Protecting Forests for Orangutans – Bringing Together a Historic Team of Forest Guardians in Borneo

Orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Katie Hawk/TNC
Orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Katie Hawk/TNC

By Dr. Herlina Hartanto, Director of the Indonesia Terrestrial Program, The Nature Conservancy

A glimpse of red fur hanging on a tree branch caught my eye while cruising along the Kahayan River in Central Kalimantan (Central Kalimantan is in Indonesia, on the island of Borneo). The red fur coat turned out to be a young female orangutan hanging under the sun close to one of the feeding platforms on Kaja Island. I caught several other orangutans close by once my eyes adjusted to the shapes. Observing their quiet and deliberate movements, I came to understand why Birute Galdikas in her book, “Reflections of Eden,” called orangutans the master of hide-and-seek. Their soundless movements high in the dark shadows of the dense tropical forest canopy make it extremely difficult for untrained eyes to catch their presence.

Kaja Island is one of the five islands in Central Kalimantan that are currently used to “train” rescued orangutans before releasing them into the wild. About 50 orangutans have been relocated to Kaja Island after their natural habitats were converted into large-scale industrial timber or oil palm plantations or mines. The tropical forests in Indonesia are disappearing at an alarming rate: around 700,000 hectares (or 1.7 million acres) per year in the last several years. As a result, orangutans are losing their natural habitats and are forced to venture into new territories, many of which do not provide adequate protection and shelter. Orangutans are even perceived as pests as they eat young palm trees, and therefore are often killed. The Nature Conservancy and 18 other NGOs in Indonesia conducted a survey from 2008 to 2010 that showed that 78% of the orangutan population in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) lives outside protected areas.

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