Issues - Orangutans and Wildlife

Orangutans are facing multiple different threats.

Sumatran female and offspring

Once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, today they exist only on two islands: Borneo, which is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei-Darussalam, and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The orangutan is critically endangered in Borneo where most recent estimates put the population at around 55,000, OURF has focused its efforts on the critically endangered population in Sumatra, which numbers around 14,500 (as of 2016).

Like most of Indonesia, Sumatra was once blanketed with tropical forests, and orangutans lived throughout the island. Smaller, lighter-colored, and generally more social than the better-known Bornean orangutan, today the Sumatran orangutan is found only in the island’s northern parts. Legal and illegal logging, large-scale forest conversion, mining, and development brought about the extinction of southern populations and continue to fragment the remaining populations.

Satellite imagery shows that 48% of Sumatra's natural forest cover has disappeared since 1985 (WFF, 2008), and up to 800 orangutans are being lost every year as a result of habitat destruction and hunting. If the current rate of decline continues, orangutans will be extinct as a genetically viable species in Sumatra within just 10 years.

A population of 14,500 might sound large, especially when compared to the 400 wild Sumatran tigers still surviving or the 700 mountain gorillas of central Africa. However, in context, the figure is frighteningly low. Orangutans have the longest birth interval of any land mammal, with females giving birth to one baby every 6-8 years from the age of 15, and usually producing no more than 3-4 offspring in their lifetime.  With such a low birth rate, they're particularly vulnerable to hunting pressure and habitat destruction. All of the orangutans in Sumatra are scattered throughout small patches of forest that are surrounded by human settlements and plantations, isolated from neighboring populations. All of their remaining habitat is currently under serious threat of destruction.

Of the 13 populations of Sumatran orangutans on the island, just seven are considered viable, and just three populations contain over 1000 individuals (SOCAP Workshop Report, 2005). The biggest stronghold of the orangutan is the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of approximately 2.6 million hectares in northern Sumatra which contains two major volcanoes, three lakes, and nine major river systems, 4.2% of all known bird species, and 2.6% of all known mammals. It's the only place on earth where Sumatran orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos are found in one area (Robertson, 2002). The ecosystem includes Gunung Leuser National Park, which has been subjected to widespread legal and illegal logging, encroachment, palm oil conversion, forest fires, and the Ladia Galaska road development, which bisected the park into two sections (EIA, 1999).

The swamp forests on the west coast of Aceh province are home to the highest densities of orangutans ever recorded. They form part of the Leuser Ecosystem, which acted as a protective buffer zone for communities during the 2004 Asian tsunami. However, they've historically been cleared and drained.

The most southerly populations of wild orangutans are in the East Sarulla and West Batang Toru forest blocks of North Sumatra province. Genetic testing performed in 2017 revealed these orangutans to be a genetically distinct species, which scientists call the Tapanuli orangutan. Only 800 of these animals remain. Hunting by local people for sustenance and the pet trade and illegal logging is putting increasing pressure on these populations (SOCAP Workshop Report, 2005).


For the last few years, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (who we partner with) has run the world’s only Sumatran orangutan rehabilitation and release project, and released over 130 orangutans into the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape, a 320,000-hectare expanse of forest in Jambi and Riau provinces. This forest is extraordinarily rich in biodiversity and hosts at least 80 mammal species, including roughly 30 tigers, 150 elephants, 193 species of bird, 98 species of fish, and four species of reptile. It also includes the 134,834 hectare Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. Despite a history of agricultural encroachment and logging, much of the park and greater landscape remains substantially wild. However, forest concessions to pulp and paper companies in recent years caused massive deforestation. New plans by these companies to convert more forest blocks on the border of the park into plantations directly threaten this biodiversity and the orangutan release project (KKI Warsi, 2010).


To respond to these threats, OUREI organized a conference, workshop, and summit in 2006 to bring stakeholders together to create an education curriculum that addresses the conflict between humans and orangutans in Sumatra. Working with our Indonesian partners (the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, Sumatran Orangutan Society, Orangutan Caring Club of North Sumatra, Fauna and Flora International, and the Leuser International Foundation), we delivered the curriculum to audiences near orangutan habitat in the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh, explaining to local people the importance of orangutans as a species and the overwhelming importance of their forest home. In 2008, we expanded the program to include academic institutions and broadcast media, and the annual Orangutan Caring Week event continues to inspire young people in the Medan area of the island.

The challenges facing orangutans in Sumatra have never been greater, but with continued conservation efforts and OURF’s expanding education program, we hope that Asia’s great orange ape and its forest home can survive.



At the turn of the century, orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra numbered in the hundreds of thousands, inhabiting endless expanses of untouched tropical rainforest. Today, the situation couldn’t be more different. Large-scale logging and rampant plantation expansion has seen both forest habitat and orangutan numbers plummet drastically.

Satellite imagery shows that orangutans have lost approximately 80% of their forest home in the last 20 years, and current estimates put their numbers on the island of Borneo at 55,000, with just 14,500 in Sumatra. All orangutans now exist in small scattered populations, islands of forest in seas of plantations, roads and urban development. In Sumatra, orangutans live in just 13 population units in the north of the island. While protected by Indonesian, Malaysian and international law, it is estimated that between 4 and 5,000 orangutans are still being lost every year, due to the composite effects of habitat loss, illegal hunting, and the exotic pet trade. If this rate of loss continues, it is likely the orangutan will become extinct as a viable breeding species within 10 to 20 years.

But why is this? Why is the orangutan, the only Asian great ape, facing extinction?

Current threats to the orangutan and its habitat include:

Palm oil plantations

The biggest threat to orangutan populations is undoubtedly the increasing expansion of palm oil plantations. Native to West Africa, the oil palm tree produces large quantities of red fruits, which, when crushed, produce an oil that has been traditionally used as a cooking oil, in soap and as a lubricant for steam engines. Extremely versatile, as its use has grown, so has demand, and 48 million tonnes are now produced each year for the world export market (Oil World Trade Journal, 2008), with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for 90% of this production (FOE, 2006). Today, palm oil is found in a vast array of food and consumer products, from ice cream to shampoo, peanut butter to candles. WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil, and demand is now growing for its use as a ‘green’ biofuel.

 palm oil expansion  The palm oil industry has brought huge benefits to both Indonesia and Malaysia and is an essential factor in both countries’ recent economic growth. While such an industry should be welcomed in countries where many live below the poverty line, the current nature of the industry in Borneo and Sumatra has had a detrimental effect on orangutans in many ways. Orangutan’s diets consist mainly of fruit and, as such, they are found predominantly in fruit rich lowland forests. Unfortunately, this land is often the most attractive for palm oil companies. Current practice involves clear-cutting, stripping the forest of all its timber and selling it off. Fires are then set, to rid the land of any wood debris, clear the undergrowth and provide the soil with fertilizing ash. As fires burn, all wildlife either dies or flees the area, where it will often either starve to death or be killed by neighboring plantation workers as pests. Once the oil palm is planted, the fragile rainforest ecosystem that has developed over millions of years is lost. Studies conducted in 2000 by WWF Netherlands showed that, in Indonesia and Malaysia, between 80% and 100% of the fauna inhabiting tropical rainforests cannot survive in oil palm monocultures.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), since the 1970s, the area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to over 3 million hectares. In Malaysia, the area devoted to oil palm has increased 12-fold to 3.5 million hectares. Despite numerous scientific reports detailing the costs of palm oil expansion to biodiversity, endangered species, indigenous tribes, and global carbon emissions, and worldwide media pressure on the plight of endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and Bornean elephants, the conversion of forests to plantations continues unabated.

