Seeing an orangutan in its natural habitat is a rare and magical experience that, for many, will only happen once in a lifetime. 96.4 percent of our genetic makeup is shared with these Great Apes found in the wild on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo only. Due to mankind’s continued encroachment of their natural habitat—particularly for palm oil plantations, hunting and capture for the illegal wildlife trade—the Sumatran Orangutan population sits at critically endangered (6,500 left in the wild), and the Borneo Orangutan at endangered (54,000 remaining in the wild). Although they are protected by Indonesian, Malaysian and international laws, it is estimated that between four and 5,000 wild orangutans disappear every year.
Dr. Gary Shapiro was the first person to teach a symbolic communication system to an orangutan at Chaffee Zoological Park, California, and the first person to teach sign language to orangutans in their natural environment in Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan). “When I spent two years in the forests of Indonesian Borneo teaching sign language to a group of formerly owned “pet” orangutans that were learning to return to the wild, I became much more interested in the species and their plight,” Dr. Shapiro tells me. One particular orangutan named Princess adopted Dr. Shapiro as her father. “We did many things together as she learned her signs and became a free-ranging juvenile orangutan. It was during that time I knew I would devote my life to helping the species survive.”
At the time, Dr. Shapiro felt that not enough money was being spent on education and community outreach to address the root cause of the orangutan’s dilemma. It was clear to him that more had to be done to educate people about the species and their plight, which is why the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF) was founded.
OURF works towards saving orangutans from extinction in the wild by funding education and outreach programs in Sumatra and Kalimantan, through the Orangutan Republik Education Initiative (OUREI), an Indonesia-registered non-profit project active since 2004. These organizations were born of the belief that saving orangutans can only be ensured by the people of Indonesia and Malaysia.
One of the foundation’s unique programmes is university scholarship funding to Indonesian students of biology, forestry and veterinary science. Students receiving these scholarships are required to work with local organisations, becoming more knowledgeable about orangutans during their schooling. They graduate as advocates for orangutans.
Another OURF project is Orangutan Caring Clubs of Indonesia, where the message of conservation is brought to schools, government offices and the wider community. Outreach projects include visiting schools in Jakarta and Medan with film and education materials, engaging local and national government officials in conservation issues, and recently, partnering with other orangutan advocacy groups to fund an educational forum with environmental advisers to the Indonesian presidential candidates.
Ridhwan Effendi is Director of OUREII and ensures all aspects of their programme run according to plan. He feels that due to ignorance, there is no sense of urgency among Indonesians to protect the orangutan. “Orangutans are an endemic species to Indonesia, but many Indonesians are not even aware of them,” he explains. “They often see the orangutan as a problem that must be eliminated, causing damage to crops and plantations. Even at managerial levels of palm oil plantations in Central Kalimantan, they consider the orangutan an enemy.”
Although the government has passed laws to protect the species, Effendi believes the problem remains in law enforcement. In 1990, the government passed UU No. 5 1990, article 21, where it states that a sentence of up to five years and a fine of 100 million rupiah will be given to those who capture, harm, own, kill or sell a protected animal, including orangutans.
In 2011, instructions were passed down from the president (Intruksi Presiden No.10 tahun 2011) to stop any further destruction of rainforest and peat land, however there has been no follow through – in the first three years since its passing, 6.4 million hectares of protected forest were cleared. Effendi believes the new government is more focused on political issues rather than the environment. “It does not seem that the new government is doing anything yet to protect the remaining rainforests and natural habitat of the orangutan. According to national statistics, 48.8 million hectares of ancient rainforest remain on Kalimantan, however Greenpeace’s figures are much lower, at 25.5 million hectares,” he tells me.
Although it may feel like a lost cause, due to the hard work that non-governmental organisations such as OURF and OUREII do, there is still hope. “For every person who might have purchased an orangutan and decided not to because of our programs, six to eight orangutans may have been saved,” Dr. Shapiro explains. “Our field education program helps save individual orangutans that might be killed as pests when they wander into a farmer’s garden or orchard. Peoples’ attitudes have changed and many who would have poached or killed an orangutan are not doing so anymore.”
According to Dr. Shapiro, we can each help to make a difference by paying attention to the contents of our grocery shopping. “Stop buying products made of conflict palm oil, which is produced under conditions associated with the ongoing destruction of rainforests, expansion on carbon-rich peat lands, and human rights violations, including the failure to recognize and respect the customary land rights of forest-dependent communities and the use of forced labour and child labour,” he says. Choosing products that are orangutan-safe will require some investigation, but Dr. Shapiro assures us that there are guides and apps available to help us.
Partaking in ecotourism can also make a difference. Dr. Shapiro urges us to join small groups that visit orangutan viewing areas near and around national parks in Kalimantan and Sumatra, as this helps to support families and small businesses that have an economic interest in keeping forests and orangutans alive. He adds, “It also sends a message to local officials that forests are worth saving for their tour value.”
For those in Bali who would like to help support the orangutan, OURF will be holding a fundraiser, Voices for the Jungle, on March 6th in Seminyak.