Every time a cute baby picture of an orang-utan is posted to social media the outpouring of oohs and ahhs is predictable and accents a growing concern. Fill a wheelbarrow full of the little squirts and you start cardiac fits of sympathy. Big brown-eyed baby orang-utans are unquestionably cute, but they are also symptomatic of a growing dilemma rescuers in Borneo and Sumatra face as the flood of orphans overwhelms their capacity to care for them — are we raising an orphan generation?
The dream of every rescue organization is to empty their center of orphans and never see another, but as Dr. Karmele Llano Sanchez, Director of Yayasan IAR in Ketapang West Kalimantan says, “It’s what I hope, but a know reality” her shrug acknowledges that reality, that the 70 plus orphans now in her center are a reflection of the future of orang-utan conservation in Borneo.
Orphaned orang-utans show a much greater propensity of traveling about bi-pedally and far less concern about humans. Both activities expose the apes to far greater disease encounters and SUSCEPTIBILITY.
“What we don’t know is how these orphans fit into orang-utan culture.” a sentiment expressed by Dr. Gail Campbell-Smith, Yayasan IAR’s Human—Orang-utan Conflict team director. Gail has over a decade of work in Sumatra and across Borneo confronting the harsh reality of people and orang-utans forced to share the same space. “Orang-utans always lose.” She knows that means rescue, not reconciliation. With escalating forest clearing for small farms, and multi-thousand hectare palm oil plantations increasingly dominating the landscape, an estimated 75% of all Bornean orang-utans live outside protected areas.
For rescued young orang-utans, those without mother, life at a center like Yayasan IAR is at least seven years, hundreds of staff hours, and slowly learning how to be an independent red ape. And there in lies the complication we have yet to fully face — what happens to orang-utans who have grown up in the care of humans, and socially with many other orang-utans, when we release them? If life in and around Camp Leaky in Tanjung Puting NP in Central Kalimantan is any indication, we have social misfits who spend far too much time on the ground and have no fear of humans.
Habituated Orphaned orang-utans indifference to humans puts them at risk to conflicts and disease transmission
So are we producing a generation of orphans? What’s hardwired and what’s learned? Do orphans have the same climbing confidence as wild raised orang-utans? Food knowledge? Range fluency? Disease resistance?
Is the survival fate of orang-utans in being habituated and some form of “Extreme Conservation”? And are rehabilitated orphans the vanguard of this habituated future? Already the two most visited sites for “wild” orang-utan viewing are Bukit Lawang at Gunung Leuser NP Sumatra and Camp Leaky in Tanjung Puting NP in Central Kalimantan Borneo. In both cases wild orang-utans can be found in the parks, but habituated orphan rehabs drawn to feeding stations dominate what visitors encounter. In Malaysian Borneo viewing orang-tans doesn’t even have a pretense of wild, Sepilok (Sabah) and Semmengoh (Sarawak) rehab centers are little more than jungle zoos.
Extreme Conservation – is it the only hope for great apes surviving in the wild? And then what is wild? And what role does ape-ecotorism play? Extreme Conservation has saved mountain gorillas, can it save the rest of Earth’s great apes? According to Dr Martha Robbins, “As wildlife populations are declining, conservationists are under increasing pressure to measure the effectiveness of different management strategies. Conventional conservation measures such as law enforcement and community development projects are typically designed to minimize negative human influences upon a species and its ecosystem. In contrast, we define “extreme” conservation as efforts targeted to deliberately increase positive human influences, including veterinary care and close monitoring of individual animals.”
Monitoring great apes means habituation. In the case of mountain gorillas habituation also allows park rangers to lead groups of tourists to visit the gorillas for an hour a day. The gorilla viewing fees, a hefty $750US per person per one-hour in Rwanda, pay the salaries of the trackers and guides, and many others involved in maintaining the national park. In contrast, orang-utans can be visited essentially for free (less than $20US), the only cost to tourists being fees to guide operators and local accommodations. Consequently, gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda have a vastly different value to the government and people than orang-utans do in Indonesia. A value one could argue dramatically increases the conservation value of the apes — one doesn’t see mountain gorillas outside the park being hacked to death by machete-wheeling villagers, as happens to orang-utans.
Elevated to national celebrity status mountain gorillas illustrate the potential of great ape conservation in generating financial revenues and global esteem for the nation that is willing to protect them.
As an example of how Indonesia could rethink the living-value orang-utans: in 2014 more than 27,000 people visited Volcanoes National Park, bringing in more than $15 million in tourism revenue. In an agreement with surrounding communities the Rwanda Development Board, a government agency, dedicates 5 percent of that to develop community infrastructure—clinics, schools, water projects—surrounding its national parks. “Tourism is the backbone of conservation,” a park guide tells eight tourists still swooning from their gorilla encounter, “We need people who love gorillas to come support the gorillas.”
Many scientists expected mountain gorillas to be extinct by the end of the 20th century. But thanks to anti-poaching patrols, habitat conservation and economic development of surrounding communities — [principally] funded by tourism revenue — mountain gorillas have survived, about 880 in the wild, although they are still critically endangered.
According to Dr. Mike Cranfield, of the Gorilla Doctors, no human contact would be the best way to preserve the species. “But that’s not realistic. That’s not the world we live in,” he said. “With the human population [over] 7 billion, we’re going to have to eke out a sustainable existence with wildlife.”
With a generation of orphan orang-utans now filling rescue centers across Bornean Indonesia, especially in the wake of recent fires, and the vast majority of wild orang-utans surviving outside protected areas like national parks, if Indonesia truly values this national symbol of wildness examining the values and investment of Extreme Conservation maybe be the red ape’s only hope of survival.
Notes & Resources
Personal interview notes
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo