You are on page 1of 7

BALIKPAPAH, Indonesia -- As Willie Smits, a Dutch botanist, milled around a busy outdoor market in

Balikpapan, Indonesia, he came across a sickly baby orangutan on sale as a pet. Smits moved on
but couldn't shake the image of the tiny animal's dark, watery eyes and matted-down fur. He had to
save her. When he went back to the market a few hours later, he found the animal in a garbage
heap. "She was gasping for breath," Smits recalled. "They thought she was going to die, so they just
threw her away."
Smits took the infant to the Wanariset Forest Research Station, where he lived and worked. He
named the animal Uce, after the sound of her heavy breathing on the garbage heap, and nursed her
back to life.
Two years later, in 1991, Stairs founded the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Center on the
grounds of the forest station to help other orphaned or kidnapped orangutans return to the wild. After
years of loving care, Uce became the center's first orangutan to successfully return to the wild. She's
even had two babies of her own.
Over the years, Wanariset has taken in more than 1.000 orangutans. Today, the center is home to
more than 200 orangutans, and Smits is one of the foremost orangutan experts in the world.
Smits and other orangutan experts recently gathered in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, to assess the
status of the orangutan, an endangered ape that once ranged throughout Southeast Asia. Today,
orangutans are found only in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Scientists estimate that in the last ten
years, the number of wild orangutans has decreased by about 50 percent, to perhaps as few as
13,000 animals.
The outlook for orangutans is grim, Smits and the other experts concluded in Jakarta. "From the
number of orangutans confiscated and smuggled in 2003, I estimate that 6,000 were lost from the
wild last year," Smits said. "Without immediate action, the orangutans are doomed."
No Trees, No Orangutans
The illegal market in orangutans is not the only threat to the animals. Most experts agree that loss of
habitat is the orangutans' worst enemy. "Orangutans are almost totally arboreal. They are in trees 99
percent of the time," said Cheryl Knott, a Harvard University anthropologist who attended the Jakarta
meeting. "Almost 80 percent of their rainforest habitat has been destroyed. At the current rate of
habitat destruction, orangutans could be extinct in the wild in 10 to 20 years," she warned.
According to Knott, the primary reason for such rampant land loss is the illegal logging industry.
Although most logging is banned in Indonesia, local authorities often accept bribes to allow loggers
to fell huge swaths of forest and sell the timber overseas, where it is typically turned into picture
frames, window blinds, pool cues, and the like.
The loggers themselves care more about putting food on their tables than the plight of the
orangutan. "What we do is illegal," admitted Ponimin, who lives in the Indonesian village of
Pelindung, where most of the 4,000 inhabitants survive by logging. "The forests belong to the
people.... That's how we survive--on logs," Ponimin said in his defense.

Agriculture also plays a large part in the orangutan's habitat destruction. Wealthy farmers clear large
tracts of land for palm oil and rubber tree plantations. One plantation can take up as much as 50,000
Forest fires exacerbate the problem. According to Stairs, thousands of orangutans died during
massive forest fires in 1997 and 1998 that destroyed huge amounts of Indonesian rainforest.
The destruction of trees not only wipes out the orangutan's habitat but also makes it difficult for the
forest itself to survive. While swinging from tree to tree, orangutans disperse seeds and prune
branches, helping the forest regenerate.
Excessive logging and farming, environmentalists warn, will eventually backfire on humans.
"Although there is short-term gain from deforestation, it causes long-term poverty through local
climate changes, flooding, and landslides," explained David Cowdrey of the World Wildlife Fund.
Losing Ourselves
To some scientists, losing orangutans means losing the ability to learn more about human beings.
Many scientists believe that orangutans are among humans' closest relatives--sharing some 97
percent of humans' DNA, or basic genetic material.
"They are so close to us, we can learn a huge amount about our physiology, psychology, and origins
[by studying them]" said Smits.
Ashley Leiman, director of the Orangutan Foundation UK, agrees. "[Orangutans] share the same
emotions as humans. They are nurturing, they show grief ... They have the same expressions of love
that humans do," she said.
Uce showed her love for Smits when the two were reunited more than a decade after her return to
the wild. In the years following Uce's release, Smits's staff members had spotted her in the forest
many times, but the orangutan had become completely wild and would not respond to them. The day
Uce noticed Smits, however, she slowly climbed down through the trees to show Smits her second
offspring. Smits named the baby Bintang, or "star" in Indonesian--a bright spot in an otherwise bleak
CONSIDER THIS... What are some ways to prevent the extinction of orangutans?
Get Talking
Have students locate Indonesia and Malaysia on a map. Tell students that Malaysia consists of
Peninsular Malaysia, on the Malay Peninsula, and East Malaysia, on the Island of Borneo, and that
Indonesia is an archipelago comprised of more than 3,000 islands. Ask students to guess the
nations' climate, geography, and environment. Tell them that loggers are rapidly depleting the
rainforest in both countries. Ask: How might excessive logging affect wildlife?
Notes Behind the News

