Orangutan survival rests on conservation education: an interview with Dr. Biruté Galdikas

Dr. Biruté Galdikas, the world’s foremost expert on orangutans, has been working in the forests of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia for four decades. Photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment / Drew Fellman.

BOGOR, Indonesia (26 October, 2011)_With orangutan numbers in Indonesia having plunged 80 percent in 40 years, the only way to reverse this trend is to push for greater conservation awareness in society and especially in the education system, leading primatologist and conservationist Dr. Biruté Galdikas said in an interview.

“We absolutely need to get the conservation curriculum into local schools and villages – not just for children, but all levels of society. Television programs, newspaper articles and magazine articles…education at all levels: we need to do more,” she said.

As orangutans’ forest homes are destroyed and they are forced to live in isolated pockets, they are brought into far more frequent contact with humans, and are hunted for food and the pet trade.

Local people are afraid of them, says Galdikas, and they go out and shoot the orangutans found foraging in their farmlands or call the local police. “These human-orangutan conflicts are going to increase and cause problems,” she said.

From her base in the village of Pasir Panjang near Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Galdikas runs Orangutan Foundation International. The foundation’s outreach work involves producing educational programs for schools, delivering public lectures, organising orangutan interaction sessions and spreading the news about the plight of orangutans and conservation of their forest homes.

“When people interact with orangutans, when they’re very close to them, suddenly they come to an understanding that orangutans really are us, except for a few bits and pieces of DNA.

“If they sit next to an orangutan and hold an orangutan’s hand, and the orangutan gazes into their eyes, a shift occurs in their perception of what these animals really are.”

During a recent visit to the Center for International Forestry Research’s headquarters in Bogor, Galdikas sat down for an informal interview with friend and fellow primatologist, Jacqui Sunderland-Groves. Sunderland-Groves is currently a Senior Advisor to the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Indonesia.

Here Galdikas reflects on her four decades of conservation work, and speaks with Sunderland-Groves about the difficulties involved in orangutan conservation and the strategies being used to overcome them.


Q: You’ve been involved in orangutan conservation for a long time, how did you originally become involved?

There’s something about them that spoke to me, even as a youngster. I felt a connection with them through the power of their eyes. I wanted to study them, and as soon as you begin studying them you realise they are in grave danger of extinction, so I started conservation work almost at the same time that I started studying them in the wilds of Borneo.

My goals during the first year were to begin a study of individual life histories, to set up a rehabilitation program, to increase local awareness, and to start a tourism industry for the local people. I knew, even then, that unless the local people got something out of the orangutans and Tanjung Puting National Park, they would prefer to eliminate the forest and make rice fields.

The major focus now should be maintaining and protecting biologically viable populations of wild orangutans, plus protecting smaller populations that are interesting or significant in other ways. If I had my way, every single wild orangutan would get a police escort, and that’s what we try to do in our rehabilitation program – we never turn an animal down. But in terms of conservation, we need to protect the biologically viable populations in Borneo and Sumatra. In Borneo you only have three or four parks where the populations are large enough that they are truly biologically viable and will allow the normal processes of evolution to occur.

The Tanjung Puting National Park population is relatively safe, but we need to make sure that some of the other populations, that are different subspecies, maintain viability.

Q; These animals are protected nationally and internationally, but how much of that actually transpires on the ground?

Well, there’s a disconnect, so one of the most powerful tools for influencing local people is the intimate encounter with the animal, in this case with orangutans. When people interact with orangutans, when they’re very close to them, suddenly they get epiphanies. It changes the way they think about things.

They come to an understanding that orangutans really are us, except for a few bits and pieces of DNA. When they sit next to an orangutan and hold an orangutan’s hand, and the orangutan gazes into their eyes, a shift occurs in their perception of what these animals really are. I’ve seen it happen over and over again with government officials. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens a lot.

Q: We have well over 1,000 orangutans in rehabilitation centres in Kalimantan alone. You’ve been successful at reintroducing orangutans into the wild, what would you say is the percentage of success?

I was looking at some data recently from 40 years of rehabilitation at Camp Leakey, and the main thing is for them to survive into adolescence. If you start at the beginning with the forlorn infants that come into your arms barely alive, with fingers missing or wounds on their body or lungs totally black from pneumonia, then the success rate is much lower. But once you get them to adolescence the success rate is quite high.

Q: How do you monitor orangutans that you have released?

Initially we follow them, and when we encounter them in the forest or when they come back to camp, we follow them again. Some disappear and you never see them again. Did they die, or did they survive? I’ve had enough experiences now to indicate to me that most of them survive.

