to schools and fresh drinking water. And they have become the protectors of the rainforest.

They are planting a fence of thorny palms as a border between the orangutan's sanctuary area and humans. Some 200 rescued orangutans are living there, and there will be more when the fence is complete. Besides healthy orangutans, this will be a place for those most in need: orangutans that have hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or Down syndrome. The blind orangutans that were shot in the eyes. The ones with their hands cut off for eating a palm shoot. The victims. There will be mothers with their infants, but this is not a place where visitors can hug cute babies.

How can people help?

At Samboja Lestari, we have built our eco-lodge - mostly from natural materials. It's a haven in the middle of the growing jungle. Visitors come here to work with the scientists, helping in the tree nursery, so they can start to understand the complexity of rebuilding a rainforest on the poorest soils.

It's not too late. Come and plant some trees. Adopt an orangutan. Support us in saving rainforests. Become involved in promoting the use of sustainably obtained palm oil.

When Thinkers of the Jungle came out in Germany, the country had many electricity-generating plants using palm oil. The parliamentarians who read the book and visited Samboja Lestari have proposed new laws to prevent using this fuel until it is proven that the plants are running on palm oil that has not been grown on newly cleared rainforests. And Germany is pushing the European Union for new regulations. The book already has done an enormous amount of good, and I hope we can achieve something similar here in America.

What happened to Uce?
She was reintroduced to a forest area near Balikpapan. I see her about every two years. Dodoy is the father of Uce's second son, Matahari. I have a video made a few weeks ago showing Dodoy with Uce and Matahari playing together. So the first and second orangutans that I rescued have had a baby together. Uce is most likely pregnant with her third child. Her first son, Bintang, is living independently, the first free-born, wild orangutan from orphaned, reintroduced orangutans to do so without the presence of wild orangutans living there.

Orangutan mothers nurture their babies for many years. When Jay Ullal photographed Uce holding seven-month-old Matahari in 2003 for a story in Stern magazine, she was very leery of him getting too close - until he snapped Polaroids and showed them to her.

Yes, Uce was pleased with those photos. I have been told that she has come to the guards' hut in the forest seven times to visit the BOS ranger, Misry, to look at them again.