On Brink Of Extinction
by Hillary Mayell, October 24, 2000
Smits is a man on a mission. He has just completed a cross-country
speaking tour in the United States, and he has one message:
Its now or never when it comes to orangutan conservation.
A forestry scientist from the Netherlands, Smits emigrated
to Indonesia 20 years ago to help the country grow trees.
Today he runs the worlds largest orangutan rehabilitation
center and is in the forefront of a campaign to save the
species in the wild.
He faces great odds.
Orangutans once ranged throughout Southeast Asia. Today
they can be found only on the Indonesian islands of Borneo
and Sumatra. Scientists estimate that in the last 10 years
their numbers have been reduced by up to 50 percent, to
perhaps as few as 13,000 living in the wild.
We need to take action now; in 20 years it will
be too late, says Smits. We still have a chance
to set aside some very large areas of undisturbed lowland
rainforest, but I dont think well have the
chance in another five years. It is now or never.
In 1989 Smits stumbled upon a dying baby orangutan being
sold in the street markets of Balikpapan, a town in East
Kalimantan, Indonesia. The sight so haunted him that he
returned later that evening and found the baby in its
crate tossed on the garbage dump.
She was so sickly, just gasping for breath; they
thought she was going to die so they just threw her away.
Of course when they saw me take her, they chased me, yelling,
wanting to be paid.
Smits nursed the baby, whom he named Uce, and searched
for a way to return her to the wild. Orangutan babies
are like human babies; helpless. Just releasing her into
the wild would have been a death sentence.
The search for an alternative led him slowly but surely
down a path that resulted in a profound career change
from forestry management to orangutan conservation.
Humans and human activity present the biggest threat to
orangutans, which are listed as critically endangered
by the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Loss of habitat
resulting from increased population pressure in particular
poses a huge problem 100 years ago, 10 million
people lived in Indonesia; today that number is 200 million.
Subsistence farmers burn the forests to clear land to
grow rice; wealthy landowners use the same slash-and-burn
technique to clear forest land for palm oil and rubber
tree plantations that can cover hundreds of acres.
The loss of habitat means that orangutans are pushed deeper
into the forests, where illegal logging has reduced much
of the original rainforest into a patchwork of forest
islands. The fragmented pieces of forest are too small
to support a population large enough to survive in the
The cycle of extreme drought, followed by the devastating
fires of 1997-98 struck a devastating blow to orangutan
populations. Those that werent killed in the fires
faced starvation. Forced closer to human settlements in
search of food and water, thousands fell prey to poachers.
Orangutans already had been pushed into less quality
forest, where it was more difficult for them to survive,
says Smits. Then when the fires came, they had no
water, no food left; it was completely dark for months
in a row. The orangutans came out of the forests toward
the rivers and became victims of the people there who
didnt like to see their very few last crops being
raided by those wild animals.
Thousands of orangutans got killed during that disaster
period. And thousands of baby orangutans started showing
up in trade.
The economic and social crisis raging in Indonesia further
exacerbates the problem. Forty million people became
jobless and many of them go hunt for orangutans for the
meat, pet trade, and the skulls that foreign tourists
buy as souvenirs. As the provinces of Indonesia struggle
for autonomy, nobodys clear whats going to
happen, but everybody is grabbing their chance to take
whatever they can from the forest.
We are losing the forest habitat at unprecedented
Centers: A Stop Gap Measure
The Wanariset Center, located in the jungle 24 miles (38
kilometers) from Balikpapan, has been accepting confiscated
and rescued orangutans since 1991. Today it is home to
more than 200 orangutans.
The orangutan rehabilitation center, which operates on
a shoestring budget, reintroduces rescued and confiscated
orangutans back into the wild in groups of 30 to 35. The
rehab process takes years and is extremely labor intensive.
Animals coming into the program are quarantined, screened,
vaccinated and raised in social groups. An orangutan must
be taught a whole slew of skills and essentially pass
a test before being released back into the wild.
Orangutans from Wanariset are released into protected
areas where there are no wild populations for fear of
spreading human diseases. More than 300 have been released
Many of the people seem to think this is a success
and look at all these orangutans who are now truly living
as wild orangutans; you have succeeded in getting
them healthy, teaching them all these hundreds of different
food items, the climbing skills, get them into groups
with friends it looks like a wonderful thing,
But I must stress, basically the very fact that
we do have orangutan rehabilitation means that we have
failed to do what is really important, and that is rescue
the wild orangutan in its habitat.
One of the catalysts for Smits visit to the U.S.
was to provide support for the Great Ape Conservation
Act of 2000, which Congress passed this session. The legislation
provides $5 million a year for five years for great ape
(gorillas, bonobo, chimpanzee and orangutan) protection.
Smits is hopeful that some of this money will be devoted
to preserving the rainforests that are home to orangutans.
The situation is extremely critical, says
Smits. Its now or never if we want to do something
to try to rescue them.
Uce, the baby orangutan first rescued by Smits, was the
first orangutan to graduate from the reintroduction program
and give birth in the wild.