One controversial scheme under consideration by the Indonesian government is the conversion of nearly 2 million hectares of pristine forest along the border of Sarawak and Indonesian Borneo into the world’s largest palm oil plantation. Studies conducted by scientific organizations such as Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) suggest that sample sites in the so-called ‘Heart of Borneo’ are not suitable for palm oil production, and the plan would severely impact the area’s rich biodiversity. However, the promise of investment from China and demand for jobs means the plans are still under serious consideration by Indonesia’s national planning agency.

Even world famous national parks in Indonesia are not safe from the rampant spread of palm oil plantations. In Central Kalimantan, Tanjung Puting National Park, home to approximately 6,000 orangutans, has been under serious threat, and if plans by the local government to allocate palm oil concessions on the parks eastern border go ahead, the size of the park would be decreased by 25%. Plans by a British company to convert the Tripa peat swamps of northern Sumatra in to a palm oil plantation could see the remaining population of Sumatran orangutans in this area become extinct within 4 years, and the destruction of a coastal ecosystem which saved thousands of lives when the forest acted as a buffer to rising tides during the 2004 Asian tsunami.

To mitigate the problems caused by the palm oil industry, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004, to bring growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGO’s together to find solutions and ways to make the industry more sustainable. While developments have been slow and the organization has been criticized for alleged corruption, it is hoped this consortium can be one of the solutions to the problem. (

A number of studies and reports document the threat palm oil plantations pose to orangutans, other wildlife, environment, and human health. One report shows disturbing practices by palm oil workers who kill orangutans in brutal and inhumane ways.


Logging- legal and illegal

Before the acceleration of palm oil expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia, logging, both legal and illegal, was considered the greatest threat to orangutan populations.

 illegal logging Logging has historically taken place in two forms, legal logging, based on government granted concessions, and illegal logging, usually taking place by rogue groups of men on non-permitted land, although, in Indonesia, the definition of legal and illegal has always been rather complicated, due both to the nature of former president Soeharto’s stronghold on the country, and current ongoing corruption. After rising to power in 1967, President Soeharto declared all forests in Indonesia property of the state and allocated concessions to friends, family and business associates, who often logged indiscriminately. Although the Ministry of Forestry’s own figures show that, in 1993, 84% of concession owners were breaking the law (EIA, 2005), Soeharto’s dictatorial grip on the country was so strong that these concessions were essentially legal. By 1998, Indonesia was losing two million hectares of forest every year to both legal and illegal operations, and 72% of the country’s original forest had been lost (EIA, 1999).

After his fall from power in May 1998, illegal logging in Indonesia was at its peak. The huge vacuum created by his absence caused utter lawlessness throughout the country, and, coupled with the huge resentment local people felt for the national government, protected areas in the country were overrun with loggers, including national parks. Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra saw widespread orangutan habitat loss, Kutai National Park and Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan were overrun with loggers, with $120 million worth of Ramin, a valuable hardwood, being taken out of the latter in 1999 alone (Galdikas, 2006). Research in Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan found that, after the fall of Soeharto, 40% of local people living adjacent to the park were gaining their main source of income from illegal logging (Hiller et al, 2004).

Although much of the illegal logging that blighted Indonesia’s national parks in the last decade has been brought under control, the forests are still under threat. Sawmill operators frequently purchase and process woods from both legal and illegal sources, and it is estimated that over 70% of wood products exported out of the country are from illegal wood sources (EIA, 2006). The sheer amount of logging in Indonesia is simply unsustainable. Such logging practices not only indiscriminately remove the trees that orangutans depend on, but they also threaten the existence of thousands of other plants, birds, mammals and insects, and negatively impact the future prospects of local people, and Indonesia and Malaysia’s forest dwelling tribes.

Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and current President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) have made the elimination of illegal logging one of their top environmental priorities. Not only does illegal logging degrade orangutan and other wildlife habitats, but it also robs the nation of billions of dollars in revenue and any chance of creating sustainable forests for future generations. Illegal logging and its impacts are discussed in the UNEP Report "Last Stand of the Orangutan."

Illegal gold mining

In Indonesia, mining operations have contributed to 10% of the total environmental damage to the nation's forests and, perhaps more so than any other type of forest conversion, have the greatest impact on the landscape. The open-pit method of mining used in Indonesia, most often for gold or silica, turns lush rainforest in to a barren, lifeless moonscape, where nothing can survive, and, although Indonesian law No 41 of 1999 prohibits such mining in protected forest areas, it is thought 90% of open pit mines are located in protected areas. 

gold mining In addition to the devastating loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and runoff from open-pit mining has caused normally transparent blackwater rivers to run a muddy, opaque brown, and of great concern are the long-lasting effects of some of the chemicals used in the mining process. Despite being illegal in Indonesia, mercury is often used to extract gold, and contamination of rivers and water sources by this chemical can have a disastrous effect on fish stocks and human health. Anecdotal data from a village in central Kalimantan suggests fish stocks decreased by 70% in areas near to mercury using gold mines, and studies have shown exposure to high levels of mercury can damage the human immune system. Despite this, Indonesia ranks second to China in the use of mercury in gold mining.

Pulp and Paper plantations 

One of the biggest drivers of forest loss in Malaysia and particularly Indonesia has been the expanding pulp and paper market.

The pulp and paper industry in Indonesia, which supplies products including toilet paper and printer paper to the world export market, is dominated in Indonesia by two companies, Asia Pulp and Paper, and APRIL, who control 75% of the market. The capacity of pulp mills in Indonesia in 1990 was 1 million tonnes a year, which had risen to 5.9 million tonnes a year by 2001. It is estimated that the industry had destroyed 835,000 hectares of high conservation forest by 2000 in Sumatra alone, and there are plans by the government to expand pulp and paper plantations by 5 million hectares over the coming decade (Pulp Mill Watch, 2007).

pulp and paper  Like the palm oil industry (see above), the pulp and paper industry in Indonesia has been riddled with corruption, and has been the subject of vociferous criticism over the years regarding its impact on the environment, on endangered species such as the orangutan and particularly its appalling human rights abuses against the indigenous forest-dwelling tribes of Indonesia. If plans to convert the forest surrounding the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in to a pulp and paper plantation go ahead, it would destroy the release site and habitat for the world’s only Sumatran orangutan reintroduction program, which has released over 100 ex-captives in to the parks buffer zone, the first time there have been orangutans in the area since they went extinct in the 19th century.


Orangutans have the longest birth interval of any land mammal, with females usually producing no more than 3 or 4 offspring in their lifetime. As such, they are particularly sensitive to hunting pressure, with the loss of just one individual having a huge effect on overall population viability.

hunted orangutan  Hunting and the use of orangutans for sustenance has always been a factor in Borneo and Sumatra, and traditional hunting by indigenous people has been responsible for a number of local extinctions. Although hunting is less of an issue today, a recent survey conducted in Kalimantan suggests up to 1,000 orangutans are still being lost every year to local hunting pressures (Meijaard, 2010), and research in 2006 suggests that if local people no longer hunt orangutans, it is because they are now so rarely seen, rather than because of any change in beliefs (Marshall et al, 2006).

