Orangutans and forests

Huffington Post: Robert Hii 6 December 2013

J.B. MacKinnon, environmental food guru writes of a future world where only 10 percent of nature will be left and suggests that we all become conscious consumers to slow down this slippery slide. While I would love to be a bearer of good news, the fact is that not enough of us are willing to give up our drives for higher levels of personal comfort and material wealth.


So news that we are losing forests globally at a rate of 50 football fields a minute, should come as no surprise. The data was compiled using satellite imagery from Google Earth which showed deforestation happening worldwide. Other reports identified palm oil plantations alone, as a key driver for the loss of 3.5 million hectares in the past 20 years.

If we as caring citizens cannot stop this monstrous machine called global consumption from removing all virgin forests and the biodiversity within them, what can we do? Or should we do anything at all? As J.B. MacKinnon puts it,

" We don't really need brown bears or buffalo. Large areas of the globe have lost all or nearly all of their largest animals and most ancient forests, and yet they remain desirable locations for people to live."

I am sure many of you will disagree with this statement but if you look at Yellowstone National Park, which is one of the few areas left for bison to roam, it is a good example of what J.B. MacKinnon must have had in mind.

As for the greater plan for things, this new study has mapped out what areas we MUST fight for in order to preserve the high levels of biodiversity within them. Not surprisingly, there are eight locations in Indonesia identified as "must saves."

With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to chat with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation of Indonesia, which has fought an uphill battle to save orangutans and wildlife since 1991 to find out their thoughts on the future of wildlife in Borneo.

BOSF (the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation) is currently the largest orangutan rescue and rehabilitation organization in the world, taking care of more than eight hundred orangutans (as of December 2011). I spoke with the Director, Jamartin Sihite and these are the highlights.

Me. Jamartin, I read in your latest post release updates that you have some 140 orangutans that have gone through rehabilitation and are ready for release into the wild. Why haven't you done so?

Jamartin: There are many reasons why we have not released them all, but one of the main reasons is that we have to ensure we have safe, suitable habitat which we can release into. We work in line with IUCN and national regulations, which states that where wild orangutan populations remain present in a chosen release site, the density of the existing orangutan population should not exceed 0.2 animals within a square kilometer.

This is to prevent competition between wild orangutans already in the area and the rehabilitated individuals we want to release. We also have to ensure the area and habitat is within historical orangutan range, is not threatened, and where present, communities are supportive. This criteria from IUCN ensures the best survival chances for both wild and rehabilitated orangutans.

Me. I've seen releases into your forest sites by helicopter and wondered why that was necessary as I am sure the costs of renting a helicopter must be astronomical.

Jamartin: It costs BOSF about $10,000 per orangutan for each individual we release. This includes all the rehabilitation and care costs over many years and the costs of the helicopters. The release sites that we have chosen have to be so remote that there is no chance of the area being opened to development.

We have supporters who suggest we can do it cheaper by using land or water transport, they have to understand, that there are no made roads leading to our release sites in Bukit Batikap or Kehje Sewen! We do many translocations of orangutans where we rescue them from areas being developed and because these are wild orangutans, we can transport them by car or boat to nearby national parks like Sebangau. For reintroduction, it is a completely different situation.

Me. What are the most pressing challenges to the work you do at BOSF?

Jamartin : Funding is a big problem for the rehabilitation work we do at BOSF. We try to appeal to the individuals who care about orangutans, to open their hearts to orangutans and hopefully they will open their pockets to help us save them. We have 400+ staff on the payroll that helps to make sure that the orangutans receive the best care possible. It is very labor intensive to train an orangutan which has had human contact all his or her life, to become wild, to learn how to survive in the forests.

A big part of our work is also the intensive post release monitoring and forest patrols. Many people think that once we send an orangutan back into the forests, we wave goodbye, say Sayonara and that's it. That is not the case. We still need our supporters to continue helping us with donations as we must ensure that after all the years of forest training and money spent, that the orangutans we release adapt well to their new homes and create new viable populations to bolster conservation of the species in the wild.

Me. From what I am seeing in reports, new palm oil plantations and coal mines will change the landscape in Borneo drastically, how do you see the future for orangutans in general?

Jamartin : The biggest problem for orangutans in the future is how the Indonesian government decides on its land use policies. The best habitat for orangutans is in areas that are seven hundred meters below sea level. Unfortunately, these are also the best areas for developments like oil palm.

