Orangutan is a large primate that can only be found in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia, but all three species of orangutans are now critically endangered and efforts to safeguard the survival of such an important part of this country’s biodiversity are now becoming an imperative.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts the status of all three orangutan species — the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii), the Kalimantan Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) — as critically endangered.
Data from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), a non-governmental organization focused on the conservation of orangutans, shows the population of these large primates only stood at some 73,000 in 2016 and the figure keeps dwindling.
The conversion of their natural habitat for human needs, illegal trade, and annual forest and ground fires are the main factors behind the extinction threat of these mammals and primates.
Many people still lack the awareness of the importance in ensuring orangutans thrive in their natural habitat as they play a key role in the regeneration and maintaining balance of the forest ecosystem.
Orangutans spread seeds from the fruits they consume and their nest-building helps clear out the forest canopy, allowing the sunshine to penetrate the usually dark and lush tropical rain forest. They also help maintain a steady supply of food, oxygen, and even wood for humans.
However, many orangutans continue to be killed, traded and even turned into exhibits to entertain people.
To better understand of what is being done to save and protect orangutans in Indonesia, The Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) sat down with BOSF CEO Jamartin Sihite on Thursday, August 20, 2021.
How did you become interested in orangutans?
My educational background is actually in agriculture but my postgraduate and Phd were focused on the environment. I was a lecturer at the Trisakti University when in 2004 I decided to join The Nature Conservancy and started to work in Papua and the Komodo islands. At one point, I met with an orangutan expert who challenged me to look into the eyes of a baby orangutan.
It was my first ever look into the eyes of a very young orangutan and all I could see was a look of desperation. It was love at first sight and became interested in helping to protect orangutans.
I also realized that we can continue to learn outside of campus. And this is why I chose to resign from my teaching position. For me, conservation is a small act that has a huge impact on the conservation of endangered species.
I then joined a USAID program focused on the protection of orangutans. And after that I moved to the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). And here I am, still.
Orangutans in each regions have their own unique characteristics. Can you elaborate on the differences between orangutans in the various regions in Indonesia?
Initially, we only knew two types of orangutans but as time went by, our knowledge of orangutans also grew. For Sumatra, we only knew one species of orangutan, but we found another species.
The first species lives north of the Toba Lake while the second lives south of the same lake, in the Batang Toru forest area in Tapanuli. The third species is found in Kalimantan. The most striking difference between these species is the colour.
The Sumatran Orangutan is brighter and it becomes darker as we move towards the east. Another difference is, orangutans in Sumatra rarely come down to the ground because of the presence of tigers in their habitat while those in Kalimantan, we often find them roaming on the forest bed.
Talk about the habitat of orangutans, the forests are shrinking because of plantations and forests and ground fires. Based on BOSF’s observation, how is the condition of these primates?
Orangutans live in forests. Almost 70 percent of orangutans live outside of conservation areas designated by the government. Their habitat is about 0-700 meters above sea level. Many orangutans also live in areas where humans live.
When development happens, conflicts with orangutans become inevitable and theya re often on the losing end. Sometimes they get killed.
Indonesia recognizes two types of forest areas in its spatial zoning — forest cultivation areas and non-forest cultivation areas. When non-forest cultivation areas are converted for other functions to meet human needs, this remains legal.
This is one of the main causes orangutans lose their living space. Their habitats are being used for other purposes. The result is a decline in their population. Other contributing factors are cross-border illegal trade and the trend abroad of keeping them as pets.
Can you describe the illegal trade?
We only became aware after the trades have taken place. In 2006, in an illegal trade case in Thailand, the Indonesian government was repatriated 48 orangutans. The government also repatriated orangutans found in Kuwait.
In total BOSF received 54 orangutans. The cross-border illegal trade mostly takes place in the Middle East, although some in Thailand.
You mentioned the behavior of keeping orangutans as pets. How did this happen?
There is still a misconception among some people who think that keeping protected species as a pet is cool. Such as keeping a tiger, as we sometimes see on the social media, including on YouTube.
You can find those who keep Bengal Tigers, which are not protected, as pets. But our society may not go through the lengths of finding out about the species of the tiger so when Indonesians see that, they will potentially do the same. I think such act of flaunting their (wildlife) pet is jeopardizing conservation efforts.
We try to educate (the public) so that protected species do not go extinct, but on the other hand, some celebrities put their pets on display and that is not right. Keeping a wild animals as pets is not cool.
What about the pattern of threats against the habitat of orangutan?
The pattern remains the same, land conversion, illegal trade, and keeping them as pets. To educate and promote the laws concerning this, we all have to work together. We cannot rely on NGOs or governments alone. We need the help of the media, the society, and scientists. Together we should engage in the conservation of orangutans.
What efforts are being done by BOSF in the conservation of these primates?
Whenever we receive a report, we will work with the Nature Conservation Agency (BKSDA) to rescue an orangutan. This orangutan will undergo rehabilitation before we can release them back into the wild. We also rehabilitate the land and restore peatland that have been cleared during the Suharto era. We are restoring forests that were once a habitat for orangutans.
We also have the BOSF Goes To School program, aimed at educating school children as early as possible on the importance of protecting the orangutans. When they grow up and become officials, businessme,n or whatever they choose to be in the future, they would be more aware about the existence of orangutans.