Today, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, orangutans are found mainly in areas where the Iban, the indigenous people of the area, have a taboo against the killing of orangutans. In areas where local people have no such taboo, orangutans are extinct. The eating of orangutans is also less common in areas where local people have converted to Islam, due to the religious restrictions on meat eating.

The killing of orangutans by plantation workers, or by farmers who see them as pests, is still a serious issue, and the majority of orangutans currently in rehabilitation centers are orphans rescued from plantations after their mothers have been killed. 

There have also been occasional reports from Aceh that suggest elements of the military have hunted orangutans for sport during the recent separatist conflict.

 Illegal Pet Trade

It has been illegal to own or trade orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia for decades, but despite the substantial resources and media attention devoted to the issue, the trade in orangutans, predominantly infants, continues to flourish.  

Caged orangutan  Although hunting is still an issue (see above) in both Indonesia and Malaysia, and illegal poaching does occur, most of the illegal trade in orangutans is a by-product of the destruction of the orangutan’s habitat. As the rainforest is cut down, terrified orangutans have nowhere to go and will descend to the ground, where they will usually encounter loggers or field workers. These orangutans, usually mothers with dependent offspring, are inevitably attacked, killed and eaten, their babies taken from them and either kept as pets or sold into the illegal animal trade. 

Most infants do not survive the harsh journey to the wildlife markets in Jakarta, Bali or other international locations. Poor care, disease, injury and the psychological trauma of losing their mothers means most captive infant orangutans do not survive their first year, and it is believed that for every orangutan that does survive, 6-8 will have died. 

If an orangutan does survive the journey, for the first 2-3 years of their life they will make cute and appealing pets. However, by the age of 3 or 4, an orangutan will already be as strong as an adult human, and by the time an orangutan is approaching maturity at 10 years old, it will be between 5 and 7 times as strong as a male human. At this stage, most owners will keep the orangutan permanently caged, kill it or discard it. The lucky few will be confiscated.

There are currently over 1,500 hundred orangutans in rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra.

The impact of this trade is discussed in the UNEP Report "Last Stand of the Orangutan."

Forest Fires

Forest fires Forest fires are a usual occurrence in the parts of Indonesia and Malaysia where local people still practice traditional slash and burn agriculture. Under normal circumstances, however, the moisture contained within primary rainforests would control such fires, and the practice has coexisted with healthy orangutan populations for centuries.

In recent years, the frequency and intensity of forest fires have increased, and the results have been catastrophic, for rainforests, orangutans, humans and for the economy of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the wider South East Asia area.

In 1997 and 1998, forest fires raged throughout 4.7 million hectares of Indonesia’s tropical forests, damaging 36 of the 45 major forest blocks in Kalimantan, adversely affecting 19 national parks and reserves, and destroying habitat for and killing thousands of orangutans (Yeager et al, 2003; Harrison et al, 2009). Exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which causes severe droughts throughout South East Asia, the fires were set by palm oil companies, plantation owners and small-scale farmers to clear land, and even arsonists using fire in land tenure disputes. Poor logging practices, which have seen a buildup of fuel loads in logging concessions, and the draining of peat swamp forests, added to the severity of the fires. After raging for nearly a year, it is likely that one-third of the existing orangutan population perished, and rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra were full to capacity with orangutans rescued from burning forests, many with serious burns and respiratory problems. 

It was not just animals that suffered. An estimated 20 million people in Indonesia were suffering from respiratory problems by 1998, and between 19,800 and 48,100 premature mortalities were attributed to the fires. It’s estimated that the economic loss to Indonesia was US$20.1 billion dollars (Harrison et. al., 2009).

Tripa fires  Unfortunately, since 1997, fires in Borneo and Sumatra have been an almost annual occurrence, as rapid palm oil expansion, continued logging and the draining of peat swamp forests continues unabated. With the frequency of the El Nino climatic oscillation increasing, fire prevention is an increasingly important feature of orangutan conservation. In 2009, fires were detected in the Tripa peat swamps of Aceh in Sumatra, an area currently battling palm oil expansion, and the three biggest protected areas in Central Kalimantan, Sebangu National Park, Tanjung Puting National Park, and the Lamandau Nature Reserve, which have a combined total of 13,000 orangutans, were all badly damaged by fires.



Surrounded by the South China Sea to the north and northwest, the Sulu Sea to the northeast, the Celebes Sea and the Makassar Strait to the east, and the Java Sea and Karimata Strait to the south, Borneo is, at 743,330 Km2, the world’s third largest island, and lies to the east of Sumatra. Borneo has a human population of around 18.5 million, with the majority of settlements and cities lying near the coastline or Borneo’s extensive river system (Smith, 2007).

 Borneo Forest Cover   Like Sumatra, Borneo is extraordinarily rich in biodiversity. The major forest type throughout the island is evergreen lowland diptercarp rainforest, with hill diptercarp, mangrove, freshwater, peat swamp, ironwood, heathland and montane forests all also found (Rautner at al, 2005), and harbouring 3,000 species of trees, 15,000 species of flowering plants, 221 species of terrestrial mammals, including 13 species of primate, and 420 species of birds (Mackinnon et al, 1997). However, also like Sumatra, widespread logging, which began under the period of European colonization and has accelerated in the last 40 years, and the growing palm oil industry and related forest conversion, has seen the islands forest cover decrease by around 50% (Matthews, 2002). It is now estimated that the area under concession for logging and oil palm cultivation in Borneo is larger than that of the remaining forest (Rijsken & Meijaard, 1999).

The most recent estimates put the population of Bornean orangutans at around 55,000 (Wich et al, 2008), and the species, better known and generally better studied than its Sumatran cousin, has benefited from both a strong international NGO presence, and Borneo’s series of national parks, which, despite massive incursions and continued threats, today harbor significant populations of orangutans.  In 2016, the IUCN reclassified the Bornean orangutan as "critically endangered" primarily due to the continued degradation of habitat (IUCN Redlist, 2016).

Tanjung Puting   Kalimantan is divided into five provinces: Central, West, East, North, and South. The two national parks with the largest orangutan populations are found in Central Kalimantan. The most famous, Tanjung Puting, is a 400,000-hectare park renowned for its long-term wild orangutan study and rehabilitation program. Despite its high profile and strong NGO presence, the park has been subjected to widespread illegal logging, conversion, for both palm oil production and agriculture, forest fires and illegal gold mining, and studies conducted in 2009 showed that just 66% of the park remains under some kind of forest cover (Infinite Earth, 2009). If current plans by the local government to decrease the size of the park by 25% take place, thousands of orangutans will be lost. Sebangau National Park was created as a national park in 2004 and covers an area of 568,700 hectares. Like Tanjung Puting, the park has been subjected to incursions, and historic draining of the parks’ peat swamps, to aid the extraction of logs from the forest, has left it prone to almost annual fires. Despite this, the two parks have a combined orangutan population of around 12,000 orangutans (Singleton et al, 2004).

