Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Is orangutan tourism ethical?


Seeing the orangutans at Tanjung Puting

In the middle of the jungle of Borneo, the paradox hit me. Surrounded by the rustling of the animals, hours from civilisation, it all became clear. The very thing that is threatening the wildlife population here is the same thing that could save it – human intervention.

“You need to find a balance in life”, says Fred Galdikas from the Orangutan Foundation International.

“The good thing is people are more aware… the bad thing is we’re bringing more people here.”

So the issue stuck with me… Should I, as a tourist, be intruding on the animals’ land? Or will my presence here ultimately help them?

Yesterday I wrote about joining Fred to visit the orangutan conservation camps in Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo). He grew up here amongst the animals and, along with his mother and other workers, has dedicated his life to helping orangutans.

The foundation saves orphaned babies who would die on their own, feeds adults when natural food is scarce, and works on projects for long-term sustainability. But from a tourism perspective, he has seen things change over the past 30 years. When he was a child, that was never the aim and only a couple of boats would arrive each week. But by 2011, there were about 5,000 visitors to Tanjung Puting. This year there have already been about 8,000.

It’s not easy to get here so you need a bit of dedication. First there’s a flight to Pangkalan Bun, then a transfer to Port Kumai, then a four hour boat ride to Camp Leakey – the main base for the orangutan conservation efforts. Those visitors who come here usually have the right intentions. But intentions don’t save a species.

“They were not put here for tourists”, Fred stresses. “This is where they live… but their habitat is being destroyed.”

But tourism could, in some ways, be the very thing that protects the orangutans and their habitat. The biggest threat to the animals is the destruction of the jungles here in Kalimantan. Local Indonesians are cutting it down to build palm oil plantations. But they’re only doing it because it’s the easiest way to make a living.

“We’re in a third world country where every day is almost a struggle to survive, to eat, to make money”, Fred explains.

“And when people see the rich guys like the palm oil guys, the local people look at that and wonder how they can do that. Well, one of the things they do is open up a palm oil plantation because that’s where the money is.”

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