Orang utan under threat
New Strait Times: Amy Chew: 20 September 2009
In Central Kalimantan, the hunters and poachers have the blood of orang utan on their hands. The forests that are home to these animals are also being cleared at an alarming rate in the name of development. A rehabilitation centre offers some measure of hope, writes Amy Chew.
NODY, an orphaned baby orang utan, climbs up a tree and stares into the distance at the Nyaru Menteng Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, his future as uncertain as the existence of the forests which used to be his home.
His mother was killed in the wilds, under what circumstances, his carers do not really know.
But what is sure is that she met with a cruel and violent end — hacked to pieces, burnt or shot to death — like so many others before her.
In a forest in Sampit, an animal poacher fires a shot at a female orang utan with a baby in her arms. As the orang utan falls, she clings tightly to her baby.
When the hunter comes over to the dying creature, he is stunned — he sees tears flowing from its eyes.
“The mother held on to her baby until she breathed her last,” recounts Eko Haryuwono, founder of the Nyaru Menteng orang utan rescue unit.
“The hunter was moved by the orang utan’s tears and has since stopped killing them.”
The hunter now helps the rescue team by informing the unit of orang utan in danger of being killed or poached.
The orang utan, or people of the forest, is our closest relative. Orang utan and humans share 98 per cent of the same DNA.
“They have emotions just like humans. They can cry, worry and experience sorrow and joy just like us,” says Eko.
While only two per cent of DNA separates us from the orang utan, we have often shown ourselves to be more beast than human.
We grab a disproportionate share of the land and leave little or nothing for the animals.
Forest land is relentlessly being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations as demand for bio-fuel rises, driving the orang utan out of their homes and to certain death.
Workers at huge oil palm plantations regard the orang utan as pests and often kill them in the most cruel and inhumane way.
“They (workers) pour petrol over them, then throw a lighted match to set them on fire. This happened in a huge plantation company in 2003,” says Eko.
“We have also found body parts of orang utan in oil palm plantation. The animal was chopped to pieces.”
Eko and his team also find orang utan beaten to death with iron bars and wooden planks.
“Some were beaten unconscious and buried alive. We humans should be ashamed of ourselves,” Eko says quietly.
Nyaru Menteng, which sits on 6.5ha of land, was originally set up to house 100 orang utan but the number has now grown to 648.
It is funded by the Borneo Orang Utan Survival Foundation (BOS) of Indonesia and BOS International.
Rehabilitation in the centre means teaching the baby orang utan how to climb trees and look for food — skills to help them fend for themselves in the wild.
The majority of the orang utan brought to the centre are orphans who have lost their mother, who would otherwise have been the one teaching them survival skills.
The centre faces great difficulties in finding forest land to release the mammal back into the wild after rehabilitating them as forest land shrinks.
Indonesia has 120 million ha of forest and peat land out of which 28.3 million ha have been cleared or degraded, according to the Forestry Ministry.
Illegal logging and timber companies also drive the rapid deforestation of Indonesia’s pristine forests and peat lands which are important “green lungs” to the world.
Indonesian environmentalists have often called on the government to give out permits of degraded land to large plantation companies. But the call is seldom heeded as forest trees are worth millions of dollars in the timber trade.
“Many palm oil companies clear forests and orang utan habitat to generate income from the valuable timber as it would be five years before new plantings of oil palm produce any products,” says Michelle Desilets, director of the British-based Orang Utan Land Trust.
According to Desilets, palm oil companies are even allowed to develop within designated national parks like the Tanjung Puting National Park which is home to 6,000 orang utan. Tanjung Puting is located in Central Kalimantan .
“When plantations clear habitat, the orang utan are driven into ever smaller patches of forest with dwindling food supply,” says Desilets.
“Starving and desperate for whatever nutrition they can find, the orang utan venture into the newly-planted areas and eat the young shoots of the plant. As a result, they become regarded as an agricultural pest.”
Indonesia and Malaysia combined produce nearly 90 per cent of the global palm oil supply. Many of the multi-million dollar plantation companies operating in Central Kalimantan have Malaysians and Singaporeans as their joint venture partners.
Desilets appeals to the Malaysian and Indonesian government to put a moratorium on the conversion of primary forests, high conservation value forests and peat land into industrial logging and oil palm plantations.
“We would (also) like to see both governments take a united stand to combat illegal logging and trade in endangered species, put more resources into protecting forests through ranger patrols, fire-fighting efforts and satellite surveillance,” she says.
With an estimated 5,000 orang utan perishing every year, there is little time left to save the remaining 45,000 in the wild.
Experts believe it is only a matter of time before the animals become extinct.
“It will be difficult to protect them all without the commitment of the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia ,” she says.
“It is distressing to think that even if we can save 10,000 of them, about 35,000 wild orang utan will needlessly suffer and die. “We need all the help we can get to minimise these numbers.”
Saving the orang utan will be a demonstration of our humanity, that we are indeed worthy to be called humans, and not beasts.