An ambitious, multi-stakeholder, and multi-national plan to conserve 91,000 hectares on the border of Tanjung Puting National Park was, in September 2011, in the final stages of development, and would have formed Indonesia’s first REDD reserve, whereby outside investors agree to fund conservation of carbon-rich peat forests in return for offsetting their own carbon emissions. However, despite international support and hopes that the project would act as an example to other such efforts, at the last minute, the national government decided to cut the size of the reserve, known as Rimba Raya, in half, handing one side to a palm oil company. Since then, conservationists have tried hard to convince the government of the project's worth, and in December 2012, their efforts seemed to have paid off; the government announced 80,000 hectares would be set aside as a reserve. Although the implementation of such a project, the first of its kind in Indonesia, remains challenging, and many remain convinced its goals are unrealistic, it is hoped that over a 30 year period, the reserve will generate between $390 to 650 million worth of carbon offset credits, providing a financial incentive for local people, businesses and governments to protect the reserve. 

Gunung Palung forest change Gunung Palung National Park is a 90,000-hectare park in West Kalimantan known for its high biodiversity and mixture of habitat types. Despite being the site of a long-term wild orangutan study, having a strong international NGO presence and being one of the provinces most popular tourist destinations, the park has been heavily logged, and its 2500 wild orangutans are under constant threat.  In November 2011, illegal logging in the park was so bad it had reached the study area of a well-known long-term scientific research project, and all scientific researchers were told to leave the park. Two other national parks in West Kalimantan, Danau Sentarum and Betung Kerihun, have also suffered from logging, and studies indicate that the former contains an orangutan population of just 500 individuals (Singleton et al, 2004), and the latter has suffered from widespread poaching, with an unknown population (WWF, 2010). Although NGO presence and conservation initiatives in these parks are increasing, efforts are hampered by the fact that large numbers of orangutans occur in legally unprotected forests outside the park borders.

Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan was once one of the most pristine and bio-diverse parks in Indonesia, but in the last few decades, the park has been invaded by logging concessions, industrial complexes, open-pit coal mines and settlements, ravaged by forest fires, and it is likely that just 10% of the park remains forested, with an orangutan population of just 500 (Singleton et al, 2004). Media reports in 2009 suggested the population could be even lower and reported that the park now contains an airport, gas stations and even a prostitution complex (Mongabay, 2009).  A new project set up by the University of Toronto has found that, despite these threats, orangutans are living in parts of the park in high densities, and that habitat is recovering well from damage. Although the project is in its early stages, increased conservation efforts should hopefully bring increased awareness to this area.

As national parks throughout the island continue to struggle against the onslaught of huge palm oil expansion and logging, attention is being increasingly focused on the areas of forest outside of the national park system. In Central Kalimantan, conservationists are working to protect the 76,000-hectare Lamandau Nature Reserve, an expired logging concession comprised mainly of peat swamp, which acts as a rehabilitated orangutan release site, and the Belantikan Hulu region, which is home to an estimated 6,000 orangutans, the largest population outside of a protected area. NGO’s have also been working to protect the 377,000 hectare Mawas Reserve, home to 3,500 orangutans, in Central Kalimantan, and an ambitious plan by WWF to conserve 22 million hectares of land, an area that encompasses protected areas, reserves, sustainably managed buffer zones, and wildlife corridors, called the ‘Heart of Borneo’, would, if successful, protect thousands of orangutans in the center of the island. The publicity surrounding this scheme seems to have thwarted a plan by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to establish the world’s largest palm oil plantation in this area, but the threat remains ever-present.

KinabatanganLike Kalimantan, the orangutans in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah have long faced rapidly decreasing forests, and the spread of palm oil plantations has forced remaining orangutans into small, isolated populations in heavily degraded forests. Sabah contains a population of just 11,000 orangutans, and around 60% of this number are living outside of protected areas, in secondary forests often exploited by indigenous communities and forest industries (Ancrenaz et al, 2007). In-depth studies in the Kinabatangan floodplain, which harbors 1,100 orangutans, has shown that they can survive in high numbers in degraded secondary forest (Ancrenaz et al, 2007), and the formation of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in this area is a promising step for the survival of orangutans in Sabah.

The Batang Ai National Park, a 24,281-hectare tropical rainforest, and the nearby Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary are two of the last strongholds of the orangutan in Sarawak, with a combined population of around 1,500 (Singleton et al, 2004). Although these parks are generally well protected, hunting and illegal logging remains a problem in this area (Caldecott & McConkey, 2006), and the threat of these forests being converted in future to facilitate palm oil expansion remains strong.

The threats facing the forests of Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak, and the animals and people who depend on them, have never been greater. However, with continued environmental awareness, growing prosperity in both Malaysia and Indonesia and international pressure, it is hoped the future of these great forests can be ensured.


Orphan orangutan Due to the illegal wildlife trade and the rate of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia over last 40 years, there has been an alarming increase in the number of orangutans in captivity - in zoos, wildlife parks, wildlife markets, and private homes, both domestically and internationally. As a result, conservation organizations are increasing efforts to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these orangutans. Ex-captive, wild-born orphans now represent a significant proportion of the surviving orangutan population.

Orangutan rehabilitation is complex and fraught with difficulties. It's currently one of the most controversial and hotly-debated aspects of orangutan conservation. 

The first orangutan rehabilitation project began in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in the 1960s and was followed soon after by similar projects in Sabah in Malaysia, and Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, with the project in the latter, at Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, arguably being the most famous. At the time, little was known about the status of wild orangutans, the size of remaining populations, or even their life histories and ranges, as wild studies where then in their infancy, so rehabilitation methods were largely experimental. Although different project founders had their own motivations for establishing each program, they were usually initially set up to help enforce orangutan protection laws by providing legal holding facilities for confiscated orangutans, and, from an animal welfare perspective, giving orangutans confiscated from often appalling conditions a chance to once again live independently in the forest (Frey, 1978). Due to uncertainty over the number of orangutans living in the wild, rehabilitation programs in the 1970s placed an emphasis on releasing orangutans into areas with existing wild orangutans, to supplement populations that were considered too small to be viable (Russon, 2009). For example, at Tanjung Puting, between 1971 and 1994, at least 180 orangutans were released (Yeager, 1997) and at Bohorok in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, 218 orangutans were released between 1973 and 2000.

Most orangutans in rehabilitation centers were confiscated by forestry department officials. Occasionally they're handed in by people unable to look after them. The time spent in captivity and the age upon arrival vary, but most are confiscated when they are young, with between 63-97% of intakes under seven years old (Russon, 2009).

The living conditions in captivity also vary, but inadequate care under poor conditions is the most prevalent, and physical damage often includes gunshot and machete wounds, broken or missing limbs, scars and wounds from chaining, paralysis, blindness, and internal damage (Russon, 2009). Confiscated orangutans have also usually suffered extreme behavioral and psychological damage, including prolonged periods of isolation, physical and sexual abuse and abnormal associations with humans (Russon, 2009).

The behavioral abnormalities observed in ex-captive orangutans has been one of the most challenging aspects of the rehabilitation process, and has led to a divergence in the methods used, with some practitioners advocating limiting human contact severely, to try and remove learned human behaviors and encourage those seen in wild orangutans, while others believe orangutans, particularly infants and juveniles, should be assigned a human caregiver to teach them such behaviors, on account of the long period of dependence between a mother and infant in the wild. Regardless of the method used, almost all rehabilitation centers and release sites see abnormalities in released individuals. At Tanjung Puting, released orangutans occasionally attacked humans, others often reappeared at the release camp with deep wounds, indicating negative encounters with their wild counterparts, and others have been seen either ill or underweight (Yeager, 1997). Similar observations have been made at Bohorok in Gunung Leuser National Park (Dellatore et al, 2009). High infant mortality has also been observed in a number of release sites, indicating released ex-captive females lack the mothering skills of wild females (Russon, 2009).  

