Indonesia: A Paradise Lost?

People of the Forest
by Dave Currey

The dark, almost human eyes, gave the orangutan away. First glancing at me and then at the camera and after a few seconds, back at me again. He was waiting for me to feel secure before he reached out to grab at the camera with real determination. Nearby, my travelling companion, a committed vegetarian, was gently being fed an ant by Gistok, a voting mate orangutan who refuses to return to his natural home – the forest canopy. After Gistok had the ant refused, he thought for a while, picked a leaf and pressed it against my companion's mouth.

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 finger nails. It's probably their mischief that confirms how close we are and their soulful expressions that spread guilt all over those of us who are aware of what human beings are doing to destroy these creatures with whom we share 98 percent of the same genes.

Orangutans are only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo,and it was to the Indonesian part of Borneo, known as Kalimantan, that I travelled with EIA to gather evidence of the horrific clearing of the forests, the orangutans' home. The scenes I witnessed were so bleak and without hope, that I forced myself six months later to return to see wild orangutans, to help renew my strength to fight for their future.

In a very personal way, 1998 will be my year of the orangutan. In February, although my colleagues and I spent time in areas inhabited by orangutans, I didn't see one. What I did see and feel will remain with me for the rest of my life. We travelled across hundreds of kilometre, of Central Kalimantan which just three years ago was home to a wide range of tropical forest species. However, for the last thirty years Indonesia has not been an easy place to live for most of its people, and the same is true of its wildlife. Vast tracts of land have been ravaged by companies owned by family and friends of former President Suharto. Indigenous people have been displaced and destroyed as easily as a chainsaw fells a two hundred year old tree.

Just three years ago Suharto announced a crackpot plan to turn an 1.4 million hectare area of forest into a rice growing project. Crackpot because it wasn't possible,but Suharto's cronies backed up the idea seeing lucrative concessions to build canals, dams, and transmigrant housing before moving in to grow palm oil when the scheme inevitably failed. And of course there was a lot of money to be made out of timber. In 1997 the vast forest fires were started to clear land in this area by some of the companies holding concessions.

I was talking to a local Dayak villager in the centre of this "rice" project about the fires and orangutans. "You never see orangutans around here" he explained. "Except when the fires came. Every day you saw orangutans in the trees on the other bank of the river. Every day you would see them trying to escape the fires." Most simply burned with the forest.

Travelling across the region is like entering Dante's Inferno.The closest to hell on earth that can be imagined – a glorious wild gem of a place, defiled by greed, torched, hacked down and left to rot.

Nobody really knows how many orangutans are left. The horrific fires which spread through Borneo and Sumatra in 1997 and 1998 no doubt killed very many of these creatures. Orangutangs are unable to swim and when they reach the river banks they have no escape from the fires. The fires have started again in the last few weeks of 1998.

The latest estimates made before the fires is that only 15,000 to 25,000 remain. This figure is disputed by Birute Galdikas, the renowned primatologist who has worked with orangutans in Kalimantan for the last 25 years. She believes there must be more – not out of blind optimism, but because she sees so many orphaned orangutans still coming in today, that she finds it hard to believe that there could be so few out in the forests. Unless of course, the population is close to a crash.

Over the last 20 years about 80 percent of orangutan habitat has been destroyed. Those of us who watched fascinating television documentaries about the impenetrable forest of Borneo and its incredible head-hunting people and its wildlife have to take stock. It's gone. The indigenous way of life, the orangutans, the extraordinary proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, langurs, leaf monkeys, gibbons, bears and rhinos. Borneo has very few pockets of such habitat left. This island, the fourth largest on the planet, has been raped by massive industrial logging and mining, fuelled by a greedy world and a local political system which ruthlessly profited only the elite.

The sickness of the land pervaded my body and I returned home infected with Dengue fever and a mysterious virus eating away at the nerve in a shoulder muscle. A Dayak "doctor" had understood the sickness and provided temporary relief, but once home none of the medical experts knew how to treat my pain. I believe it went deeper than physical illness, as if I was infected with the experiences of 20 years working as a wildlife campaigner culminating in stepping into a nightmare in Kalimantan.

After six months, still exhausted by the sickness but mainly recovered, I returned to Borneo. The sheer energy of some of the local activists and the optimism of a country emerging from 30 years of oppressive rule was a tonic.

My companion and I were thrilled to be invited to meet Birute Galdikas at her home in a Dayak village near the Park. Her commitment to orangutans over so many years places her in a unique position to understand almost feel – their decline. It is clearly an extraordinarily emotional time for her when so many infant orangutans are brought to her almost daily. Orphaned by poaching, forest habitat and fire, some of these infants have been sold as pets. She seems almost bewildered by what is happening to these creatures, her companions for so many years, but she carries on her fight for their future against increasingly difficult odds.

Deep in the forest where fire ants still tread the paths and painfully sting any unsuspecting strangers, we could smell the rain coming. In front of us a mother was hanging from a tree by her arms and legs as her baby scrambled over her back, clambering to drop over her shoulder and grab her breast to start suckling. It grew darker and darker until the warm rain crashed through the leaves. A massive dominant male orangutan with his huge cheeks and slightly aggressive, but almost knowing expression sat ten meters away in the undergrowth.

I pulled my poncho out of its bag to shield my head and my camera from the downpour, remaining alert because this potentially dangerous male was so close. Once protected from the rain I nervously glanced over where he had been standing. He had pulled some large leaves from the trees and made his own umbrella and sat holding it above his head. As we sheltered we had time to think and watch each other. I won't pretend to know what went through his mind, but his eyes had a disarming depth which seemed to contain all the knowledge of the forest. I was thinking of the log rafts floating down the river and the sound of chainsaws. The thunderous rain disguised my tears.

Author Dave Currey is a director ofthe Environmental Investigation Agency. He took these photographs during his recent visit to the rainforests of Indonesia.


AWI Quarterly Fall/Winter1998/1999; Vol. 47/48, No. 4/1

Last Updated: October 25, 2010

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