Following “The Red Ape”
Juanita Kempe and Dillu Ashby
The Los Angeles Zoo
Los Angeles, California
The Los Angeles Zoo’s orangutans recently moved into their new Red Ape Rain Forest home. Until the move, they had lived their entire lives on concrete with a few logs, wooden platforms and plastic toys for enrichment. Now they enjoy over 6,000 square feet of trees, bamboo, climbing poles, grass and hiding places. With this new exhibit they have an opportunity to enjoy our version of their arboreal heritage. Their new home is well deserved, and after they have settled in we hope to see future breeding.
A few primatologists argue that orangutans are perhaps as closely related to humans as are chimpanzees–argued for reasons such as they show the closest and longest lasting mother/child bonds of all primates, even closer than ours. The gestation period is similar to ours, they have long hair, and they share with us a certain vein in the wrist that is absent in gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees.
The name orangutan means “man or person of the forest.” It is an insult in Indonesia and Malaysia to call an orangutan “orang”–that word by itself refers to a human, so please don’t do it. And, the name is pronounced orangutan with no “G” on the end, a mispronunciation we often hear.
We share 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans, making them a little more distant cousins than chimpanzees, our closest relatives, whose DNA is 98.6% identical to ours.
One of the greatest hoaxes in paleoanthropology involved the orangutan. In the early 1900s fragments of a human skull were found at the Piltdown pit in Essex, England. Further pieces found at the site were cranium bits, parts of an apelike lower jaw, teeth and crude stone tools. These pieces were put together and declared a new species with a relatively large brain case, an apelike lower jaw and a human chin.
This Piltdown Man was determined to be the ancestor of modern humans, or “THE MISSING LINK.” It is a long story, but in 1953 it was proven that the fossils were a hoax, with some planted, including the lower jaw and the stone tools. The jaw was that of an orangutan, dyed to match the color of aged bone and filed down to fit the 500-year-old human skull. To this day no one knows “who done it.”
Orangutans diverged from the other apes 10 to 15 million years ago. One of the orangutans’ most recent ancestors was the largest known primate weighing in at 660 pounds. It lived in Asia up to 2 million years ago and its teeth were discovered not long ago in a Chinese drugstore, ground up for folk medicine.
Have you ever wondered why you don’t see kangaroos hopping around on Borneo or proboscis and other monkeys hanging around in Australia’s rain forests? The reason is the “Wallace Line”–a rift in the ocean floor that is not visible on the surface. The “line” separates the Asian and Australian regions that are sometimes called Sundaland and Wallacea.
The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, traveled 14,000 miles through the Malaysian archipelago for eight years, after which he explained the principle of natural selection and independently (from Darwin) developed the concept of evolution. He and Darwin presented a joint paper on their ideas to the Linnean Society in London in 1858.
Over 100 years before plate tectonics and continental drift were theorized, Wallace realized that there was a distinct separation of Asian-Australianlike flora and fauna on the islands of this area. This phenomenon was a result of the colliding of the continental plates 10 to 15 million years ago. The animals of Sumatra, Borneo, and Java were allied with those of the Asian mainland: monkeys, apes, cats, deer, otters and civets–those of the eastern archipelago were allied with Australia’s marsupials and unique non-marsupials.
At one time, orangutans lived in Southern China, North Vietnam, Laos and Java, an area of shallow seas. There were great land bridges on this Sunda Shelf until 12,000 years ago. At that time, orangutans, elephants, rhinos, tapirs, wild pigs, leopards, sunbears and pangolins roamed all over eastern S.E. Asia. When the sea levels rose, islands became isolated leading to the evolution of many endemic species.
Today, orangutans are restricted to a small area in northern Sumatra with a different population scattered in several areas on the island of Borneo. This diverse region has 33% of the world’s insects, 24% of the amphibians, 32% of the reptiles, 17% of the birds and 12% of the mammals, all in 1.3% of the earth’s land surface. Almost all of the animals of this geographic area are severely threatened or endangered.
Borneo, the larger of the two islands where our red ape cousins live, is divided among Indonesia, Malaysia and the independent state of Brunei. The southern and largest part belongs to Indonesia and is called Kalimantan. The northern section of the island has two of the 13 states of the Federation of Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah. Brunei is wedged between these two states and is the only section of Borneo that has no orangutans.