  The prevalence of diseases in ex-captive orangutans and the risk of these diseases spreading to wild populations is also a major concern. Ex-captive orangutans often carry human diseases such as hepatitis-a/b/c, tuberculosis, tetanus, respiratory disease, poliomyelitis and significant parasite loads (Russon, 2009), and while diseases are usually identified during a screening and quarantine period, there is a danger of these potentially fatal diseases being spread to wild populations if undetected. This threat has been exacerbated in recent years by the flourishing tourist trade that has developed around the ex-captive orangutans. Tourism and the revenue it raises is an incredibly important conservation tool, providing jobs and income for local people and governments, and a financial incentive to conserve wildlife. It is accepted that the large amounts of money tourists are willing to pay to see mountain gorillas in Central Arica is one of the main reasons for their continued conservation (Redmond, 2008), and there is a similar demand to see orangutans in the wild. However, unlike gorillas, which live terrestrially in large family groups, wild orangutans live solitary lives high up in the dense forest canopy and are difficult to observe from the forest floor.  Ex-captive orangutans, however, tend to spend extended periods on the ground, are more gregarious than their wild counterparts, and, due to their captive backgrounds, are usually comfortable around humans. Sepilok in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Bohorok, and Tanjung Puting all allow tourists to visit the ex-captive orangutan release sites, and, at the latter two sites, humans have been observed soliciting contact with the orangutans. Studies have shown that primate populations in close proximity to humans have higher levels of parasitic infection than those that rarely come in to contact, and our genetic closeness to orangutans makes them highly susceptible to human diseases (Wallis & Lee, 1999). It is feared that if an ex-captive orangutans were to catch a disease from a human tourist, it could decimate the wild populations, who do not have any natural immunity to human diseases. Although the semi-solitary nature of wild orangutans would usually restrict disease transmission (Galdikas, 1999), released ex-captives are more gregarious and, lacking the social skills they would learn from their mother, have been seen observed at Tanjung Puting soliciting play with wild females and their offspring, and climbing in and out of wild female’s day nests, while respiratory and skin diseases have been seen to be transmitted between individuals (Yeager, 1997).

To mitigate these problems, and in recognition of the fact that, due to an acceleration in deforestation, ex-captives were likely stressing wild populations and competing with them for food, the Indonesian government passed a law in 1995 restricting the release of ex-captive orangutans in to areas with a viable wild orangutan population, and aimed to restrict tourist activity at release sites. Today, although tourists can still visit the previously released ex-captives at Bohorok and Tanjung Puting, all confiscated orangutans are now quarantined and rehabilitated at specialist clinics, and released in to areas devoid of wild orangutans, or areas without a viable wild population, and closed to tourists, although such sites in both Indonesia and Malaysia are becoming almost impossible to locate. Most release projects also provide ‘soft releases’ for orangutans, where provisions and other supports are offered for a short period after the initial release, and in some cases, indefinite supplementary feeding is provided. Post-release monitoring of ex-captives has historically been difficult, due to a combination of lack of funds, the tough terrain and the orangutans wide-ranging patterns (Russon, 2009), but is hoped that new developments in microchipping technology could aid with post-release monitoring, and preventative measures could be taken to improve post-release mortality and success rates.

two rehabilitant orangutansDespite these difficulties and ongoing problems, orangutan rehabilitation has also brought huge benefits and remains an important part of orangutan conservation and animal welfare. Continued deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade have caused orangutans being kept in appalling conditions throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, and often in other parts of the world. The existence of rehabilitation centers and the knowledge they will accept rescued individuals has provided impetus to forestry department officials to confiscate illegally owned orangutans, and these centers, all given the support of international NGO’s, are an essential facet of law enforcement (Russon, 2009). If rescue centers were not able to care for these ex-captives, they would likely die in captivity, in often appalling conditions; and while studies have shown that ex-captives have higher than average mortality and infant mortality rates (Russon, 2009; Yeager, 1997), it is also likely that a large number of those released into forests have survived and are living free, wild lives (Galdikas, 1999). Those orangutans not suitable for release are now often housed in sanctuary like enclosures in centers, where they enjoy a vastly improved quality of life, and at the Sumatran orangutan release site in the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape, a sanctuary for orangutans deemed unsuitable for rehabilitation has been developed in a semi-natural setting (Perth Zoo, 2009).

Rescue and rehabilitation projects are also important for the part they play in the relocation of wild orangutans from recently deforested areas to still forested areas, a process often referred to as translocation (Beck et al, 2007). As the forest is cut down and orangutans are displaced, those that have been living independently in the forest, usually adults independent of their mothers, and have been captive for a just short period of time, often just a number of hours or days, can be relocated and released immediately into other areas of forest, without going through the rehabilitation process, limiting their exposure to human behaviors. Existing rescue and rehabilitation centers often provide the necessary logistical support and infrastructure to aid this work.

 While the tourism industry brings with it complications, and the threat of humans infecting ex-captives and wild orangutans with human diseases remains an ever-present threat, it has also brought with it economic benefits, employment for local people and has helped create local, institutional and governmental support and commitment for orangutan conservation. (Galdikas, 1999). These easily accessible ex-captive orangutans have also made viewing orangutans in the wild possible for large numbers of people, and remain charismatic representatives of their under-siege species.

There is also evidence that the presence ex-captive orangutan release sites have, in some cases, strengthened the case for conserving the rainforest. The fall of President Soeharto from power in May 1998 after 32 years of dictatorial rule plunged Indonesia into political chaos, and vast areas of forest throughout the country were logged with impunity. Tanjung Puting National Park was overrun with illegal loggers (EIA, 1999), but the area in the vicinity of the most high profile release site in the park, known as Camp Leakey, an area with extensive local support and a high international profile, was left largely undisturbed (OFI, 1999). Two former logging concessions in Central Kalimantan that were to be turned into a palm oil plantation are now known as the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve, which acts as a government-designated orangutan release site, after lobbying by NGO’s in the area, and surveys are currently underway to locate suitable release sites in West Kalimantan. Worldwide media attention has recently been given to plans by a pulp and paper company to convert a portion of the Bukit Tigapuluh landscape in Sumatra in to a plantation, with particular attention being paid to areas that act as a Sumatran orangutan release site, and the release of a zoo-born adult female from Perth Zoo in to this area in 2006 has ensured support for its continued protection from the West Australian government (Russon, 2009).

In 2007, the Indonesia government formulated an action plan for orangutan conservation, and one of its objectives was the release of all ex-captive orangutans and the closure of all current orangutan rehabilitation centers in the country by 2015 (MoF, 2009). Continued forest conversion, the illegal pet trade, the significant number of ex-captives currently in overcrowded rehabilitation centers and the difficulty in finding and securing suitable release sites means this is perhaps an optimistic timeframe, but securing an independent future for these wild born, ex-captive orangutans nevertheless remains a hugely important part of the wider conservation movement. 


The Illegal Trade in Orangutans


Orangutan in cage The illegal trade in wildlife has long been one of the most serious threats to the conservation of endangered species throughout the world, and, despite the large amounts of resources being spent on combating it and the huge publicity given to the animals most severely threatened by it, the pace of the trade continues unabated. Today, the illegal trade in wildlife is one of the world’s most lucrative illegal trades, with a combined value of around $10 billion dollars annually, and it has been estimated that the trade is, behind the international drugs trade, the world’s second largest (Vince, 2002).

