Kiss your cousins goodbye

August 25, 2000

Orang-utans, our third closest relatives, are barely hanging on as a species. Researchers trying to study them are also under attack. Aisling Irwin reports

As the rope bridge across the rainforest gully sagged sharply under Andrea Johnson, she realised something was wrong. It swung down and she struggled to the other side, avoiding a dangerous fall to the rocks below. There, the researcher found the cause of her near accident. Ties securing the bridge, in Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesian Borneo, had been severed with a machete.

Sabotage and death threats have become everyday obstacles for academics involved in the research and conservation of orang-utans in Indonesia. On the east coast of Borneo, near Balikpapan, lives Willie Smits, a tropical forest specialist at the Wanariset Samboja Orang-utan Rehabilitation Station who rescues orang-utans kept illegally in people's homes. His pet dogs have been killed one by one, their skulls deposited on his doorstep. Elsewhere, research projects have ceased abruptly when forest stations have been burned down. The perpetrators are those who would prefer to be without witnesses as their plundering strikes deep into the last vestiges of primal rainforest.

The orang-utan is almost history, the victim of a massacre on a vast scale that takes place regardless of conservation agreements, national park boundaries and even sacred research areas in protected forests. Although the world will lament bitterly the passing of our third closest relative, it has done little to safeguard the primate. Academics have recently shown that for about 25 years there has been virtually no funding available for conservation and pitifully little for research.

That the orang-utans need international champions is beyond doubt. Carel van Schaik, of Duke University in North Carolina, has studied 2.5 million hectares of the Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra using data from satellite imaging and aerial photographs of the animals' habitat. Between 1993 and 1999 the population of orang-utans fell from 12,000 to 6,500. Van Schaik says there is no reason to believe that the situation is any better elsewhere on Sumatra or in Indonesian Borneo - along with Malaysian Borneo, the only places where the estimated 25,000 remaining orang-utans survive. "If nothing changes, in a decade they will all be gone," van Schaik says. "This is a serious emergency that no one foresaw. It is tragic."

The causes of the emergency are described in recent reports by the Environmental Investigation Agency. The economic crisis of Southeast Asia impoverished Indonesians, who turned to the forest for an alternative source of money. In 1997 forest fires, many started by plantation owners hoping to expand their holdings, wiped out huge tracts of forest. In May 1998 Indonesia's authoritarian president Suharto fell from power, precipitating the collapse of law and order in the forest.

The lawlessness is blatant. On Borneo's southern coast is Tanjung Puting National Park. On the small tributaries of the Sekonyer river that runs through the park are rafts of logs, freshly cut from protected areas and ready to be floated in their hundreds down to the coast. Nobody stops the loggers.

But then the international community has been indifferent to the future of the world's wild orang-utan for years, says Herman Rijksen of the Institute for Forestry and Nature Research in the Netherlands.

The orang-utan is perhaps the prime casualty of the change in international conservation philosophy that started in the early 1980s, when sequestering territory for nature reserves with "keep out" signs on the gates became unacceptable. The practice was considered a throwback to colonial times.

Instead, in the name of sustainable development, emphasis was placed on the participation of local people in maintaining the ecosystem via limited harvesting, eco-tourism and other potentially profit-making schemes. But this alternative, critics say, is dangerously vague, a licence to invade fragile wilderness.

"If there is any species that cannot be 'used sustainably', it is the orang-utan," says van Schaik, whose research programme in the north of Sumatra has been suspended since last September because of violence.

Orang-utans require old, untouched forest and depend on the fruit of hundreds of different trees, switching between them as they come into their brief seasons. They shun humans and ply long, solitary "ranges" that require large tracts of intact forest.

The struggle against local hostility and the seeming indifference of the wider world have led to an almost impossible working environment. Smits, who cannot find the money for the 1,500kg of fruit he needs daily to feed his ex-captive orang-utans, says: "I'm extremely depressed now. Sometimes I could just sit down and cry. But there's no other option, I could not forgive myself if I stopped."

Johnson, who manages the Gunung Palung orang-utan research project run by Harvard University and monitors the relationship between orang-utans' fruit consumption and their hormone levels, says: "A lot of the time I wonder why am I doing this if this forest is disappearing. It's not going to matter what the orang-utan's hormone levels are because they will soon be gone. I want to be running around the forest following them and collecting data, but there is this constant feeling of guilt like I have this responsibility to be protecting, like it is delinquent not to be involved in conservation efforts."

Research seems of the lowest priority in the west of Tanjung Puting, where the celebrated Birute Galdikas, president of Orang-utan Foundation International, has been working for 30 years at Camp Leakey. Employees monitor wild orang-utans there as they have for decades, but critics say Galdikas has published nothing of her research from the past ten years.

Ashley Leiman, director of Orang-utan Foundation UK, responds that we already know much of what we need to know about the orang-utan. "I'm not saying it's all been found out, but the next year will be her 30th year of experience. Obviously (her work) will be published, but at the moment the biggest problem is saving the park." She also notes that Galdikas has fostered a generation of Indonesian students who are now in senior conservation positions.

Nevertheless, Galdikas's efforts to save the park seem to have come to nothing. Illegal loggers have struck at its heart and are reaching her study area, threatening to torch Camp Leakey. David Chivers, lecturer in veterinary anatomy at Cambridge University, says: "Birute's being there has not made it safer but less safe." He said her failure to make potentially useful data available to the wider community is "sloppy" and "hopeless".

As the anger and introspection continue, van Schaik insists the way forward is not just to pursue a research agenda but to step it up, and not only because it can yield key insights and propaganda for conservation.

"It is disproportionately true that local researchers who establish a long-term presence and employ local people, creating a network, have had a much greater positive impact than the bigger projects," he says.

"Whatever you think of Galdikas, she has done outreach programmes and employs a lot of local people. It is no coincidence that her area of Tanjung Puting national park is the last to go."

The truth is that in corrupt and desperate Indonesia, no approach works, van Schaik says. And because every approach is destined to fail it is impossible to distinguish a good endeavour from a bad one. This probably applies also to two programmes that began after 1995 with what was hoped to be a more enlightened philosophy towards orang-utans: the Orang-utan Survival Programme and a E50 million (Pounds 30 million) joint European Union-Indonesian project based in the Leuser ecosystem, both of which are struggling.

Once law and order is restored, researchers will be central to picking up the pieces, if there are any left, says van Schaik. He has hatched a plan for a network of small research stations peopled by scientists who will live long-term in the community and perform multiple functions as propagandists, witnesses and respected local citizens. He hopes that every zoo in the United States might fund one such station.

However, the response so far has been "rather limited". And the plan depends on the emergence in Indonesia of an environment in which forestry law is enforceable.

That era will come, van Schaik says. Already there is democracy, a free press and the right to sue wrongdoers. Already Indonesia's president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has criticised the destruction of the rainforest.

The question is: will it come soon enough?

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.