Hope Is Not Lost for Bornean Orangutans

Along with the rest of the world, we were saddened to read the coverage several weeks ago about the precipitous decline of the world’s orangutan population over the last 16 years. Fascination with these incredible cousins of ours is what first drew me to Borneo 20 years ago, and I left with a concern for them and our whole planet that has fueled the work of Health In Harmony ever since.

Photo: Nick Perry

But at Health In Harmony we have also learned the power of hope, and while this is sad news, we are heartened by the broad coverage: this story was featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, NPR along with many, many others that picked up the story. It is only when a problem gets this kind of attention that we can begin to recognize the urgency and hope to find a solution.

The research identifies different overlapping threats to orangutan populations: deforestation, which both directly decreases habitat and leads to greater human contact, and therefore conflict; and poaching for bushmeat.

We work in Gunung Palung National Park with our partner, Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), where logging is the main threat because the park is surrounded by a mostly Muslim population who won’t eat orangutans. But until we arrived on the scene in 2007, logging on its own had already decimated almost 40% of the forest. Through the last 10 years, however, with ASRI’s integrated approach to health and conservation, we’ve:

  • Helped decrease logging, through affordable healthcare and livelihood options, stabilizing the rainforest habitat
  • Replanted trees and particularly wildlife corridors that orangutans have already started using for nests and travel between two swaths of the park that had been separated by forest loss
Though the forest had been dramatically logged in years prior, after ASRI started, we can see from GIS data that forest loss stabilized and there was regrowth of secondary forest (mostly natural but some by us).

Today, about 3,000 of the world’s approximately 100,000 remaining orangutans live in Gunung Palung National Park, where they are now protected from logging encroachment into their habitat.

However, at other national parks – for example, Bukit Baka Bukit Raya (BBBR), where we are starting to expand our programming – orangutans have mostly been hunted out and the habitat is disappearing because of logging. Across Indonesia, palm oil plantations and forest fires are further decimating habitat and creating populations of orangutans that have no safe place to be released into the wild once they’ve been rescued.

BBBR also happens to be one of very few remaining places where orangutan release is possible, so that’s why we are partnering with International Animal Rescue (IAR), an expert in orangutan rescue and rehabilitation, to make the forest a safe place for orangutans by decreasing the threats from logging and poaching. We want the baby orangutans in the picture above to have a safe place to be released back into the wild!

We also want to work together with the communities around BBBR and provide the same opportunities and resources as we have around Gunung Palung. Both communities identified healthcare and lack of sustainable alternative livelihoods as the key fulcrums of change to make it possible for them to stop logging and hunting.

In the coming months, we will:

  • Train nurses and midwives to live in these villages and provide care, so that people don’t have to pay high travel costs while also improving the quality of treatment and reducing the obscenely high maternal mortality rate, thus scaling back one of the biggest drivers of logging
  • Send our experts in organic farming to conduct training sessions that will provide alternative income and food sources to logging and poaching
  • Work with the communities instead of against them to protect the forest that we all care about, without sacrificing their well-being in the process

Losing half of Borneo’s orangutans is scary, but there are win-win solutions for protecting their habitat and removing poaching threats. This new research has identified 34 viable populations of 100 or more individual orangutans; we can prioritize those regions and help communities have the healthcare and alternative livelihoods they need, so they no longer need to log and poach to survive. If the habitat stays intact, orangutans have a home, local families preserve their natural resources, and the global community benefits from carbon regulation and biodiversity.

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