If the government does not change its land use policies and start to recognise the importance of conservation, in the next ten years many orangutans will suffer. We already see it in the surrounding forests where people say, oh, there are so many wild orangutans! This is not through their choice, some forests have high orangutan populations because so much of their habitat has been lost to development. You may see many of them today because those that have lost their forest homess are now squeezed into these small areas. Many will suffer as the forests cannot support high population densities.

Me. Of the seven hundred plus orangutans in your care right now, how many can be released?

Jamartin: Most of them can be released into the wild. There are between fifty to a hundred that will never be released. Some of them like Kopral and Shelton have severe disabilities. Others have contracted diseases from humans, such as tubercolosis. We cannot release these as they pose a great threat to wild orangutans in terms of disease risks, or simply wouldn't be able to survive given individual disabilities.

My hope for some of these is that we can send them to island sanctuaries. I would prefer for them to live out their lives in a forest rather than a cage.

But even for the orangutans that can be released, we have a big problem today. Our release sites at Batikap and Kehje Seven have a maximum capacity to accommodate about three hundred and fifty to four hundred more orangutans, that is only half of what we have.

For that reason, we have been looking for new forest locations to secure for future releases. It is not easy as most of the forests have been assigned for development. We have identified two possible locations and next year we will survey them. We also need to work out if we can find the funding to buy these forests. It's not so expensive to buy a hectare of forests for orangutans; $900 will secure one hectare for sixty years but we understand from our global partners, that the economic situation in Europe, Australia and USA is making it hard for them to find funds.

Me. I have personally tried fundraising for orangutan conservation projects and its tough. If I take money from companies that use palm oil or produce palm oil, I am accused of taking blood money. On the other hand, the companies that do not use palm oil, in general tell me that any funding for conservation that they have goes towards other conservation issues. How does BOSF manage to secure funding for that huge rescue operation you have?

Jamartin: Our global partners and donors have been very good at supporting us with funding, but different countries are suffering from different economic crisis. We had problems for ten years, when we did not release one single orangutan and some people were starting to say that we were operating as a sanctuary, which is not the case. We simply did not have funds to buy forests for release. Thanks to the good support of our partners and donors, we were able to secure the two sites we have now.

We also started to introduce a new payment scheme for companies that had caused the orangutans to lose their forests. Some are willing to pay but others are not. This is not a donation, this is their responsibility full-stop.

Me. Its interesting to note that you do charge these palm oil companies since they are the reason for some of the orangutans being at BOSF. My personal opinion is that all these palm oil and coal companies should be contributing not only towards the costs of rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans and other wildlife, but to pay into securing wild habitats for them. What's your take on this?

Jamartin: We are trying to introduce the idea of Corporate Biodiversity Responsibility to companies. Not just oil palm companies, but all companies who are responsible for the orangutans losing their forests. These companies must pay for all the damage they do!

When we take money from the companies, it MUST NOT be considered a donation or even support to BOSF. It can only be considered as the companies contributing to offset the damage that they have done. Its very important that people understand this. When an individual supporter in Australia or the United Kingdom gives money, it is because they care and want to save orangutans. This is a donation, it is support to BOSF. But when a company sends us money to care for an orangutan which is homeless because of their actions, then they are paying for what they should be paying for.

If a company comes to me today and offers to buy a 40,000 hectare forest to save orangutans, I will not say no. For sure I will look at the offer! Imagine how many orangutans will be lost if we say no? As long as the companies understand that we consider these forests as a part of their Corporate Biodiversity Responsibility and not support of BOSF, then I am OK with it.

You have to remember that its not only orangutans that are suffering in Borneo today, we also care for sunbears, other conservation groups care for gibbons and slow lorises. These are all victims of development in Indonesia and we can expect to see many many more of them.

End of interview.

My phone chat with Jamartin lasted over an hour and through it all, I sensed frustration and anger but there was an undertone of hope. Hope that more people will join the fight for the orangutan's survival. The one line that stuck in my mind was : "No hope to save all of them, but we have to do everything we can to save all that we can." For all readers that want to find out more about rehabilitated orangutans at BOSF going home to their safe forests, please visit this link.

To find out more about Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation or to join the fight for the survival of Bornean orangutans, please visit this link.