Primates are one of the most heavily traded types of wildlife and are traded for a variety of reasons, including for use as pets, for consumption, for use in biomedical research, traditional medicines, and for zoos, wildlife collections and the entertainment industry (Nijman, 2005). Most of the primate trade is illegal; however, some species are still traded legally. Historically, the most widely traded primate has been the macaque, which is used heavily in biomedical research, and an estimated 9,500 to 12,000 macaques enter the USA legally every year for use in research (WWF), with long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) still legally exported from Indonesia every year for this purpose (Soehartono & Mardiastuti, 2002).

Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, gibbons, siamangs, and orangutans have long suffered from hunting pressures, and their continued presence in the illegal wildlife trade is considered one of their biggest threats while addressing these concerns is the focus of renewed attention (Shepherd, 2010).

Chimpanzees are perhaps the most famous of all the apes and have been traded illegally for decades, primarily for use as pets, and in the entertainment and biomedical research industries. Although the trade in wild chimpanzees is illegal and most countries either have or are now moving towards a ban in the use of great apes in invasive scientific experiments, there are currently around 1,300 chimpanzees housed in US laboratories, and they are all either wild-caught, or acquired from circuses, zoos or private collections (Project R&R). A further 113 are kept as pets in the USA, one of the few countries where keeping a great ape as a pet is legal. Although public pressure has seen the use of apes in entertainment decrease, until 2002, one of the most popular and successful advertising campaigns in the UK involved a group of chimpanzees, dressed as humans, drinking tea, a campaign which was voted the nations favorite in 2003 (Guardian, 2003), and a pet gibbon recently featured prominently in a successful US comedy series. Throughout South East Asia, orangutans and gibbons, the only apes native to this part of the world, are found in tourist areas, often being forced to take part in boxing matches, or seen drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes for tourists in nightclubs. Although proprietors claim these animals are captive born, they are more than likely poached from the wild (Daily Mail, 2010).

Perhaps the biggest threat to the great apes of Africa is the increasing trade in the animals for human consumption, known as the bushmeat trade. Communities in Africa living in proximity to forested areas have always hunted chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos, and although there are local taboos, their meat has always been a staple of Central African diets. However, with the arrival of modern weapons, population growth, urban sprawl, and the opening up of Africa’s forests by timber companies, the consumption of ape meat has exploded from a pure subsistence activity, into a large commercial enterprise (Peterson, 2001). Today, it is estimated that up to 8,000 chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas are killed each year to fuel this industry (Bushmeat Project, 2010).

Orangutans, like all the other great apes, are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits their unlicensed international trade, and, as signatories to CITES, Malaysia and Indonesia are required to adhere to this prohibition. Orangutans are also protected by national laws in both countries, initially introduced during their periods of European colonization, and amended upon independence. They are also members of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN), and Indonesia is a signatory to the Kinshasha Declaration, which resolves to improve “the protection of individual great apes and their habitats everywhere by demonstrably improving where necessary the quality and enforcement of relevant laws, as well as the capacity of law enforcement agencies” (CITES/GRASP, 2006). Despite this, the trade continues.

The orangutan trade encompasses many forms, but at its heart is the poaching of orangutans from the wild, be it for food, to obtain infants for the pet trade, for traditional medicine or in response to crop raiding (Rijksen & Meijaard, 1999).

One of the most complex issues in orangutan conservation is the hunting of orangutans by local people for food, something conservationists have often shied away from dealing with, for fear of offending local sensitivities. Fossil evidence from the Niah caves of Sarawak in Malaysia indicates humans were killing and eating orangutans as early as 40,000 years ago (Bennett, 1998), and, although different cultures have different taboos, the hunting of wild animals for sustenance has been, and still is, an integral part of indigenous cultures and rural life throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, with historic hunting seen as the likely explanation for the large areas of suitable forest habitat throughout Borneo currently devoid of wild orangutans (Rijksen & Meijaard, 1999).  The introduction of both Christianity and Islam to the region has seen a modification in the beliefs and practices of many of the indigenous people, and today, most Muslim communities generally refrain from eating orangutan meat. However, there is still a large local variation in this activity, and whether or not orangutans are hunted is strongly linked with tribal and village identity (Marshall et al, 2006). Surveys in Kalimantan have shown that hunting for meat claims the lives of around 1,000 orangutans a year (Mongabay, 2010), and studies have found that sustenance hunting was the primary factor reducing orangutan density in areas of Kalimantan, that orangutans were being killed not just for their meat, but for their perceived medicinal benefits of their body parts, and that any drop in the levels of hunting was due to the scarcity of orangutans today, rather than to any change in beliefs (Marshall et al, 2006). Research conducted by CITES and the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP) in 2006 found that although the hunting of orangutans for their meat was not as widespread throughout Indonesia as the bushmeat trade is throughout Africa, orangutans are still widely hunted, and in some rural areas, some restaurants would prepare dishes containing orangutan meat, although these dishes would have to be specifically requested and would not be offered openly. They also found that orangutan fat and skin is used as a form of talisman to protect houses against fire.

Land conflict between wildlife and humans is not a new phenomenon and has occurred throughout the world since time immemorial.  As a consequence of this conflict with population expansion and technology, the killing by humans has caused the extinction, or near extinction, of most large predators throughout Europe, North America and Australia. In the developing world, where large areas of tropical rainforest have been converted into agricultural land, such conflicts are an increasing problem. Although conflicts usually occur with larger, ground-dwelling animals like elephants and tigers, as the rate of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia has increased, so have human-orangutan conflicts, as starving displaced orangutans raid crops and wander into villages in search of food, where they are usually killed. One palm oil company in Central Kalimantan instigated a policy of paying local people 150,000 Rupiah (around $17) for every orangutan ‘pest’ killed (Buckland, 2005), and although a local NGO was able to form an agreement with this company in 2004 to rescue 52 adult and 11 infant orangutans found in their plantation, it is likely similar policies are in place in most other plantations. As firearms are not easily available, most orangutans in these situations are either beaten, hacked, drowned, set on fire, or buried alive (Schuster, 2007).

The illegal pet trade is one of the biggest threats to orangutans and is comprised of two components: the domestic market and the international market. The practice of keeping pets is widespread in many parts of Indonesia, and wildlife markets are a feature of most large towns and cities. Although illegal, the keeping of primates as pets is common (CITES/GRASP, 2006), and these primates, most often orangutans and gibbons, will often be kept by families, in good conditions, in the same way, people in western countries keep cats and dogs. In some circumstances, orangutans are also kept as status symbols, indicating an owner’s social status or wealth. Orangutans are also acquired by people for the sole reason of being illegal, and therefore a way for the owner to demonstrate that he or she is above the law. Investigations in Sumatra have shown that possession of orangutans is usually by local politicians, senior military and police staff, and many of the orangutans confiscated by the police and junior military will be used to curry favor with higher-ranking officials, with 60% of all orangutans in rehabilitation centers on the island having come from such sources (CITES/GRASP, 2006).

