“We Can Save the Orangutan. It’s Not Too Late.”

May 25, 2016|Melvin Gumal
Melvin Gumal, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Malaysia Program, received the 2014 Whitley Award (the international conservation prize) for his decades-long effort to conserve the world’s rarest orangutans in Malaysia’s state of Sarawak, Borneo. He and his team of researchers involve local communities, parks management, and government in enforcement of existing laws and development of livelihood sources that discourage illegal hunting, logging and aim at protection of forestland.

In August 2015, the chief minister of Sarawak issued a historic edict to block the expansion and creation of new oil palm plantations, the issuance of new timber licenses, and the commercial trade in orangutans.

There are two species of orangutans: one in Sumatra and another on the island of Borneo, of which there are three sub-species: the Northwest, Northeast, and Central Bornean orangutan. The number of orangutans in Sumatra is less than 7,000, while the cumulative number of orangutans in Borneo—which includes the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak—could range from 40,000 to 50,000. Although the the orangutans in Sumatra are in trouble, I feel there’s a great chance the ones in Borneo will survive.

In the area that I work in, close to about 2,000 square kilometers, we have a little over 2,000 orangutans [of the most threatened Northwest sub-species]. It is very difficult to ascertain exactly what they are doing in their daily life. We’ve have people follow orangutans over time. For four months, we had one person of our crew going in their habitat where he only saw the orangutans twice. And in the morning, they disappeared.

Quite a while ago, everybody primarily thought that orangutans were arboreal, until our work in 2013 and 2014 showed that these animals actually do come to the ground. Personally, I’ve seen them on the ground: not in captivity, not in rehabilitation centers, but in the fields and in the swamps. I thought it was abnormal, but once the literature and people started piecing together camera trap work, they found that they do come down often. These are some new things we are finding right now.

When I was given the Whitley Award, the effect was that Sarawak had won an award, which is important for orangutans. It gives them huge support and we have a sense that maybe we’re doing the right thing.

The orangutan itself is protected [through endangered species laws], but the land on which they live is not. So if you want orangutans to survive, you have to protect the land as well. People say that they’ll survive in logged forest, but there’s a level of stress associated with that. Much like we go home and live easy, we want orangutans to be able to be free and not be completely stressed out every time they go home. We need to give that to orangutans, too.

One of the major threats for orangutans on Borneo is complete land conversion from forest to oil palm plantations. You have massive land clearance where the forest just disappears. My colleagues working in Kalimantan [Indonesian Borneo] have images of solitary orangutans up in a tree, and the rest of it is cleared forest. Orangutans are also getting killed by the people working in the plantations going after productivity of oil palm crops. You don’t want them coming through and taking your fruit branches for food. So you actually have not just land clearance, but also killing of orangutans.



But, in the forested area where I’m working, instead of shrinking, it has been the reverse: We’ve been able to increase the land area on the island of Borneo under protection for orangutans. Since 1983, there’s been about a 40 percent increase in land area and more than a 40 percent increase in the number of orangutans under protection. Our aspirational goal is close to a 70 or 80 percent increase in land area under protection and up to an 83 percent increase in the number of orangutans under protection.

However, just because we have a ray of sunshine…doesn’t mean that in the future, it’s going to be the same. There is always a constant push to go for development, which means one has to be on their toes the whole time.

Meeting our goals will mean not just land protection but a level of engagement among agencies to secure greater enforcement and greater cooperation on the ground. It will be self-sustaining, rather than just having outsiders push to make protect the land. If we can achieve this in the long run, we’re on a really good path in trying to protect orangutans.

I think that we’ll get through this and that we’ll see orangutan numbers increase. We will be able to hold on to the orangutan. But I would like people to push as much as possible.

If you really want to save orangutans, you will go through all the tools in your toolbox and use the ones that work. If we have that mentality, it can be done. It’s not too late.

For more information regarding the state of orangutans and great apes worldwide, please visit State of the Apes.