Too close encounters

Caring: Birute Mary Galdikas, who founded Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), visits one of the feeding stations in Tanjung Puting National Park. Reuters/Infinite Earth

PANGKALAN BUN, C. KALIMANTAN: The experience of seeing an orangutan in a wild or semi-wild environment might mean spending hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of rupiah if you are a tourist, Jakarta post reported.

To go from Jakarta to Central Kalimantan’s Tanjung Puting National Park, where orangutans roam and occasionally respond to caretaking workers’ feeding calls, for instance, tourists must spend around Rp 800,000 (US$84.50) for plane tickets. Then there’s the lodging and river transportation costs.

For some, however, running into an orangutan in the workplace might be as common as running into a representative from a sister office.

“It’s a usual sight for us when an orangutan wanders off inside the company’s area,” Tri Cahyono, who works for forestry company PT Surya Hutani Jaya, said.

The spinning of the wheels of the economy are compressing distances between mankind’s labor and the previously untouched wilderness. In Kalimantan, the result might be too close for comfort for those on both sides.

According to Tri, his company has around 157,000 hectares of land, which includes production areas and a protected area in close proximity to Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, which is one of the rare remaining bastions for the rouge-haired creatures.

PT Surya Hutani Jaya is one of the suppliers for Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). The human-wildlife close encounters became one of the reasons that APP determined to work with Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) to facilitate trainings for employees in handling the orangutans that come across their paths while at work.

Orangutans’ habit of exploring their surroundings paired with their ever-decreasing habitat means that man-meets-orangutan moments are almost inevitable where the company works.

Renie Djojoasmoro, OFI’s Jakarta chapter representative and a researcher of both orangutans in Sumatra and Kalimantan, said the primates — particularly the males —need around 10,000 hectares of land to explore.

Although orangutans might be able to adapt to dwindling living areas, much less can be said of food. The slow-moving creatures are known to eat a wide range of food and at times conflicts have arisen because they eat parts of plantation trees, such as the bark of acacia trees used in pulp and paper plantations.

Tri, who is Surya Hutani Jaya’s environmental impact analysis and conservation section head, said that when encountering the great apes, employees tend to leave them be.

“We don’t do anything to them. We often come across orangutans near the camp, but they usually leave us alone as well and just sit up there in trees … even if someone bothers them, they would only go as far as throwing things [at those that bother them] but they do not attack human beings at all,” he said.

Birute Mary Galdikas, OFI’s founder who has studied and worked with orangutans in their habitat in Tanjung Puting for more than 40 years, affirmed the gentle nature of the apes and underlined the need to respect them.

Nevertheless, several incidents have proven that orangutan-human relationships, especially in an area deemed promising by both species, can be much less amicable.

The Tenggarong District Court in Kutai Kartanegara, East Kalimantan, in April sentenced four employees of PT Khaleda Agroprima Malindo to four to eight months in prison for capturing and killing orangutans at a palm plantation.

Previously, the police reportedly arrested two plantation workers for allegedly killing 20 orangutans and proboscis monkeys. The men said that owners of several palm oil plantations offered $100 for each orangutan killed.

The death toll came while warning bells for orangutans’ survival were already resonating. The primates are labeled “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list.

The IUCN states on its website that there has been an estimated decline of orangutans well over 50 percent in the last 60 years. It cited Singleton et al. and Caldecott and Miles, who estimated the species’ population at between 45,000 to 69,000 living in 86,000 square kilometers of suitable habitat.

Renie said that during her field work at the Camp Leakey research center inside Tanjung Putting National Park and at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Pasir Panjang, Central Kalimantan, she often comes across injured orangutans in plantation areas although it was hard to ascertain the causes of their injuries.

“[Injured orangutans] has been going on since 1994,” she added.

The care center, which is part of OFI, takes in orangutans that are injured or kept as pets and nurse or rehabilitate them until they are ready to be released back into the wild.

“People often ask why orangutans keep wandering into plantation areas when they already have special designated areas [for wildlife protection]. It is usually because the areas used as plantations used to be part of the areas the orangutans explored,” Renie said.

This disruption of orangutan trails might be avoidable providing companies first map the trails and situate their work areas beyond those sites, she said.

By understanding their habits, companies can leave “corridors” that can connect wildlife to protected areas.

The primates’ exploring habits might contribute to their straying off to human habitation and workplaces. However, the sheer limited supply of food and space available is apparently another strong reason why protected areas such as national parks are unable to contain them.

If the Guinness Book of World Records’ claim that in 2008 and 2009 Indonesia had the highest rate of deforestation in the world is true, then space is indeed a serious problem. Last year, Forest Watch Indonesia, which focuses on gathering data on forests, reported that 15 million hectares of forests were destroyed between 2000 and 2009, thus the rate of deforestation during that period reached 1.5 million hectares per year.

However, the Forestry Ministry that same year said that the country had decreased deforestation to 700,000 hectares as of 2010.

According to Renie, OFI already stopped releasing rehabilitated orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park since 1994 for fear of overpopulation.

The organization built a care center in Pasir Panjang and secured another release location for orangutans in the Lamandau area.

The new location, measuring around 76,000 hectares, was named the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve. OFI has released around 150 orangutans there between 1996 and 2007 but again stopped due to concerns about possible overpopulation. The reserve itself is next to a production forest and a palm oil plantation.

Birute said she is hoping that the southern part of Tanjung Puting National Park that was razed in forest fires in 1998 will hopefully recover fast enough in the near future so that it can serve as another place to release the great apes that are known to have seven-year intervals between giving birth.

Another area that will hopefully serve as a safe haven for orangutans in the future is the Seruyan forest located east of the national park.

Orangutans have a chance at survival if we can, at the very least, maintain the forest that is still standing today, Renie said.

As the creatures await a larger share of the land they used to roam in, many human beings who are less amused than Tanjung Puting tourists at the prospect of an orangutan sighting continue to regard the apes as pests.

“The ultimate truth be told, however, we are probably the ones bothering [the orangutans],” Renie said.

Unfortunately, we are still unable to read the primates’ minds, otherwise it would be interesting to see what they think of their human counterparts.

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