Like all great apes, orangutans have slow life histories, and for the first few years of their lives, are docile, sweet and gentle. However, at around 5 years of age, an orangutan already has the strength of an adult male human, and by maturity, will be as strong as 5-7 adult male humans, with an unpredictable and possibly aggressive nature that makes them unsuitable as pets.

baby orangutan in box The only way for an orangutan baby to be caught is for the mother to be shot, and the baby pried from her dead body. The route the baby then takes is entirely dependent on the intended form of trade, and how much money can be obtained. Almost every person living in a forested area of Kalimantan will know the value of a baby orangutan, so while poachers will sometimes keep orangutans for themselves, usually if the baby is kept by the poacher, or sold to a family in the same village, it is because the orangutan is a valuable commodity that can in time be sold or bartered (Nijman, 2005). Rather than being kept, it is more than likely that the baby will enter the illegal trade, usually sold to someone in another area, who will then sell it on for an increased price; the process becomes more and more professional and lucrative as it develops. The monetary value of an orangutan varies from place to place and depends on whether it is being sold in an area where orangutans live in the wild. For example, in Kalimantan, orangutans can be priced between 243,000-1,007,000 Rupiah ($27-$112), while on the island of Java, orangutans will cost more, from 3,462,000 Rupiah ($385) (Nijman, 2005). Orangutans are also often acquired in exchange for other commodities, such as a wristwatch or an electronic appliance (Nijman, 2005).

male orangutan in Medan ZooOrangutans are also often poached from the wild to form collections for zoos and wildlife parks throughout the country. The origins of the orangutans and other primates kept in these zoos are often uncertain, and records are not always kept, but it is likely few are captive-born (Nijman, 2009). Conditions at these zoos are usually appalling, and have a high mortality rate; of the six orangutans present at the Medan zoo in Sumatra in 2006, only 2 were still there in 2008 (Nijman, 2009).

The international trade in orangutans is strictly prohibited, but despite its illegality, research into the illegal wildlife trade in Kalimantan and Sumatra has shown that orangutans are still being smuggled out of Indonesia into neighboring southeast Asian countries (Nijman, 2005; CITES/GRAS, 2006). Performing orangutans have always been extremely popular in South East Asia, and the similarities between infant orangutans and human babies have always made them popular household pets (Foead et al, 2005). In the 1980s and 1990s, the illegal trade was focused mainly in the affluent country of Taiwan, where demand for orangutan pets was high, and to where an estimated 1,000 orangutans were illegally imported between 1985 and 1990 (WWF). In recent years, the large numbers of orangutans in Thailand and Cambodia has brought renewed attention to the wildlife trade, and their use in highly publicized kickboxing shows, aimed at domestic and international, usually western, tourists, has been the focus of intensive lobbying by NGOs. 

Safari world In 2004, 114 orangutans were seized from the Safari World theme park in Bangkok, where they were forced to dress up and engage in Thai-boxing, and in 2006, 54 of these orangutans were returned to Indonesia. Unfortunately, the other 60 were believed to have died (Profauna, 2006). Despite the safari park being ordered to close, media reports surfaced in 2010 showing the park open and once again advertising orangutan boxing shows (Daily Mail, 2010). Orangutans are kept in similar parks in other areas of Thailand and Cambodia (Davies, 2005), with further groups of illegally imported orangutans known to exist in peninsular Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam (CITES/GRASP, 2006).  Like the domestic trade, these orangutans are poached from the rainforests, and transported to coastal towns, where they are often sold to crews of foreign-owned ships, and, through a system of corruption, bribes, and collusion, clear customs easily. Intelligence related to the illegal importation of one large shipment of orangutans from Kalimantan to Cambodia showed that a Thai fishing vessel had been involved (CITES/GRASP, 2006), and cargo ships are known to transport orangutans from the coastal city of Pontianak in west Kalimantan to Singapore (Nijman, 2005).

It is difficult to estimate the number of orangutans involved in the illegal domestic and international wildlife trade, or those lost to sustenance hunting, but it is evident that it is a considerable number. Between 1971 and 2004, 1433 orangutans were confiscated by forestry department officials in Kalimantan and placed in one of the  4 rehabilitation centers (Nijman, 2005);  between 1973 and 2000, 226 orangutans were rescued and handed to the largest rehabilitation centre in Sumatra (Nijman, 2009).  These numbers are likely just a drop in the ocean, but it is clear that if orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia are to survive, stronger law enforcement is needed, and current domestic and international laws and treaties banning this trade are obeyed.



Human-Orangutan Conflict

chained orangutan- (c) COP The conflict between humans and wildlife is one of the greatest threats to the survival of endangered species throughout the world, and while this conflict is not a new phenomenon, and our species’ relationship with the world’s other animals has been marked by intense competition for as long as humans have walked the earth, dwindling resources and a soaring human population has seen it become an increasing focus of conservation efforts.

Human-wildlife conflict occurs when the needs of wildlife overlap with those of humans, creating costs for both residents and wild animals (Distefano, 2005). Although they occur in both rural and urban settings, human-wildlife conflicts usually occur in rural areas adjacent to protected areas, where wildlife is abundant and often moves into nearby land cultivated into fields or grazing areas (Distefano, 2005). The implications for both wildlife and humans during such encounters are immense. Authors have shown that species most exposed to conflict are more prone to extinction, as a result of high occurrences of injury and death (Ogada et al, 2003), either accidentally, in road traffic or railway accidents, getting caught in snares or falling in to farm wells, or intentionally, caused by trapping, poisoning or retaliatory shootings, and such extinctions or population changes are shown to have huge impacts on broader ecosystems and biodiversity protection (Distefano, 2005). Humans in conflict areas are also at risk of exposure to zoonotic diseases, injury or death from wildlife, and can suffer severe economic losses through damage to property, infrastructure, and livestock (Distefano, 2005).

Although human-wildlife conflicts are more intense in the tropics and developing countries (Distefano, 2005), they occur all over the world. In parts of Italy that are characterized by small-scale farming, and cattle, sheep, goats, and horses are raised as livestock, wolves are a cause of conflict, with 94% of unnatural deaths of livestock attributed to wild wolf predation (Distefano, 2005). Wolves are also a cause of conflict in prosperous North America, having caused the deaths of 2,086 domestic animals in the Canadian province of Alberta between 1982 and 1996, and killing 728 animals, mainly sheep and cattle, between 1987 and 2001 in the American states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. In the USA, humans kill 14 wolves for every 100 livestock deaths, while in Canada the ratio is 38 for every 100 livestock deaths (Musiani et al, 2003). Deer collisions with automobiles injure 29,000 people annually in the USA and cause more than $1 billion in damages (Lamarque et al, 2008). In Israel, farmers in the Golan grasslands claim to lose 1.5-1.9% of all calves born each year to the golden jackal, causing an estimated economic value loss of $42,000 in one year alone. In the southern African country of Namibia, humans are increasingly coming in to conflict with elephants and lions, and on the island of Zanzibar, farmers consider most medium and large size mammals as a threat to their crops, and consider one of Africa’s most endangered primates, the red colobus monkey, to be the third most serious vertebrate pest. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, villagers around the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary report large losses of livestock to the endangered snow leopard, and in the mountainous area of Simao in China, a group of 19-24 Asian elephants is responsible for large-scale crop and property damage. In Peru in South America, the Brazilian tapir, the tayra, the capybara, the collared peccary, the paca, the brown agouti, the ocelot, hawks, jaguars and pumas are all cause severe livestock and economic losses for the 3,200 people living inside the northern border of the Tambopata-Candamo Reserve, which farmers compensate by shooting wild animals for bushmeat (Distefano, 2005).