Borneo is the home to the largest known cave system in the world, the biggest flower, the largest undivided leaf, some of the world’s rarest wildlife, and the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Regarded as relatively young geologically, the island of Borneo is thought to have emerged above sea level only about 15 million years ago.
Sumatra is the fifth largest island in the world and the other modern-day home to orangutans. It is part of the Ring of Fire (Borneo is not). It is bisected by a great volcanic chain of mountains and is the home of the first great Indonesian Empire, Sriwijaya, which had its capital in the southern part of the island.
Cannibalism was practiced on the island until well into the 19th century when western missionaries persuaded the people to alter their diets.
From as long ago as 700 A.D., trade existed with the mainland of Southern Asia. The rain forests provided most of the export commodities including camphor, rhino horn, hornbill casques, turtle eggs, bird’s feather, bee’s wax, rattan, nuts, wood and bananas. Later, gold and diamonds were also exported.
By the 18th century one of the most famous commodities, edible swiftlets’ nests, were added to the list. Spices first brought the Portuguese into the area in the 1500s. The Dutch wrested control of most of what is now Indonesia from the Portuguese and formed the Dutch East India Company. The British influenced much of the area now called Malaysia. Sarawak and Sabah were under the control of the Sultanate of Brunei during the height of its power as a trading port from the 1300s to 1700s. From the mid-19th century, these two states became British protectorates and then later colonies.
This area by the turn of the 20th century experienced nationalist stirrings, brought about by several centuries of oppressive rule and domination. Independence from the Dutch was not gained for Indonesia until after World War II. Sukarno became the first president after a four-year guerrilla war. Suharto wrested power from him in 1967 and ruled as a dictator until the spring of 1998, when a revolution started by students caused him to resign. The country has made progress since its independence. It has also suffered from corruption and recent economic upheaval. Malaysia has progressed more tranquilly since its independence from the British, forming the Federation of Malaysian States in 1963.
Both the islands of Sumatra and Borneo contain some of the most ancient rain forests in the world. The most well known are the dipterocarp forests, which occur from just above sea level to a little over 3000 feet. They represent one of the most complex and diverse ecosystems in the natural world and are the home to orangutans, who prefer the forests at lower altitudes in swampy areas. A quarter of a square mile may contain over 800 tree species, while a comparable area of forest in Europe or North American may contain at most 100 species. These forests are being logged legally and more often illegally in greater and greater amounts and at an unsustainable rate.
By the time we have finished this presentation, 3000 acres of rain forest will have disappeared from around this earth. Indonesia alone loses almost 10,000 acres a day. Of the ten million or more plant and animal species on earth, about 85% live on land with two-thirds of them in the tropics, mostly the rain forests. Is it any wonder that the orangutan and thousands of other species of plants and animals have or will have been lost in our lifetime?
Around the globe the exploitation of tropical rain forests for timber has increased at alarming rates. The orangutan is cursed by living in forests with wood ideal for mass marketing to the industrialized world. Wood from tropical rain forests in other parts of the world cannot compete in the international timber market with the woods of Southeast Asia, whose qualities make them commercially ideal. The vast forests of the Amazon Basin and Africa include many species with dark, heavy wood that cannot be used for the plywood, peeled veneers, and light particleboard demanded by the world markets.
Logging is not the only threat to the tropical rain forest. Agriculture is the main reason that these forests are cleared in Southeast Asia. Today’s deforestation is the result of growing populations of local farmers cutting deeper and deeper into the forest to clear fields and grow crops to feed their families. In Borneo, the introduction of commercial agriculture is relatively recent. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest have been cleared for palm oil plantations in the last few years alone. The oil palm is a native of Africa and does not grow wild in Southeast Asia, but once planted it does well in the generally infertile sandy soils. Large areas of the orangutans’ forest home are rapidly being cleared and burned to plant oil palm.
Oil palm plantations produce greater annual income than selectively logging a tropical rain forest or even cutting it all down for timber.
