Scientists Unite to Defend Borneo’s Future

September 23, 2014

Four years after Peni was rescued from attackers in a village in West Kalimantan, Borneo, the eight-year-old orangutan is set to become the fourth resident of International Animal Rescue’s sanctuary to be released into a natural forest habitat.

“Peni was orphaned when she was only about four years old,” says Karmele Llano Sánchez, project director of International Animal Rescue (IAR). “It’s taken another four years to raise and prepare her to survive in the forest. But her survival is still threatened by the dramatic shrinking of orangutans’ forest habitat.”

The loss of more than one-third of Borneo’s forestland between 1973 and 20101 to palm oil and rubber cultivation, has forced orangutans into land densely populated by humans, where they can face violence and have difficulty breeding.

The Bornean orangutan, of which about 50,000 remain, is listed as endangered due to a decline of more than 50 percent over the past 60 years across both Indonesian and Malaysian parts of the Southeast Asian island, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Sumatran orangutan, the only other species of the arboreal ape and a native of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is listed as critically endangered, with approximately 7,000 individuals remaining.

A 2014 edict by Indonesia’s top Islamic authority, the Ulema, against the killing of all endangered animals in the majority Muslim country, was a positive sign for Borneo Futures, a group of 50 scientists whose research has begun to demonstrate that conservation and sustainable use of natural resources can be compatible with economic growth and development.

The aim of Borneo Futures research (see is to move decision makers toward protection or restoration of forest ecosystems through better regulation and law enforcement combined with sustainable development for the people who depend on forest livelihoods.

In 2013, scientists collaborating on the initiative released the results of a 5,000- person survey which found that Borneo and Sumatra orangutan killings—estimated at 44,000 to 66,500 deaths during the respondents’ lifetimes—had resulted from either unanticipated encounters with humans— whether on industrial plantations or village farms—or poaching for food.

Orangutan meat is not a regular part of the local diet but even occasional food-related killings make a large impact on the declining population. If the current estimated rate of one killing every three to four years continued in each of Kalimantan’s more than 6,000 villages, the population would drop five percent annually, according to Erik Meijaard, codirector of Borneo Futures.

In addition, a report by Borneo Futures codirector Marc Ancrenaz and colleagues, “Coming Down from the Trees,” based on 2013 camera-trap data, showed that 70 percent of Kalimantan orangutans now live in fragmented, multiple-use, or human-modified forests.

In 2013, the initiative went beyond research and publishing in academic journals and started to raise awareness about the results of its work in broader Bornean society, through dozens of stories in Indonesian news outlets.

At the same time, IAR has conducted extensive awareness-raising in parts of West Kalimantan to encourage villagers to report sightings of orangutans to a 24-hour rescue service, resulting in the rescue and relocation to safer ground of 23 orangutans by the IAR team in 2013 and of more than 100 orangutans since 2009.

“It’s my hope that our research will yield ways that people can have sustainable livelihoods without degrading the environment,” says Meijaard. I believe we can make a change. There is no choice. Otherwise, the orangutan could slip through our fingers.”

1Ancrenaz, M., et al. (2014.) Coming down from the trees. Scientific Reports, 4:4024.