The specific reasons for such human-wildlife conflicts vary from place to place, but all are, in some way, a symptom of global trends; a combination of large increases in human populations, land use transformation, habitat loss, habitat degradation, the growing interest in ecotourism and increasing public access to nature reserves, increasing livestock populations, increasing wildlife populations as a result of conservation measures, climate change, migrations of people for security reasons and human attitudes and beliefs (Distefano, 2005; Lamarque et al, 2008).  The most important factor and the one that drives all others is population growth. In 1950, the total world population was 2,556,000,053 people, which had grown to 4,453, 831,714 by 1980. In 2010, it stood at 6,848, 932,929, and is predicted to reach 7,584,821,144 by 2020 (US Census Bureau, 2011). Such a dramatic increase in the number of humans has seen a corresponding increase in rates of deforestation and land use transformation, like forests, savannahs and other ecosystems are converted into agricultural and urban areas, to meet increasing demands for land, food, energy and raw materials (Distefano, 2005). Such land transformation not only leads to a decrease in wildlife populations but brings remaining wildlife into closer contact with humans. Human population growth in the Canadian province of British Colombia in the last few years, for example, is correlated proportionally with the numbers of encounters and serious incidents with cougars, black bears and grizzly bears; and between 1997 and 2009, 55 people and 15 Sumatran tigers have been killed in conflicts around pulp and paper plantations in formerly forested land in the Riau province of the island (WWF, 2009). Such conflicts are not unique in Sumatra or anywhere else in Indonesia.

A common consequence of habitat loss due to agricultural encroachment is a shift in forest species toward exploiting human habitations and agricultural land to supplement their diminishing natural food supply (Hadisiswoyo, 2008), and few species are as adept at this as primates, which, due to their intelligence, adaptability and highly opportunistic nature, are viewed as a serious agricultural pest throughout their range (Else, 1991).

starving mother and child orangutan - (c) COP  Throughout the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, prime orangutan habitat has been converted to logging concessions, pulp, and paper plantations, mines and agricultural plantations, particularly for the cultivation of rubber and palm oil. Such habitat loss and fragmentation has been devastating to orangutan populations, with the acceleration of palm oil plantations having dramatically increased incidents of direct conflict between orangutans and humans (Yuwono et al, 2007), as orangutans are forced out of degraded forest into plantations in search of food. Although tolerance to orangutan crop raiding varies from plantation to plantation, increasing human-orangutan conflicts ultimately results in an increase in orangutan killing, and often an increase in poaching for the illegal pet trade (Hadisiswoyo, 2008). It has been observed that poaching and trade is particularly common in areas where plantations are being developed, and, despite being legally protected in Indonesia, orangutans are increasingly being regarded as crop-raiding pests, and being illegally killed (Hadisiswoyo, 2008).

In Sumatra, which has one of the highest deforestation rates in the tropics (Campbell-Smith et al, 2011), forest conversion and a corresponding increase in human-orangutan conflict has been severe, particularly in areas around the Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra, where orangutans have been forced into fragmented patches of forests surrounded by agricultural plantations (Hadisiswoyo, 2008). Orangutans can eat around 300 young oil palms in just two days at a cost of around $2 per tree (Hadisiswoyo, 2008), a huge economic loss for an agricultural farmer in that part of the world.

To mitigate these problems, OURF, working with our partners in Sumatra, has established the Mobile Education and Conservation Unit (MECU), a program aimed at educating local people about orangutan issues and reducing conflict, by improving agro-forestry techniques and current farming methods. The work, however, is not easy. Although human-wildlife conflicts are present in nearly all rural villages, the form they take, the species involved and the village’s perception of the problem varies.

During a two year study in to orangutan-human conflicts in two districts in North Sumatra, between February 2007 to February 2009, researchers discovered that in one of the districts, Batang Serangan, which contained an orangutan population of 16 individuals, 56% of survey respondents reported problems with orangutans, and orangutans were ranked as the third most frequent crop pest entering farmlands, being the fourth most destructive. They were also regarded as the most feared species in the district (Campbell-Smith, 2010).

In the second district, Sidiangkat, which contained an orangutan population of 134 individuals, there were, however, no reports of crop raiding orangutans, with wild boar, pig-tailed macaques, and civet cats being the most problematic species. However, like Batang Serangan, orangutans were again considered the most feared animal in this district (Campbell-Smith, 2010).

Throughout both districts, 97% of respondents claimed to have never caught an orangutan, and 83% knew that such an act would be illegal. However, of the 3% that claimed to have caught an orangutan, 64% said it was in retribution for crop raiding, with 18% saying it was to keep it as a pet, 14% catching it for food, and 4% saying it was caught to be sold in the pet trade (Campbell-Smith, 2010).

The study also found that local people’s tolerance of orangutans, and most likely other wildlife, was highly influenced by how much of a threat they considered them to be to their personal safety, with 29% of respondents claiming that orangutans were dangerous, with 31% stating this was because of their large size, 26% stating it was their ability to chase and capture humans, 13% saying they could bite a person, 12% of respondents highlighting their aggressive nature, and 18% attributing it to longstanding local legends (Campbell-Smith, 2010). Although respondents most often showed benign tolerance toward orangutans, this changed if there was ever a threat to themselves or their families’ safety, when a more direct approach would be taken to remove the orangutan from their plantation or village. Although 98% of respondents agreed that orangutans should be protected under Indonesian law, many felt that they did not get the support they needed from local forestry officials, village heads or NGO’s to deal with the problem (Campbell-Smith, 2010).

These findings were corroborated by a separate survey in 7 nearby villages surrounding the Gunung Leuser National Park, which found that local people perceived orangutans as crop raiders, and that, while they were not the most problematic, they were the most feared, considered dangerous due to their large size. While local people had concerns about the amount of fruit such a large-bodied animal could potentially consume, a large number were still emphatic in their belief that orangutans were a protected species, and that their protection was important, and although farmers in this survey took more active measures to protect their crops, this usually amounted to shouting and throwing, with shooting an infrequently used method (Hadisiswoyo, 2008).

Surprisingly, most respondents in this survey reported that orangutans do not raid palm oil plantations, and were instead most problematic in areas with rubber and jackfruit trees. While this is possibly due to Sumatran orangutans being strictly arboreal, and not being able to move from tree to tree in palm oil plantations without descending to the ground, it nevertheless highlights the variations in orangutan behavior from place to place.

Farmers in this area also highlighted the difficulties in driving orangutans from their plantations, partly because of their known protected status and a desire not to get in to trouble, but also because the orangutans isolated status meant driving an orangutan from one plantation would simply force them on to another, most likely owned by a neighboring farmer. Unless orangutans could be relocated to a wild area, any dispersal methods would be considered a selfish act against another farmer (Hadisiswoyo, 2008).

Addressing these issues, and balancing the needs of wildlife with the needs and reasonable expectation of local people, is one of the most complex and difficult aspects of orangutan conservation. Halting the conversion of tropical forests to plantations must remain the priority, but in areas already degraded, local people need stronger support from local forestry officials and NGO’s to deal with orangutans and other crop raiders on their plantations, and education and improved farming techniques to make better use of, and to better protect, their farms. It is hoped that with continued research and OURF’s developing conservation and education initiatives the incidence of conflict can be reduced, and the orangutans and people of Sumatra and Borneo can co-exist peacefully.



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