Today our orangutan relatives are struggling for survival and are losing. Poachers kill the mothers and take the babies for the black market. For every baby arriving at market, three, four, or five other orangutans may have died along the way. Orangutan heads are taken for surrogate tribal rituals of manhood that once involved human headhunting. Carved orangutan skulls are another black-market commodity, and local people still dine on the flesh of orangutans as well as other endangered species.
Once the forest is cleared, the highly endangered orangutans have no place to go and no place to hide. They cannot simply vanish into thin air or disappear. Rather, attracted by the inner shoots of the growing oil palms, and later by the fruit itself, they may become crop raiders. The result is predictable. When caught in a field, orangutans may be clubbed or stoned to death, for they are now regarded as a pest species. Plantation managers offer a bounty on orangutans. The going price for an orangutan head, fifty thousand rupiahs, is equal to a week or more of wages. If the victim is a mother, the orangutan bounty hunter can more than double his reward by capturing the infant or juvenile and selling the young orangutan. Most do not survive in captivity, some become bush meat.
Another threat to the stability of the forest is the lure of gold, one of Indonesia’s leading export commodities. The bulk of the gold derives from wildcat, independent miners who collect only a few grams of gold on a lucky day. For the most part, these operations are small in scale, and the damage they do to the forest is somewhat limited. One exception is in an area called Gedung Sintuk on the northwest border of Tanjung Putting National Park in Southern Borneo. There, gold fever has transformed the once pristine forest into a moonscape of deep gray pits. In addition to clearing trees for gold mining, further terrible damage is done by the use of heavy metals, especially mercury, to separate bits of gold from the sandy soil. These metals then run off in the wash water and contaminate the tons of silt that pour into the
Sekonyer River, poisoning the wildlife along its way to the Java Sea.
Since 1997 a terrible natural disaster has further diminished the forests of Sumatra and Borneo. Sparked by the numerous small fires traditionally lit to clear rice fields, the worst fires in recorded history occurred, made possible by El Nino, a climatic oscillation that warms the normally cool surface of the eastern Pacific Ocean. The rains that normally fall on Indonesia during the wet season instead fell into the waters of the equatorial Pacific, causing a prolonged drought. Those fires and the legal and illegal logging and clear-cutting to make way for plantations produced a disaster of epic proportion. The smoke was so dense and widespread that people hundreds of miles away in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok felt its effects. More than seven million acres were burned. Apart from the blackened-smoldering landscapes and dense haze, one of the most visible consequences of the fire was the flood of orangutans coming into
Rehabilitation, that is, the planned return of captive orangutans to the wild, has been a controversial idea. The preoccupation with rehabilitation is a symptom of the failure to get to the underlying causes of the orangutan crisis. Rather than endlessly debating the detailed aspects of rehabilitation programs, we should be talking about how to stop the flow of captive orangutans and the destruction of orangutan habitat.
Throughout Borneo and Sumatra over the last thirty years, rehabilitation programs have released at least 900 wild-born captive orangutans; about 200 each at Bohorok in Northern Sumatra, at Sepilok in Sabah, and Tanjung Putting in Central Kalimantan. More than 300 have been released in two forests of East Kalimantan through the station called Wanariset. Not surprisingly, a few of these released individuals have caused problems for humans, such as raiding buildings for food or biting people. It is remarkable, however, that so many released orangutans have adapted to life in the wild. An orangutan stays as long as eight years with its mother in the forest learning survival skills. When they are separated from their mothers at a young age and have never lived in the forest again until release, orphans are unable to learn the skills necessary to survive away from their mother and have to be made ready by dedicated
veterinarians, technicians and volunteers. There is a lot of preparation needed to get one ready for reintroduction. Climbing; eating fruits, termites, and bark instead of candy, crackers and people food; socializing with each other; and realizing that they are orangutans, not people–are all necessary skills an orangutan needs to survive in the forest. They are also tested for diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis– human diseases that they have been exposed to as pets and captives. The process of reintroduction can take as long as four years, and some orangutans are never ready to return to the forest. The cost for this process can be as much as US$1500 or more per orangutan.
