A new reserve in Borneo raises hope for displaced orang utans
No one wants to get them back into the wild as much as Birute Mary Galdikas, who has devoted a lifetime to studying the great red apes, now on the verge of extinction.
And for the first time in years, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, thanks to a Hong Kong-based development company’s plans to protect a 91,000ha peatland forest along Tanjung Puting National Park’s eastern edge, in Kalimantan, Borneo.
“The problem has been finding a safe place to release them,” said the 64-year-old scientist. “Many are ready to go right now.”
A half-century ago, more than three-quarters of Indonesia, a sprawling archipelagic nation spanning the width of the United States, was blanketed in plush tropical rainforest. But in the rush to supply the world with pulp, paper and, more recently palm oil – used in everything from lipstick and soap to “clean-burning” fuel – half those trees have been cleared.
It is here, in scattered, largely degraded forests, that almost all the world’s 50,000 to 60,000 orang utans can be found. Another 1,500 live in a handful of crowded rehabilitation centres, many of them rescued after their mothers were killed.
Fadhil Hasan, the head of Indonesia’s palm oil association, denied plantation workers were intentionally killing orang utans to protect their crops from raids, saying villagers involved in the illegal wildlife trade pose the greatest threat to the apes.
“Sure, maybe it happens occasionally,” he said. “But the businessmen who run these plantations, and their workers, understand that these animals are protected.”
Young orphaned apes can’t be released directly into parks like Tanjung Puting – home to 6,000 orang utans – because of a 1995 decree that prohibits the release of ex-captives into forests with large wild populations, primarily over fears they’ll introduce diseases like tuberculosis.
But the small patches of trees that remain are inadequate for their breeding needs and massive appetites. In the wild, the giant apes spend almost all of their day looking for fruit, consuming up to 20% of their body mass.
“We manage, just barely, to give them what they need for adequate lives,” said Galdikas, as a dozen caretakers lift shaggy, young orang utans from their sleeping cages so they can spend much of the day frolicking in trees and the brush below. “The problem is that it’s just barely.”
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