Hanging Tough: The People of the Forest

by Christina Gosnell, Oct 2, 2002 | Destinations: Indonesia / Malaysia / Brunei / Borneo

For years, the orangutans and the people of the forest have been running out of time. We continue to grow and prosper as a species, while our closest relative slowly becomes pushed from life on earth. The remaining years of their lives have been out-echoed by the sound of chainsaws in the distance. Finally, with the sound of falling trees, one after another. Like us, they often clutch their heart with fear because they know it's only a matter of time. The end has a way of sneaking up on us all, and the orangutans know their end is coming.

Orangutans are our closest relative. Everyone who sees orangutans in the wild speaks of their uncanny similarities to people. Their eyes and expressions are the first thing to disarm you, then the tiny manicured fingernails, and mannerisms we can all see ourselves doing. But there's more that reminds us of how little separates us from them. The mischief we can see in their eyes and the emotion that is every part of them confirms to us that they are really very little different than us. This also explains the guilt we feel as human beings as we watch the lives of these animals with whom we share 98 percent of the same genes being destroyed. It's true; they really aren't that different than us and they need our help.

The orangutan spends most of its time in trees, using its long arms and hook-shaped hands and feet for holding branches and vines. It rarely ventures to the ground, but when it does, it walks on all fours. Traveling through the treetops is difficult, so an orangutan only travels a few hundred meters each day. Male orangutans average about 95 cm (37 in) in length and about 77 kg (170 lb) in weight, although males recorded in captivity have been bigger and heavier. Females are smaller, reaching about 78 cm (31 in) in height and weighing only about 37 kg (81 lb). The male has puffy cheeks and a hanging throat-pouch. This pocket contains air sacks that help produce a groaning, bubbling call, that echoes through the forest and can be heard at least 1 km (0.6 mi) away.

Orangutans are solitary creatures. Except when mating, males wander the forest alone looking for the fruit that makes up most of their diet. The females are usually accompanied by one or two dependent offspring. When a female is ready to mate, she will seek out an adult male. The pair will stay together for several days until the female is pregnant, then they will resume their solitary ways. Immature orangutans, adolescent females and sub- adult males, are considerably more social than their elders. This can be observed at Tanjung Harapan National Park.

Studies have revealed that some orangutans are avid tool users, for example employing short sticks to shave stinging hairs from the fat-loaded fruit of the neesia tree. This is a skill that seems taught by one generation to the next, not inherited. In other words, the orangutans have culture, previously the single greatest distinguishing mark of humanity. Their lifestyle does, however, make them the easiest apes for humans to identify with. Because of their more solitary nature, orangutans display a more contemplative intelligence than the often frenetic chimpanzee or the gigantic, seemingly dopey gorilla. One look into an orangutan's almost human, emotion-charged eyes, and there's no denying our intimate kinship. As humans, we owe them something.

Orangutans are only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. But because of the chaos the country has fallen into and the brutal economics of development, the orange apes are on the verge of a grisly distinction, in danger of becoming the first ape to disappear from the wild. Perhaps 5,000-6,000 survive on Sumatra, half the number that existed as recently as 1998. There are 10,000-15,000 on Borneo, a decline of one-third in the same period.

According to experts, "Orangutan survival totally depends on the survival of the tropical forest," says Birute Galdikas. "It's as simple as that." Galdikas has been studying orangutans since the late 1960s, when she was dispatched to Indonesia by Louis Leakey, the world-renowned anthropologist who, along with his wife Mary, laid the foundation for modern theories of human origins.

Birute Galdikas has been greatly responsible for the expanding wealth of knowledge that has been collected about orangutans. In 1986 she established the Orangutan Foundation International, a non-profit organization that raises much-needed funds for the orangutans. Presently she works as the director of the Orphaned Orangutan Education and Care center in Borneo. She has been involved in the conservation of Indonesia's natural resources and proved to be instrumental in convincing the Indonesian government to turn the site of her orangutan research at Tanjung Puting Reserve, into a National Park.

The name 'orangutan' means "man of the jungle" in Malay. Orangutans are not only shaped by the forest they live in, they also shape the forest, through the seeds of wild fruits that pass through their digestive tracts and are scattered as they travel their home range.

Unfortunately rainforest logging in this region is still not under any rigid type of regulation resulting in the mass arrival of loggers, exporting products to other parts of the country. Government-backed conversion of forests for commercial logging and plantations caused the devastating fires of 1997 and 1998 that destroyed much orangutan habitat. The growing concern by the locals for regulation has spurred millers and miners alike to accelerate the speed with which they clear sections of forest. Saddening, as the deepest most intriguing parts of Borneo are now becoming even harder to find.

