Borneo Indigenous Leader Boosts Security for Orangutans and Neighbors

August 29, 2019

As a child, Wendi Tamariska saw orangutans roaming the tropical rainforest trees that surrounded his village in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. But when he returned after training to be a teacher, both the trees and orangutans were gone.

This devastated Tamariska, a 2019 winner of a prestigious Whitley Award celebrating grassroots conservation efforts. He belongs to the native Dayak community, who have lived in the forests of western Borneo for centuries.

“Orangutans are part of our identity,” he says, explaining that the ape’s name literally translates to ‘person of the forest.’ “Some of my family members still live a very traditional life, dependent on the forests and nature products. So when the forest is gone, I feel what the orangutans feel. That is what moved my heart to dedicate myself to orangutan conservation.”

Over the past 20 years, 55 percent of Borneo’s forest habitat has been wiped out due to the rampant spread of palm oil and pulp plantations, mining, and illegal logging, along with the devastating fires such encroachment can cause. Tamariska has observed steady destruction of the forests with dismay, knowing how critical they are for the survival of both his community and orangutans.

The orangutans, whose numbers have been further depleted by poaching and wildlife trade, are now threatened with extinction. In just 17 years, half the Bornean subspecies has been lost, and the estimated 41,000 that remain are endangered. If this trend persists, the population will be further halved in the next 20 to 25 years.

The turning point for Tamariska came in 2007, when he saw employees of a palm oil company beating an orangutan to death and taking her baby to sell.

“I felt a calling to do something to help them,” he says. “[The workers] said the orangutans were pests in their plantations, but I knew they weren’t doing anything wrong. They just don’t know where to go when their habitat has gone.”

In 2010, Tamariska joined Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program (GPOCP) and quickly became its Sustainable Livelihoods manager. Established by Dr. Cheryl Knott in 1999 as an offshoot of her then seven-year research project on orangutans in West Kalimantan’s Gunung Palung National Park, GPOCP works to preserve the animals and their fragile ecosystem in and around the park. Scientists and students flock to the mountainous 108,000-hectare protected area to learn about the habits of these solitary, auburn-haired primates, who share 97 percent of their DNA with humans.

The park hosts a rich array of plant and animal species in its eight distinct ecosystems, including one of three Bornean orangutan subspecies, the Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii. The estimated 5,000 orangutans that live in and around the park represent nearly 10 percent of the world’s remaining population.

The conservation program spreads awareness among local communities about the need to protect orangutans and their habitats in order to kindle a sense of stewardship. It also works to develop livelihoods that provide an alternative to logging, mining, poaching, and destructive agricultural practices.

“People came to survive on illegal logging, so when they were confronted by an orangutan in a tree that they wanted to cut down, they would trap and kill it,” Tamariska says. “I realized that if I could not solve the economic problems of the local people first, they would continue to fight with the orangutans for scarce natural resources.”

Tamariska’s first initiative was to revive the traditional skills of the local people, who weave beautiful crafts and household items from the pandanus leaf. With support from local government and outside funding, these artisans are weaning themselves off illegal logging, and making and selling non-timber products at local and national markets instead.

“They’re already feeling the benefits,” Tamariska says. Some can send a child to university for the first time. Instead of chopping down trees, the artisans are planting more trees as shade canopies for their pandanus plants. And, in areas bordering the forest, the fruit trees they’ve planted for the orangutans create a natural barrier to keep the orangutans off their farms—defusing further human-wildlife conflict.

“It’s very simple,” he says. “The people just wanted an alternative livelihood so they did not have to cut down trees and harm the orangutans.” Other projects include supporting local farmers to use organic, non-harmful methods for their crops, as well as fish farms and encouraging local restaurants to buy their organic produce. “I’m so grateful that my community has become an example to others. We started with small numbers, but now we are expanding.”

The program investigates wildlife crime and teams up with International Animal Rescue to save orangutans, spread awareness about the need to protect them, and run joint campaigns such as tree planting for land rehabilitation.

To further protect the orangutan’s shrinking habitat, GPOCP helps establish customary forests, areas of land legally protected from development, thanks to a new law introduced by the Indonesian government two years ago. The program has transformed a 7,500-hectare zone in the Paduan River and Penjalaan area into a customary forest, and the people living there are also learning alternative livelihoods like non-timber craft making, organic farming, agroforestry, and novel enterprises like beekeeping.

These customary forests also provide more habitat for researchers to pioneer non-invasive methods of collecting research data on orangutans, all with the aim of securing their long-term survival. As Tamariska says, this precious primate is the icon of Borneo.

“If there are no orangutans, the identity of the native people who live here will be gone, too.”

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