* According to Orangutan Foundation International, Indonesia is one of the five most species-diverse
countries in the world, with 12 percent of all mammal species, 16 percent of reptile and amphibian
species, and 17 percent of bird species. Of these, 772 are threatened, giving Indonesia the thirdhighest number of threatened species, behind only Malaysia and the United States.
* In addition to logging, farming, and forest fires, a rapid rise in the Indonesian population has posed
a problem for orangutans--100 years ago, 10 million people lived in Indonesia; today that number is
200 million.
* Another strike against orangutans is their slow reproductive cycle. Female orangutans become
fertile around the age of 12 and live up to 40 years. However, they average 8 years between births.
* Dr. Willie Smits and the other experts who convened in Jakarta made urgent recommendations to
stem the decline of the orangutan population, including: increasing law enforcement; creating new
protected forest areas; damming the canals used to transport illegal logs; stopping the construction
of a major roadway through Indonesia's Gunung Leuser National Park; and seeking funding and
publicity from the international community.
Doing More
Tell students that orangutans are one of four great apes. The others are gorillas, chimpanzees, and
bonobos. Divide students into three groups, one for each of the other apes. Have students research
their designated animal and then share with the class the ape's habitat and its status.
Link It
* Orangutan Foundation International:
* The Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Center:


Sumatra is the only place on earth where orang-utans, tigers, elephants and rhinoceros are found
together. But it may not be so for much longer. Now, only remnant populations of each survive as
their habitat is cleared for yet more plantations, and by illegal loggers.
Driving through North Sumatra, on rutted roads from dawn to dusk, you see little else but oil palm
trees in ordered rows and dozens of trucks, their precious kernels piled high.
Arriving at Tangkahan comes as a relief. This tiny village sits across the river from the Gunung
Leuser National Park, where the landscape is how it used to be - a jungle so tangled even walking
through it would seem impossible.
But even the national park is not entirely safe and, in search of food, animals regularly stray into the
plantations and gardens of villagers. At the jungle's edge, elephants are in danger of being poisoned
- five have died in the neighbouring province of Aceh in the past six weeks, their young taken as pets
or left to die.
In Tangkahan a desperate rearguard action is taking place. It's home to the seven Sumatran
elephants housed by a non-government organisation, the Conservation Response Unit. The animals
act as the main attraction of an ecotourism venture. Tourists spend a few days in the jungle,
watching the elephants up close, washing them, feeding them and riding them into remote waterfalls
and hot springs at the jungle's edge.
With its concrete huts and open-sided cafe, cold-water bucket showers and limited electricity,
Tangkahan is at the purist end of ecotourism.
Half a day's drive away, also in North Sumatra, Bukit Lawang is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Since the 1970s, it has sold tourists on the idea of watching orang-utans swinging through their
jungle home.
Thousands turn up every month to fully appointed hotels, and the riverside town has grown so
popular that pollution, development and noise are growing. Now, some of the orang-utans are
exhibiting signs of dangerous aggression.
Between these two extremes lies a series of questions. Can ecotourism ever out-compete the
$30,000 per hectare that palm oil earns the Indonesian economy? And can it help save the island's
forests and their unique animal inhabitants?
Since 1974, John Purba has been patrolling the area now called the Gunung Leuser park, which
straddles North Sumatra and Aceh in Indonesia's far west. He's a park ranger but so poorly paid that
he is forced to subcontract himself out as a tour guide "to feed my family, pay for school for my
Purba is well trained and experienced, and he's been working for years to convince the local people
that they should help conserve this last redoubt of rainforest and the animals who live here.