We are also applying for Forest Exploitation Rights for former production forests, also known as restoration forest exploitation rights (HPH Restorasi) to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs, to restore those former forest areas.
The process is similar to applying for regular forest exploitation rights. BOSF, through its Orangutan Forest Restoration program, has already obtained license for 86,593 hectares of land and is currently applying for license covering another 50,000 hectares because the land that had been restored previously and used as a venue to release the rehabilitated orangutans are now almost at full capacity.
We are also working with the regional administration on areas that were formerly used for the mega rice project also known as the Mawas area. There are about 2,000 orangutans living there, in an area of 309,000 hectares.
No logging is allowed in that are. This is part of our efforts to protect the habitat of orangutan, From 2021 to July 2021, we have rehabilitated and released 485 orangutan into the wilderness.
According to BOSF data, what is the current population of orangutan?
Based on the surveys that we conducted in 2016, there are about 73,000 orangutans left. There are 15,090 orangutans in Sumatra including 800 in Tapanuli, and 57,350 in Kalimantan.
What are the challenges in the conservation of orangutan?
Educating the people remains a challenge. Another obstacle is funding, because helping the survival of orangutans is neither easy nor cheap. We are also trying to enlist entrepreneurs who manage lands in Kalimantan to join efforts to protect orangutans. This is still difficult to achieve. In fact, if we all try, there will be ways to jointly conserve the orangutans.
You have been involved in orangutan conservation for years. Can you explain the importance of orangutans to the forest ecosystem?
The importance of the existence of orangutans has already been recognized by researchers. Orangutans are like the gardeners of forests. During daytime they seek fruits to eat and spread their seeds everywhere.
In the afternoons and evenings, they will build nests. Orangutans will open up the forest canopy so that sunshine can reach the forest bed and seeds can grow. The photosynthesis in the forest would go well. Forests would become healthier.
A healthy forest will produce oxygen, clean water, timber and non-timber products. A forest in good condition will play a role in mitigating climate change. And who will benefit from all of this? Us, humans. Saving the orangutans in the forest is saving humankind.
Do you think the government is serious about protecting orangutans?
Together with the government, BOSF has been working to protect orangutans for 30 years. We collaborate. The government has the role in producing policies and regulations. NGOs like us, can provide inputs to the government so that no development takes place or no permits are issued for plantations in areas that are the habitat of orangutans, as a mitigation effort.
The laws stipulate that orangutans belong to the state, so the government has an important role.
BOSF engage in collaborative campaigns through documentary films and podcasts, can you explain why you chose those medium?
One of the important components in conservation is communication. How can the message of conservation be well received by the general public? We are using podcasts to target millennials because many information is not conveyed well using traditional media.
We studied social media platforms and discovered their interest in podcasts, YouTube, and Instagram. To socialize BOS Foundation’s conservation programs, we need those media. we hope that more youth will work together to spread information about orangutans.
BOSF often enlists celebrities to join its campaign. Does this help the conservation efforts in crowdfunding or in supporting new policies?
Initially we had orangutan ambassadors. In 2010 we changed the designation to Awareness Campaigner. Anyone can campaign for the protection of orangutans.
One thing that we always put an emphasis on with celebrities, as the children of this nation, who take part in conservation activities, is that orangutans need them to increase public awareness. Therefore we do not pay for their services.
This is part of our effort to enlist more people who are consistent in their involvement in the conservation of orangutans, within their respective capacity.
How can we ensure the continuing existence of orangutans in Indonesia?
Protect forests, leave forests be so orangutans can also continue to exist. If 100 businessmen with concession areas are willing to contribute 100 hectares of land each, then we can make sure there are forests that are protected.
Speaking of youth, how can they be persuaded to become involved in protecting forests and orangutans?
We penetrate spaces they understand. We were previously not interested in using Instagram live, podcasts, or Tiktok. But then, we realized that we have to change and follow the trends of the millennial generation.
We tried to modify our message and use a language that they can understand, and continue to campaign, relaying the message that protecting orangutans is cool. The action to protect orangutans is cool.
What can young people do to get involved in concrete actions for orangutans?
First, they can adopt orangutans and help provide them with food. BOSF is open to donations and adoptions. There are currently nine orangutans open for adoption — Taymur (7), Jelapat (6), Monita (3), Bumi (5), Mema (6), Topan (4), Davi (6), Kopral (15), and Shelton (14).
They can also participate by using their smartphone to join or support the campaign through likes, shares, and comments. If they feel comfortable with the BOSF program, they can even join. But they should keep in mind that joining BOSF isn’t about becoming rich, but to be happy.
How do you see the future of orangutans in Indonesia?
While there are people who think that orangutans would go extinct in 10 to 20 years, we are certain that orangutans would continue to exist even in 100 years’ time. The question is how can we protect their habitat?
We hope that orangutans do not become extinct. We have to realize that orangutans are our treasure we must protect them and their habitat together. This is our duty as citizens.
Join and support the campaign? By buying merchandise at https://www.orangutan.or.id/shop , you are helping orangutan conservation efforts in Indonesia! Let us support programs for the protection and rescue of orangutans.