Biruté Mary Galdikas is a professor at Simon Fraser University and the principal investigator of the world’s longest continuous study of a wild mammal. Galdikas has worked with orangutans for 40 years.
Established in and near the Tanjung Puting National Park on the island of Borneo in Indonesia, Galdikas and her charity organization, Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), promote the conservation and reintegration of orphaned orangutans into the wild.
The national park shelters one of the two largest wild orangutan populations in the world, and is also home to the clouded leopard, the Malaysian sun bear and a number of other unique plant and animal species – including 230 species of birds.
Galdikas says that her work is appreciated by her students.
“The response has been very positive, and a number of my students have gone on to be volunteers [at OFI’s research station and Orangutan Care Centre],” she explains.
Janie Dubman is a former student and a current volunteer. In her third year at SFU she discovered Borneo and the wild orangutans.
“Borneo is an area of particular interest to conservationists, because it’s incredibly biologically rich and unique, but also undergoing extremely rapid deforestation,” Dubman explains. “It was isolated for so long that when the developed world discovered its riches, the rapid exploitation of natural resources began.”
Tanjung Puting National Park encompasses 4,000 square kilometers of protected peat swamp forest, lowlands and various types of tropical rain forests. But it is not enough to sustain a genetically diverse, viable population of orangutans.
The surrounding forests are increasingly threatened by palm oil plantations, mining and logging.
The only place other than Borneo where wild orangutans still exist is on the island of Sumatra, which is located in Indonesia.
Forty years ago, about 90 per cent of Borneo was covered by forest, according to Dubman.
“Today only about 50 per cent remains, and a lot of this is in the mountains [where the developers have not set up operations yet].”
She adds that in the past 10 years, “the large scale commercial palm oil plantations have become the primary threat to native wildlife and indigenous lifestyles in Borneo.”
Sumatra is faring even worse than Borneo, with about 80 per cent of its forests gone. Apparently, one could drive there for days without seeing anything but palm oil plantations.
The palm is not native to the islands. It is grown there for domestic use and export. Dubm
an says the palm’s commercial expansion is due to the fact that “it is, per hectare of land, the
most productive vegetable oil source on the planet more productive than soy and more productive than corn.”
Since 2009, Indonesia has been the largest producer of this lucrative oil.
When asked to describe the impact that mass deforestation has had on the wildlife and human populations, Dubman admits that it is not yet fully clear.
“The effects that this has had on Borneo’s native flora and fauna are not even fully understood yet,” she explains.
“What we do know – what has been studied somewhat well – is the effect on large, charismatic animals such as orangutans, which are probably the poster species for the environmental crisis of the island.”
Considering how intertwined all the species are in the rain forest’s complex ecological
network, the large-scale habitat loss and fragmentation has deep-rooted results felt by the entire ecosystem.
The indigenous inhabitants of Borneo, the Dayaks, are traditionally small-scale slash and burn agriculturalists and hunters. Inhabiting one area and cultivating rice fields before moving on to another, their practices allow the forest to properly recover.
The extremely rapid growth rates at the equator mean that the forest absorbs the small rice fields back into its midst.
For several reasons, this does not occur with palm oil plantations.
“The palm is a very thirsty plant; it destroys the fertility of the soil and the ecology of wildlife that lives [in the rain forest nearby]” explains Galdikas.
When palm oil plantations stretch for tens or hundreds of square kilometers, leeching the soil of nutrients, it is impossible to hope they will one day become integrated into a rain forest, the expanse of which dwindles every year.
The Dayaks, forced to sell or simply abandon their lands due to economic necessity, then move to work on the plantations, or travel to Jakarta in the hopes of finding employment.
Dubman says that there are other economic alternatives which could be made available to them besides palm plantations.
For example, the small-scale cultivation of profitable rubber trees, if planted individually throughout the forest, would complement the existing ecosystem and allow the indigenous people to make a living on their own land. Borneo’s native fruit trees could be cultivated in a similar way, as the island is known for many unique, incredibly delicious fruits such organic durians.
In order to combat deforestation in Borneo, OFI has been trying to buy the forest from local landowners who would otherwise sell it to commercial enterprises.
Currently, their Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest project aims to purchase 2,600 hectares of forest, each hectare going for about $200 US.
Galdikas says that she has a few plans for the salvaged pockets of forest.
“We’re going to build camps on it and use it for rehabilitation of the orangutan, and [we] may even release a few orangutans there,” she explains.
Still, she notes that for release to be successful, orangutans require large territories of forest.
Galdikas is also happy to announce that just last week, after six months of negotiations, two companies in Borneo instituted a zero tolerance policy against harming endangered species, and signed the agreement with Orangutan Foundation International. PT SMART and Lontar Papyrus are an agribusiness and a pulp and paper company, respectively.
As to how people can help OFI’s efforts, Galdikas says that they can donate, help purchase forest, or volunteer their time in Borneo. “We have short-term… and long-term volunteers, ” she says.
She adds that there are a variety of different positions available within the organization.
For more information on OFI and to get involved, visit www.orangutan.org