Indonesia: The Hardships for Bornean Orangutans in Central Kalimantan

Ratri M. Siniwi & Megan Herndon Jakarta Globe 21 Aug 16;

Palangka Raya. Endemic to the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, orangutans have become the symbol for the archipelago’s tropical jungles nurturer, as the animal’s name itself translates to "the people of the jungle."

Well known for their similarity to human DNA, the great ape species are currently under high threat, with both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans listed under the red list of critically endangered animals released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Their habitats' degradation due to commodity concessions, as well as illegal hunting and trade, have been the two main causes of the slump of population across the two islands.

With growing demand for palm oil around the globe, concessions around Kalimantan have crossed the border lines of conservation areas and shrunk the habitats of the primates, leaving them to scour for food in settlements and at risk of human conflict.

Despite being protected by the Indonesian government, many still keep orangutans as pets, hunt them for tribal necessities, or sell them in the wildlife trade black market.

“Orangutans are still being eaten by tribal communities as their skulls are used as ornaments of pride, while some are taken to circuses in Thailand and displayed in zoos of exotic wildlife collectors,” Putu, former WWF Indonesia conservation officer for orangutans in Central Kalimantan, said.

Putu, who has been studying orangutans for over seven years, explained that orangutan babies are worth millions in the market, making their mothers more vulnerable to hunters.

“Orangutan babies are very attached to their mothers, so hunters would have to kill the mother to get the baby,” Putu said. “If you kill one mother, you kill five orangutans at once, as an orangutan mother can only give birth to four babies.”

A visit to Palas Island

Palas Island, managed and owned by the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) founded in 1991, is the center of operation for the non-government organization that focuses on the conservation and rehabilitation of orangutans around Borneo. The only way to visit it is by a boat ride on Central Kalimantan's Rungun River.

One of the islands inhabited by orangutans in Central Kalimantan is Palas, which is only accessible by boat. (JG Photo/Megan Herndon) One of the islands inhabited by orangutans in Central Kalimantan is Palas, which is only accessible by boat. (JG Photo/Megan Herndon)
The organization also owns Kaja and Bengamat islands, which are used for rehabilitation process of orangutans, located around Central Kalimantan. The two islands are for more "advanced" orangutan, with Bengamat as the island with a mixture of relocated orang-utans and the rehabilitated ones.

The reintroduction program center is located at Nyarung Menteng, which houses 478 orangutans – 23 of which are babies.

“Many of the orangutans here have been seized [from perpetrators], while some are found by villages near palm oil plantations,” Kinantiti Alif, BOSF Central Kalimantan fundraising officer, said.

When the team arrived at BOSF, they shared an educational video of Rimba, a young orphan orangutan whose mother was shot to be sold as an exotic pet in Jakarta.

After over a decade spent in confinement, Rimba was then confiscated from her owners by Jakarta’s natural resource agency in 1999, and was sent to BOSF for rehabilitation.

Around the pre-release island of Palas, rangers are scattered around in various parts of the island in post guard shelters. (JG Photo/Megan Herndon) Around the pre-release island of Palas, rangers are scattered around in various parts of the island in post guard shelters. (JG Photo/Megan Herndon)
At BOSF, she was taken to forest school to learn about basic survival skills, such as building nests and finding food. After 'graduating', she was placed in an enclosure to socialize with other orangutans, to prepare them for the prerelease island.

It took Rimba 13 years to finally get back into the wild.

The orangutan is now in her twenties and has three babies of her own at the Bukit Betikap Conservation Area in the Muller Schwaner mountain range.

“Since 2012, we have released 177 orangutans in Central Kalimantan from our sanctuary,” said Kinanti.

Long period of rehabilitation and increasing problems

However, Kinanti was not happy with the increasing number of orangutans coming into the rehabilitation center, as it is an indicator of more trouble in the rainforests.

“This means that their habitat is getting destroyed. With no more orangutans, there will be no more forests,” Kinanti stated.

“Our biggest dream at BOSF is that one day, the enclosure will close permanently, because that’s a good sign.”

Kinanti explained that aside from the long period of rehabilitation for orangutans, especially for traumatized babies, the hardest part is getting the government to go along with the idea of orangutan conservation.

“We need to get a license from the government to release orangutans in the wild, and it’s hard work too. We need to cooperate with the local natural resource agency to conduct an area survey to ensure that there is food available on the area, and the release area must be a primary forest,” Kinanti added.

It takes an average of 15 years for orangutans to return to the wild, with BOSF carefully choosing and monitoring each orangutans in their pre-release stages for four years or so, to ensure that they are ready to get back to their natural habitat.

“They have to be quarantined after pre-release, to ensure that they are free from any illness that might be contracted during their time at the island,” Kinanti said.

She took an example of Kessie, a one-handed 15 year old orangutan at her pre-release stage, currently roaming around Palas island.

Kessie tends to shy away from the other orangutans in the island and often hides behind trees due to her disability. (JG Photo/Megan Herndon) Kessie tends to shy away from the other orangutans in the island and often hides behind trees due to her disability. (JG Photo/Megan Herndon)
Kessie has won the hearts of many of BOSF rangers, after losing her left hand to an infected wound from being chained at a palm oil plantation. The villagers rescued her and was immediately sent to the rehab center at Nyaru Menteng.

Putu, the former WWF Indonesia conservation officer said: “She has been at the rehab center for many years, and it was a huge debate on whether Kessie should be sent to Palas.”

Kessie continues to defy the expectations of many, being the only one who survived with just one hand in the wild for seven years. In three years, BOSF will decide whether Kessie should stay in the island or be relocated to Kaja, a high school for rehabilitated orangutans.

So far, BOSF has released their orangutans at Bukit Betikap Conservation Area, but are currently looking into releasing them to Bukit Raya National Park. This would be a collaborated effort with the district’s tourism agency to push for the national park as one of Indonesia’s seven summits.

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