The Future of Orangutans Hangs on Multi-Stakeholder Collaborations

When orangutan is mentioned, people tend to relate it to an endangered species that is increasingly threatened with extinction as human activities continue to encroach into forests, their natural habitat.

There is the perception, amplified by the campaigns of some non-governmental organization, that palm oil poses the main threat to the survival of orangutans but an expert who has long been dealing with this great ape says that not one single organization can be held responsible for the conservation of the species. Its conservation of is a matter of collaboration between all concerned stakeholders — companies, communities, governments, and NGOs.

“Based on our experience of more than 13 years, conservation cannot be run by just one organization,” said Jamartin Sihite, CEO of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF.) He said that government alone, would not be able to run conservation efforts on their own.” They have to work together, they have to collaborate, the government has to collaborate with the NGOs, the local people, companies.”

Dr Jamartin Sihite, the CEO of Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation

Orangutans are only found in the Indonesian island of Sumatra and in Borneo which is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam. Jamartin who had begun to deal with the conservation of orangutans in 2007, said that the latest estimates put the number of orangutans at around 13,700 in Sumatra, mostly in the northern half of the island, and some 45,000 in Borneo, most of them in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island.

Sharing his reflection on the commemoration of the World Day of Orangutan today, Jamartin paid attention to their survivals. “The main threat is the conversion of land, the conversion of their forest habitat,” said Jamartin, pointing out that it was not only the palm oil industry that was converting forests but also other agricultural activities, mining, and timber plantations.

A mostly solitary animal, the orangutan roams over a wide area, with Jamartin saying that the range could reach 1,000 hectares for one orangutan. But he said that because of the roaming nature of the male orangutan, scientists measure the land need of these large primates using the female population which tends to stay much longer in one location to raise their brood. Orangutans on average can sire three to four offspring during their lifespan which is at around 40 years in the wilderness or slightly more when in zoos. Maturity comes when they reach seven years.

“The problem is that they are living in the same area that human needs for development,” said Jamartin who added that it fell on humans to make sure that these large primates could stay in forests, their natural habitat.

Talking about what companies could do to help conservation efforts, not only of the orangutans but also other wild species, they could buy forested land and dedicate them for the conservation of the animals.

He said that some palm oil companies were already actively participating in the conservation of the orangutans. He cited the case of a company in Kalimantan that had purchased an island of some 2,000 hectares in the middle of a river and dedicated it to orangutan conservation efforts. Jamartin also said that the company was also actively involved in the day-to-day care and rehabilitation of the orangutan and not just wash their hands once they had made the land ready for conservation efforts.

He said that similar efforts should be encouraged among companies, big and small, and not only in the palm oil sector but also in others such as mining, and timber estates.

“There are big companies in Indonesia, in Malaysia, they can do more and more effectively. We need them to be part of the solution,” he said.

Companies, he said, could also contribute land and manage them, to link the various patches of forests dedicated to the orangutans and other wildlife. Such “corridors” would allow the orangutans to roam around in their search for food and mate.

One of the government’s roles was to come out with policies and regulations that everyone else had to abide to and also try to strengthen,

He said that if NGOs, governments, companies played their respective roles well, “the problem of orangutans and palm oil companies, we can solve.”

He said that another aspect everyone could and should work on is to raise awareness of orangutans and the need for their conservations, including through education at school levels. “That is what we call ‘orangutan goes to school’ not bringing orangutans to schools but we come to the schools to tell the young generations about the orangutans.” As many scientists assumed that the species is the human closest relatives, orangutan’s behavior is often perceived as similar to humans. Commenting on a photo that had become viral, one that depicted an orangutan that extended its hands towards a man who was chest-deep in water, as if offering help, Jamartin smiled and said that the story behind the photo was actually completely different. 

“The story behind the photo was actually completely different,” said Jamartin.

Although he was pleased at the imagined story and the image of a kind orangutan, he believed the truth should be known. He said the photo was taken at an orangutan rehabilitation center in East Kalimantan run by BOSF.

The orangutan, a female named Ani who had come to the rehabilitation center while she was still very young and had since failed two attempts at releasing her in the wild, actually may have believed that the man in the water, Sahrul, who had taken care of her since she was small, had come to bring her food. Sahrul was actually there to clean the canal encircling a man-made island to accommodate Ani and other orangutans that were deemed not releasable yet.

The image of a kind, innocent-looking, and frail orangutan facing extinction because of the conversion of their forest for human activities has extensively been used in campaigns against palm oil by environmental activists, including those calling for a ban on palm oil products.

Jamartin said that such campaigns were mere communication strategies directed against Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s two top palm oil producers and also the only homes to the orangutans.

Tigers and elephants are also endangered species in Indonesia but they can also be found elsewhere in Asia whereas the orangutans are only found in Indonesia and Malaysia.

“When you mention orangutan, you are pointing the finger at Malaysia and Indonesia,’ he said pointing to the effective use of the orangutan to target the two main palm oil producers. “People are using the strategy of using the orangutans to tell you, to tell everybody, that there is an impact of palm oil on animals.”

Rather than merely laying the blame on others, everyone should rather work together to address the issue of orangutan conservation.

“We are working with companies to solve the problem, making more forest ready for the orangutans. Can we save all orangutans in the world? Not at present. But if big companies, small companies, smallholders work together, we can protect more forest, orangutans, and more wildlife,” he said, closing the interview saying that “that the spirit is that we want to be part of the solution.”