Borneo’s eco-stranded apes with nowhere to call home

Who’s that hiding in the trees? It’s a Bornean orangutan, an ape with an unhappy history and an uncertain future.

I saw this orangutan and several others when I took a recent boat journey past Kaja Island in the Rungan River of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The 40-plus orangutans on the island are ‘rehabs’ — creatures that have been confiscated from poachers, found orphaned or rescued from homes where as pets they were subjected to a diet of noodles instead of fruits and tree bark.

Many were rescued from palm oil plantations where they were captured as pests after arriving hungry to feed on the palms.

Their species is in trouble — there are only around 50,000 left.  The Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation’s Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation centre now houses over 600 rescued orangutans, with another 230 at a centre in East Kalimantan.

An orangutan that has been traumatised or has spent too much time around living like a human cannot simply be released into a forest — it must be rehabilitated first. Michelle Desilets of the Orangutan Land Trust explained to me the process, which can take 8-10 years.

“They start out in forest schools. The littles ones at nursery school play all day in a small forest with small trees under the watchful eyes of their babysitters. The babysitters sleep with them at night in the nursery house, with the babies in laundry baskets with blankets and leaves.”

“When they are older they go to Forest School One, a larger forest with larger trees, still mostly with babysitters. They sleep in group cages or baskets at night, also with 24-hour care. They can stay out at night if they want to, but once they start doing this regularly, and staying in their nests through the night, then they move to Forest School Two.”

“This is an even bigger forest with bigger trees, and now looked after by teknisi (local men who care for them). There is also a group cage for them if they want it for sleeping, but most stay out in the forest.”

“Finally after a few years here, they graduate to orangutan university, one of the five river islands like Kaja, where they show they can essentially master the skills they need to make it on their own, but they do have food provided twice daily if they want it.”

The idea is that after at least two years on an island the orangutans will be ready to return to the wild, though as yet none from Kaja Island has. What’s missing is somewhere for them to go to.

Between 1992 and 2002 the BOS Foundation released 450 rescued orangutans in East Kalimantan, but since then it has been unable to been unable to free any more as there is so little suitable habitat.

Most of Indonesia’s orangutans live outside of protected areas and the forests they depend on are being turned into plantations of oil palm or have been logged for timber and pulp.

Former orangutan biologist June Rubis taught me a new word to describe these apes that are surrounded by oil palm and village farms and people: “eco-stranded.” As they run out of places to live their wild lives, they increasingly meet people and if the apes raid oil palm plantations or villagers’ crops this spells conflict.

In research published in November 2011, Erik Meijaard and colleagues estimated that people killed between 750 and 1790 orang-utans in Kalimantan in 2010 alone (full paper online here). Some managers of oil palm plantations have even offered their workers a cash bounty for every ‘pest’ orangutan they kill.

Back in August 2010, the Indonesian government gave the BOS Foundation a permit to manage 86,540 hectares of logged land in East Kalimantan as an orangutan reintroduction site.

Under the deal, the foundation would pay a US$1.4 million license fee for access to the land over the next 60 years. But even after this agreement nothing happened, as the foundation still had no permission to release any apes.

Finally, on 18 January 2012, they got some good news. As Fidelis Satriastanti reported in the Jakarta Globe the government gave the green light for hundreds of orangutans to be released there over the coming years.

Here’s a closer look at that ape I saw just three days before this news was announced. It seemed curious about the boat that carried me past the island. It looked like an ape that was ready to go home.

[I visited Indonesia to attend a meeting at CIFOR that explored whether it was possible to conserve apes and reduce local poverty at the same time. It was organised as part of IIED‘s Poverty and Conservation Learning Group initiative with support from the Arcus Foundation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Great Ape Survival Partnership]

2 thoughts on “Borneo’s eco-stranded apes with nowhere to call home

  1. Yes, I’ve always wondered about this. In fact how can there be any spare forest for release? Orangutans would surely be everywhere more or less at their carrying capacity, or else the forest is not suitable in the first place, so how can releasing more apes be helpful?

    • Hi. Good question. There is a lot of degraded (after selective logging) forest in Borneo that could be rehabilitated to form good orangutan habitat and some that is already good enough but is just not protected.

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