Over 70 percent of Indonesia's frontier forest, which displays original ecological features, has been lost. The EIA estimates that Indonesia is losing about one million hectares (3,860 square miles) of forest each year. Indonesia's 100 million hectares (386,000 square miles) of forests represent 10 percent of the world's remaining tropical forest cover. Orangutans, the great apes of Southeast Asia, have lost over 80 percent of their forests in just 20 years.

According to the International Environmental Investigation Agency, the orangutans are not alone in their plight for existence. In Madagascar, lemurs-the most ancient primate lineage alive today-fight for their habitat, too. Some 80 percent of the island's old-growth forests have been lost since the arrival of humans about 1,000 years ago. That loss has helped with the extinction of over 15 species. In Japan, the macaque monkeys which include the famous "snow monkeys" have steadily lost their living space to urbanization, agricultural expansion, and the spread of timber plantations. Deprived of their natural food, many macaques must now raid orchards and fields to survive, earning the wrath of local farmers. Of the roughly 50,000 macaques remaining in Japan about 5,000 are captured or killed each year in what some researchers call a "civil war" between monkeys and farmers.

According to the EIA, one in three threatened primate species also faces excessive hunting for food, with hunters often working closely with logging companies operating in the region. The ever-expanding network of logging roads gives hunters easy access to new, wildlife-rich territory, while income from bushmeat supplements loggers' incomes. The slightly more than a million people living in Gabon consume some 8 million pounds of bushmeat each year, with primates a large portion of the total. In neighboring Equatorial Guinea, primates are 25 percent of the bushmeat market.

Hunters tend to target the larger primates. In the Amazon, wooly and spider monkeys are the game of choice. The loss of these primates means an even larger loss for the ecosystem. For instance, the moabi tree of central Africa relies upon lowland gorillas to disperse its seeds to good germination sites. Few other animals have insides large enough to accommodate and pass moabi seeds intact. If gorillas disappear from an area, moabi trees are less likely to reproduce future generations successfully.

Primates are also pursued for the pet trade. Although trade in wild primates is illegal in most countries, many have a weak record of enforcing wildlife laws. As recently as 1995, wildlife markets in Indonesia blatantly offered dozens of live primates for sale. Unscrupulous entertainment businesses continue to demand charismatic primates such as orangutans and gibbons. In the early 1990s, according to one recent report, "the capital of Taiwan, Taipei, was reputed to have more orangutans per square kilometer than the species' natural habitat."

There are signs, however, that we are getting better in our relationships with the primates of the world. The international demand for primates as biomedical research subjects swallowed up hundreds of thousands of wild primates during the 1950's and 1960's. Now, however, that trade (40,000 primates per year at present) draws almost entirely from captive-bred animals, a shift accomplished by host-country restrictions on wild-primate exports, and by effective implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, established in 1973.

In many regions, people protect primates from harm by giving them sacred status or making them taboo to hunt or eat. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some villages refuse to hunt pygmy chimpanzees, holding them to be too much like humans. Throughout Asia, sacred forest groves provide sanctuary for resident troops of macaques and langurs. To protect primates over the long haul, far more habitat will have to be conserved or restored. One community in Belize, Bermudian Landing, protects native black howler monkeys in small areas of riverine forest donated by local farmers as a habitat reserve. The howlers feed mostly on tree leaves and do not disturb crops, and the community now gains economic benefits from tourists and schoolchildren who come to see the monkeys.

Community-oriented conservation is also helping to keep our primates safe. In the Virunga Mountains of Uganda, community programs are saving the famed mountain gorillas. An international conservation program started in the 1980s emphasizes public education, gorilla-based ecotourism, and well-equipped park guard patrols, and helped mountain gorilla populations rebound from only 250 individuals to 320. Gorilla conservation was embraced by Rwandans so thoroughly that when civil war engulfed that country in the early 1990s, both sides emphasized they would not target the gorillas. Only two war-related gorilla deaths were recorded in Rwanda during that time period, both of them accidental.

Good examples of how to protect primates exist, but efforts will have to be scaled up drastically to turn the global trends around. Efforts should include expanding public education about primates and carefully designed ecotourism programs. For more information on how you can help save the people of the forest, visit the Petition Site.

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