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The plight of orangutans and my first encounter in the Sabangau Forest

The Sabangau Forest is a lowland tropical peat-swamp forest in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) near the city of Palangka Raya; it covers 6300 sq. km and is home to the world’s largest population of orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) estimated at approximately 6,900 individuals, making it of critical importance to the protection of the species. The Borneo Nature Foundation http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/  – previously the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop), has been engaged in researching the orangutans in the Sabangau Forest since 2003 following over 100 individuals and collecting over 20,000 hours of data. The primary objective for this project is to gain a better understanding about orangutan behaviour and ecology in a tropical peat-swamp forest, to compare with other populations in different habitats, and to see how they cope with the unique challenges that this habitat brings.

The devastating forest fires which engulfed Borneo and Sumatra in 2015, combined with ongoing habitat degradation and hunting has resulted in the Bornean orangutan being reclassified as Critically Endangered. BNF is working to understand orangutan population dynamics, to protect and restore critical orangutan habitat and work to raise awareness in Indonesia and around the world. All studies of mankind’s closest relatives help to get a better understanding of how human evolution was shaped by the environment, and BNF are regularly making new and exciting discoveries that reveal the orangutan’s great intelligence and problem-solving ability. The data is also used to inform conservation management plans, by understanding how orangutans cope – or in some cases, fail to cope – with the damaging and disruptive impacts of logging and fire. In addition to habitat loss hunting and killing have driven a dramatic decline in the orangutan population of Borneo where nearly 150,000 animals have been lost from the island’s forests in 16 years. While the steepest percentage losses occurred in regions where the forest has been cut down to make way for palm oil and acacia plantations, more animals were killed by hunters who ventured into the forest, or by farm workers when the apes encroached on agricultural land, a study found.

An international team of researchers estimate that the number of orangutans left in Borneo now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000, meaning the population more than halved over the study period which ran from 1999 to 2015. Without fresh efforts to protect the animals, the numbers could fall at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, conservationists predict. The real decline could be worse, because the prediction is based only on habitat loss, and does not include killings. Hunters in Borneo tend to enter the forest to find pigs and deer, but if they encounter a large orangutan, they can take the animals for food. Female orangutans are occasionally killed for their young, which are sold on as pets. Far more of the apes die when they venture on to plantations, and into people’s gardens, where they are shot or killed with machetes. Writing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers describe how the decline in nests from 1999 to 2015 points to the staggering loss of 148,500 orangutans in Borneo. The conservationists identified 64 separate groups of orangutans on the island, but only 38 are thought to comprise more than 100 individuals, the minimum that is considered viable for a group.

Worryingly four fifths of wild orangutans in Kalimantan live outside national parks and other protected areas, according to a new study by the Indonesian government. The study, called the 2016 Orangutan Population and Habitat Viability Assessment, was led by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Released last month, it is the third of its kind, with the last one done in 2004. The study confirms that orangutan populations have plummeted as their forest habitats continue to be flattened by the expansion of industry. So too has an illegal pet trade taken its toll on remaining populations.The study estimates that 57,350 critically endangered Bornean orangutans remain in Kalimantan. That’s 13-47 individuals per 100 square kilometers, down from around 45-76 in 2004.



On my very first walk in the forest with Jennifer Brousseau from the US, who had been very helpful in coordinating my volunteer placement with the BNF,  we were fortunate enough to encounter two orangutans in a very short space of time not very far from the camp, but I soon discovered the challenges that I faced trying to get photos of these animals in that kind of forest, my very first experience with a tropical peat-swamp forest. The forest isn’t particularly dense, and the height and size of the trees is restricted by the nutrient deficiency of peat-swamps, but because it is so flat there you are always looking up at them with all of the lighting problems and obstruction of branches and foliage that entails. And of course when they are feeding they are usually on the move and you have to negotiate the undergrowth and boggy ground to keep up with them. They make plenty of noise when they are moving through the branches so you usually know if there’s one around and there was no mistaking when we heard the first one we encountered. But I just couldn’t get a very clear sight of it to get any decent photos.






I was much more fortunate with the next one we encountered soon after, and was presented with an unforgettable and intimate first close-up encounter with a wild orangutan. He lingered in the branches above and then to my great delight he descended down to my level from the canopy above. Initially he made some kiss squeak alarm calls as I had already experienced with my very first encounter with a wild orangutan in Danum Valley in Sabah in 2013.  Then as I fumbled around with my camera equipment curiosity appeared to give him a more relaxed outlook, which reminds me of when a brown bear fell asleep in Alaska waiting for me to set up my tripod to take some photos. As far as I could tell it was a young male, and he looked very comfortable suspended by his hands and feet between two small tree trunks just above the ground. I felt connected with him by the physical intimacy of being alone and face to face but that feeling was accentuated by the awareness of meeting one of our closest relatives deep in the forest. I had anticipated that I would want to extend an apology and feel a sense of shame for how we have treated this wild relative, but I could only feel love, respect and gratitude for that special meeting. When you are able to gaze into their eyes at such close quarters it’s impossible not to be aware of their intelligence and awareness, and you wonder what they are thinking; a sentiment that doesn’t spring to mind when you are observing animals that are not related to us. I would like to think that his animal instincts connected with mine, and gave him a good impression of my respect and desire to help them in any way that I can because we cannot afford to lose such an important family member.



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