Critics of rehabilitation programs ignore the fact that in many ways orangutans are ideal rehabilitants. Because they are semi-solitary in the wild, orangutans do not have to be accepted into a family, troop, or community as gorillas, monkeys or chimpanzees would have to be. As a result, the introduction of orangutans to the forest is more successful. The rehabilitants with the proper training manage well on their own in the wild.
Even though the idea of rehabilitating orangutans started in the 1960s with Barbara Harrison in Sarawak, Malaysia, the government of Indonesian did not see that it needed an official policy until 1991 when large numbers of illegally kept orangutans were being confiscated. By 1992 Indonesia had set up a quarantine station at the Wanariset Station in East Kalimantan headed by Dr. Willie Smits. The first official license for keeping and rehabilitating orangutans was issued in 1994. Just this year a second station has been set up in Central Kalimantan called Nyaru Menteng. All stations before this date were run by well- intentioned people but were flawed by the fact that confiscated apes were set out into areas that were already inhabited by wild orangutans, and they were not adequately prepared to cope with the wild. The
rehabilitants and the wild orangutans had to compete for the same limited food. The original release stations set out orangutans that were not adequately quarantined for diseases; also, tourism had been introduced with its host of problems. Due to their visitor-oriented function these stations became largely dependent upon exploiting the display of rehabilitant orangutans. Hence, one can imagine that there was hardly an incentive to force the apes to leave the feeding sites and return to the wild. Now there are no visitors allowed at the official Indonesian release stations.
We have to also place some blame for the decline of orangutans on western scientists, hunters, collectors, and zoos. The renowned self-proclaimed conservationist and founding Bronx Zoo Director, William T. Hornaday, shot 41 orangutans in 1885. Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of the principle of natural selection, was also a professional specimen collector. He killed 17 orangutans, not for his research, but to sell to the highest bidder among European museums and private collections. E. Selenka in 1896 must have the world record, with 217 orangutans shot and collected in an amazingly small area in West Kalimantan. It should not go unmentioned that all the collectors killed an even greater number of apes than they took home and recorded; many of the prospective specimens were simply left to die among the canopy branches if they could not be readily collected. After 1924 the hunting of orangutans became
illegal, yet the persecution did not cease. A Dutch professional animal collector by the name of van Goens collected over 100 orangutans for private zoos and circuses before the Second World War. In 1946 he was the first to export adult apes again.
In the 1980s movies and TV soap operas created a new demand for pet orangutans, especially in the Far East. While it may have been difficult to obtain such a pet in the United States, in Taiwan it was very easy because until 1990 this country was not a signatory of CITES. In the period 1987 to 1990 the demand was so great that more than a thousand orangutan youngsters were smuggled out of Indonesia to supply a private market that was reportedly prepared to pay anything between US$11,000 and $20,000 for an individual ape.
The zoo records of the western world reveal that between 1946 and 1978, when the international ban on the ape trade took effect, a total of at least 809 individuals were taken from the wild to be traded and exhibited in zoos. At the present time the International Studbook has registered 913 living captive orangutans in 216 different collections: 377 Bornean, 319 Sumatran and 217 of either hybrid or unknown origin. The largest numbers are to be found in western Europe, where 303 orangutans are kept in 68 zoos; the second-largest number are in the USA, where 268 individuals are held captive in 64 different locations. Lori Perkins of the Atlanta/Fulton County Zoo is the current keeper of the international captive orangutan database.
The world’s population of orangutans has declined by 50% in the last 20 years, its habitat reduced by 80%. Somewhere between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand animals are believed to survive in the wild. As long as orangutan habitat is being demolished, orangutans will either be killed or will enter captivity, where they do not fare well. Putting them back into the forest through rehabilitation programs saves lives. If some tropical rain forests are not set aside from development, and if orangutans are not protected from exploitation, they will become extinct in the wild.
There is no doubt that the orangutan stands at the edge of extinction. Saving our red ape cousins lies in all of our hands. Let’s all do what we can to save what is remaining of their island paradise. As animal lovers and docents we have an opportunity to tell the public about what is happening to our red ape cousins and the other wonderful animal and plant life of Indonesia and Malaysia. Because we don’t know if orangutans will survive in the wild into the next generation, we each have a golden opportunity to help and to inspire kids to become protectors and conservators of their heritage.