For example, you release a male who is a young adolescent, and then 10 years later you meet an adult male, and something in his eyes shows he recognises you, even if you don’t quite recognise him. And he doesn’t run away from you. You think, ‘who could that be?’ They sometimes have very small marks on them, or a particular kind of bellybutton, or something weird in their ears, and you can usually figure it out. You could hand them a banana and they would look you straight in the eyes and take it from your hand. That has to be a wild-born ex-captive. That is not a wild orangutan.

Q: There is still an illegal trade in infant orangutans across borders to Malaysia and to other countries. Although it’s been well publicised, does it still pose a large threat to orangutan survival?

It poses a threat. It’s like compound interest: if every year you get 1 percent on your money, eventually you’re going to double your money. The same thing is true of the pet trade: 2 to 3 percent of the population is gone every year, because for that one orangutan that crosses the border, his or her mother was killed, and probably a lot of other mothers and infants were killed to get that one alive.

If you’re talking Sumatran orangutans, taking 2 or 3 percent of the remaining 7,000 every year, how many years do they have left? And I suspect that it is really more than 2 or 3 percent each year, because people are hunting the mothers.

Q: And for every baby that actually survives being transported across borders in terrible, tiny enclosures with the incorrect food and nutrition, several others die just in that process alone.

Virtually none survive. The orangutan infants that come to rehabilitation centres are just the tip of the iceberg. We cooperate with the local police, and when they are informed that there is an orangutan being held in captivity, they go out. Many times the police officers go upriver into the forest to the remote villages, now increasingly in palm oil plantations, and they say, ‘we got one orangutan, but the owner had another one that just died’.

Q: In term of orangutans being killed or captured, there have been so few prosecutions. Clearly that needs to change for people to change their practices as well.

The culture needs to change. The culture, which is one that traditionally avoided conflict and confrontation, doesn’t really offer encouragement for enforcement agencies to say, ‘you killed an orangutan, so therefore you have to go to jail’. Orangutans need to be made more important to the general public. That’s going to be a long process, but I think we’re beginning to see that change. Education is the key.

In my husband’s village, traditionally people ate orangutans. Now you go into the interior, and the young people don’t eat orangutans because it’s not modern. They understand that it’s part of a way they don’t want to follow, because they’ve been educated. Part of that education has been from non-government organisations going into schools.

Q: A recent study by CIFOR shows that if you have civil society on side then you’re going to be much more successful in your conservation efforts.

Exactly, especially if the traditional culture allowed for or encouraged the eating of wildlife like orangutans. Once people learn that orangutans are protected, discover that they share 97 percent of our genetic material, and are exposed to them (like the intimate encounters at Tanjung Puting National Park), their attitudes change. One of the best things that non-government organisations can do is go into schools, villages, and women’s cooperatives and talk about conservation and what orangutans do for the environment.

The main problem for orangutans is that people kill them. If there was national enforcement of that ‘don’t kill orangutans’ law, orangutans might not need protected areas as they do now, because the main function of protected forests is not just to save the forest but also to save the wildlife within them.

Q: The worry is that as these areas shrink in size and become islands, the human-orangutan conflict becomes much more visible. We force them into these tiny pockets where they can’t survive, so they go out to oil palm plantations, to acacia plantations, and into people’s farms. They become pests and people shoot them.

Yes, and people are afraid of them. An adult male is 300 pounds, easily. Local people are afraid of them, and they can’t be bothered with them. If you have some orangutan raiding your garden, it gets monotonous. You go out and shoot him or her or you call the local police. These human-orangutan conflicts are going to increase and cause problems.

This is why we absolutely need to get the conservation curriculum into local schools and villages – not just for children, but all levels of society. Television programs, newspaper articles and magazine articles are good. Orangutan Foundation International publishes a magazine-like newsletter. We go into a village a few years after distributing this newsletter and the people still have it, they’re still reading it. Education at all levels: we need to do more.

Q: One of the problems is that we’re not doing things fast enough. Without speeding up all the different education components trying to be implemented, where do you think we’re going to be in 20 or 30 years?

We’ll fail. We need to make it exciting and interesting. You need to involve people with nature. It’s not just an orangutan issue, it’s a much bigger issue. You need to bring nature back into people’s lives, and when nature is brought back into people’s lives, people are much happier and more content. There are all kinds of studies that indicate this is true.

  • http://www.4-2morrow.blogspot.com For Tomorrow

    People care about animals that they know about. A conservation plan lacking in education is not complete. This is especially true with local people. Ultimately, the fate of a species rests on its local humans. We can institute as many conservation programs as we want to, but success is hard to attain without the backing of local communities.