"I tell the local people that money from tourism is good money. I say that is why I always need help
from the local people to protect the forest," he says.
Most villagers here - landowners or not - make a living by harvesting oil kernels or tending the
remains of the rubber plantations which predated them. Others grow fruit and vegetables, or cut
trees down illegally and sell them by the piece. Stray too far from Bukit Lawang itself, and the idea
that wild animals are anything more than a pest or a danger is a relatively new one, Purba says.
"I tell them European people like to come to Indonesia because of the orang-utans. Some people are
surprised about that."
Dinan lives in Tangkahan, which started out as a logging town. As a schoolboy, he felled trees and
floated them down the river to market. He also recalls being paid by entrepreneurs to take cattle into
the jungle to feed.
Now he works as a guide. He has learnt English and earned enough money from tourism to build a
house overlooking the river and the jungle. He feels guilty about his earlier life and, with the passion
of a convert, is trying to sell others on the idea.
In a nearby village where "they still have illegal logging", though, he recently ran into trouble. "We
said to them, 'You must try, you must keep the views good in your place - good for trekking, good for
sleeping in the jungle'," Dinan says. "But they were aggressive. It's hard to convince Indonesian
people that tourism can bring money."
Agung Kacaribu and his young crew take little convincing. They run the catering at the little, riverside
restaurant in Tangkahan, shyly speaking to tourists, practising their English, and extolling the virtues
of a healthy forest.
Agung wants to be a diplomat - a job he would no doubt never have contemplated without the input
of foreigners. Meanwhile, he and local girls Lisa and Dewi Pusfitasari educate Westerners in
traditional cooking styles.
But it's a tiny operation. The elephants, all refugees from the jungle, continue to require donor
funding as part of a complex economic model that's not entirely settled.
Bukit Lawang, by contrast, is big business. It's billed as ecotourism, but the hotels are airconditioned
and have hot, running water. There are dozens of restaurants, backpacker joints and even a
shopping centre of sorts. The rubbish runs slightly less freely in the rivers than in other parts of
Indonesia, but during my visit, nothing stopped the ear-splitting Indonesian pop music that played
half the night.
Sonya Prosser, the marketing manager of Australian ecotourism outfit Raw Wildlife Encounters, says
Tangkahan has not yet benefited the community enough, and Bukit Lawang is so big it's in danger of
damaging the environment.

Here, unregistered and untrained local "guides" hand-feed orang-utans, wanting to guarantee their
customers an encounter, but also risking the transmission of deadly diseases such as tuberculosis.
Orang-utans are now showing behavioural problems and it has been suggested that one animal,
Mina, be moved further into the forest after becoming aggressive - though she could easily return.
"This kind of thing is going to increase until somebody gets injured," Prosser says. "There are 200
registered rangers and guides, some of whom are not well trained, then you've got illegal ones as
well. There are perhaps 300 all up."
Prosser says Bukit Lawang long since made the transition from ecotourism to mass tourism, and the
animals are paying the price. Indonesia is still full of wild places and astonishing beauty, despite
deforestation and environmental degradation. But, apart from Bali, it makes little effort to invite
foreigners to see it, or to train Indonesians to show it.
At an official level it's all about managing natural resources; ecotourism is barely a blip on the radar.
The tourism ministry in Jakarta referred us through five different offices on the hunt for some
expertise. Last stop was the office for market development, which had figures on culinary tourism,
golf tourism, diving tourism, even religious tourism, but nothing at all on ecotourism.
Non-government organisation the Indonesia Eco-Tourism Network also has no detailed figures, but
says the sector is growing - the Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo grew by 60 per cent last
year. But spokeswoman Wita Simatupang says the industry cannot grow too fast, and the biggest
handbrake is poor training and bad infrastructure.
About 90 minutes by motorbike down hopelessly rugged roads from Bukit Lawang is the untouched
village of Batukatak, perched on the banks of the stunning Berkail river. Maybe 70 families live here about 210 people - surviving on the earnings from rubber extraction and palm oil. The village doesn't
even have a nasi goreng stall and the locals still gape openly when a "bule" (white person) rides in.
But the nearby jungle does have truly wild orang-utans and elephants. Even a tiger comes to a
spectacular nearby cave - full of stalactites and stalagmites - to give birth to her cubs. Purba hopes
that this village will be the location of a new ecotourism venture.
"At the moment it's a stable village," Purba says. Asked to explain he says: "It means not all have
enough to eat."
Local leader Ngalemi Sinuraya says his neighbours "know already that Western people like animals
and like to save them".
"It means if we save the forest completely, the animals will be healthy," he adds. And ecotourism?
"We'd like it. We'd really like it," the men gathered around him nodding in furious agreement over
their cups of gritty Sumatran coffee. "They'd like to be more advanced in the village," says Purba. "If
ecotourism comes here maybe all the people can have an income; maybe they can fry the bananas
that visitors can buy."
But according to Prosser, if Raw Wildlife or any other developer were to operate in Batukatak, it
would need to be a product of high value - the chance to see and help preserve forest and animals

that can be seen nowhere else. What's needed, she says, is "fewer and more high-quality punters,
who are prepared to pay a lot for a unique experience".
In a developing country like Indonesia, with a social and physical infrastructure that is naive at best,
it's a tough ask. "But in the end there's only one way ecotourism can work to save the forests: the
animals have to outvalue the palm oil."
CAPTION(S):THREE PHOTOS: Tourists help care for elephants at Tangkahan in North Sumatra
(left), an orang-utan in Bukit Lawang (top) and Ngalemi Sinuraya, a leader in the village of
Batukatak. Photos: Michael Bachelard