Conservationists battle loggers to save Orangutans’ habitat

Conservationists battle loggers to saveOrangutans’ habitat

25February 2005

published by Washington Post


By Ellen Nakashima

KALIMANTAN

Three men in a canoe drew near swiftly from behind and overtook another canoe carrying a local environmentalist, Bastarin, on a river deep in the wilds of the Borneo rain forest. Bastarin, out to stop illegal logging and protect the orangutans that live in Gunung Palung National Park, pulled harder on his oar to keep up with the men. He was sure they were illegal loggers, but they disappeared from view. Not long afterward, they reappeared, rowing quickly back downriver, smiling smugly as they passed by. “They’ve told their friends,” Bastarin said, swearing under his breath. Bastarin, 34, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, is a member of an unlikely squad of local farmers and former loggers who are working to preserve one of the last refuges of the world’s fast-disappearing orangutans.

Illegal logging is the greatest threat to the survival of the orangutans, whose native habitats are the Indian Ocean islands of Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia, and Borneo, about 400 miles to the east, which is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Forest fires, poaching and the conversion of jungle land into palm oil plantations are also contributing to their demise. Orangutans live in trees and depend on forest cover, swinging from branch to branch, and they thrive on insects and fruits that grow in the woodlands. In their feeding cycle, the great apes, in turn, disperse the seeds that regenerate the trees. Today, there are no more than 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, about half the number that existed 10 years ago, according to scientists studying them.

Intense, athletic, wearing a blue baseball cap and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the sober face of an orangutan, Bastarin steered the canoe expertly beneath low-hanging palm fronds and away from mangrove trees jutting from the fern-frocked riverbank. Crickets screeched. A dragonfly flitted past. Bastarin belongs to the Orangutan Protection and Monitoring Unit formed in April 2003 by the British-based conservation group Fauna & Flora International. The 12-man team works with rangers at the Gunung Palung park. They are supported by $45,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a Japanese environmental foundation. “Combating the illegal logger is just like paddling against the current,” huffed Bastarin as his oar sliced the river, stirring up coffee-colored ripples of water. Eventually, upriver, Bastarin spied a blue tarp amid the swamp trees.

Bastarin and Sutejo, the park ranger who was with him, both unarmed, approached the camp, a Tinkertoy structure of planks and logs covered by blue plastic. They found seven men and a 14-year-old boy. The loggers had stopped working because their chainsaw had given out. Khalifa, 28, sat shirtless on a wood platform, smoking a cigarette and cleaning the saw’s spark plug. He said they had cut 20 trees in three days and showed a reporter some of the timber. Bastarin and Sutejo wanted to make an arrest. But they had only one canoe and no backup, except an environmental researcher and a reporter. So they did the next best thing. They delivered a sermon and a warning. “It’s true that you can make money cutting trees,” Bastarin told the loggers. “I know. I used to log in these parts. But if you keep doing that, your children and grandchildren won’t have any forest left to enjoy.”

The loggers, all cousins or brothers, nodded in agreement. They said they worked for a man named Iss, who lived in Pontianak, the capital of western Kalimantan province, and that people more powerful than they controlled the logging wealth. “If I had five cows, I would look after those five cows instead of coming to the jungle, but where do I get the money for five cows?” asked Khalifa’s older brother, Abdullah, 32. The chat was civil, even amiable. But Sutejo made the warning clear. “Today had better be your last day,” he told the loggers.

The orangutan protection squad is vastly outnumbered and on a tight budget. A squad member’s pay is $65 a month. Forty-two forest rangers with five guns patrol the 225,000-acre park. Theirs is a race against time, to bring law enforcement to the jungle before the orangutan — “the man of the jungle” in Malay — becomes extinct. At the peak of logging activity in the last year, environmentalists said, there were about 1,000 loggers at any given time in the park, only 30 percent of which remains untouched. Despite vows to crack down, successive governments have failed to stop the multibillion-dollar illegal logging business, and environmental activists blame corruption, a lack of will and scarce enforcement resources.

The day after the encounter with the loggers, Bastarin and 11 community and forest rangers tromped into the wet jungle on the park’s northwest fringe, fording leech-filled streams and boot-sucking rice paddies. To clear a path, a young ranger whacked vines with a machete. Every five minutes or so, Bastarin paused and peered up into the trees. “There,” he said eventually, pointing to a tuft of dried leaves and branches high in a tree. An orangutan nest, in good condition, but more than a month old.

Orangutans build their nests about 40 feet off the ground in trees, bending and weaving branches into a green, leafy bed. They make a new one every night. Over several hours, the group spotted eight nests, several gibbons and red monkeys. But no orangutans. Sometimes patrols go a week without a sighting. Squad member Ibrahim Sindang is a Dayak, a member of an ethnic group that has lived in Borneo for centuries. The Dayaks still occasionally hunt orangutans and eat them when they cannot find other meat or fish. Sindang, 30, helps rescue poached orangutans. On a recent morning, he visited a transfer center run by the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program, known locally as Yayasan Palung and headed by a Harvard University anthropologist. 

Five orangutans of various ages rested or swung about in cages. Most had been recovered from villagers. Some munched on bananas — each is given 18 a day, the caretaker said. One of the apes reached for a visitor’s hands, and a female orangutan next to him, apparently jealous, slapped his hand away. Orangutans, whose life expectancy is estimated at about 30 to 40 years, depend on their mothers for their first eight years. “I felt really sorry to see that little orangutan,” Sindang said. “He was like a human baby, crying.”

Logging has thinned out the fruit trees that orangutans feed on, forcing the creatures to search longer and harder for food. Bastarin led the team up a park slope laden with durian trees, whose sweet, creamy fruit is prized by villagers, despite its pungent aroma reminiscent of sour sweat. The durian is also an orangutan magnet. “Any orangutans today?” Bastarin asked an 18-year-old carrying a basket of the spiky-skinned durian. “I saw one today, taking my durian,” the youth replied. “But you didn’t shoot the animal, right?” “No,” he said. “How could I? I don’t have a gun.” Bastarin nodded. “If you have any problems, please let me know.” Then Bastarin hiked on, up the slope toward the mist.

Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.


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