Since the video of an orangutan battling a bulldozer to protect its home went viral last summer, more shocking accounts of animal rights abuses in Kalimantan, Indonesia have surfaced. I investigated what’s happening at the frontlines of their receding habitat to analyze how conservation efforts in Indonesia can meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal 15, life on land, as deforestation continues.
Orang-hutan = people of the forest. Why are these majestic primates being hunted and abused? Image: Sander Wehkamp
Earlier this year, abused and mutilated orangutan carcasses were discovered in Kalimantan, Indonesia. One body was found to have 130 bullets shot from close range, and another was found decapitated and containing 17 bullets. In July, another orangutan body bearing signs of torture was found nearby a newly opened palm oil plantation. Despite their critically endangered status, orangutans are considered pests on the palm oil plantations and are often hunted. Only an estimated 104,700 orangutans remain in Borneo, where the majority of these atrocities occur.
Deforestation, habitat loss, and animal rights abuses are nothing new in Indonesia. The country’s economy is growing rapidly at the cost of its natural resources, and even the Minister of National Development and Planning Dr Bambang Brodjonegoro has cautioned to “consider the carrying capacity” of Indonesia’s environment. Suitable orangutan habitat in Borneo has been slashed by more than 80% in the last 20 years due primarily to palm oil expansion. In addition to deforestation, the slash-and-burn practices of clearing plantations has caused crippling, transboundary haze across Southeast Asia. During the burning in 2015, smog levels in villages nearby was reported higher than the maximum level of 1000 on the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) – that’s more than three times the amount considered “hazardous.”
To put the destruction in perspective, the area of Indonesian forest that was burned in 2015 alone is more than 26 times the area of forest that was lost in the combined California fires in November 2018.
During that period of the 2015 debilitating haze, my university in Singapore began distributing protective masks when air pollution reached dangerous levels. Our eyes watered and our throats burned when we went outside. I asked myself: If the haze was this suffocating in Singapore, what was it like across the water where the forests blazed?
I undertook several months of investigative reporting to learn from people on the ground in order to answer the questions: Why are Indonesia’s forests still burning, and why are their endangered orangutans being mutilated?
The main cause of deforestation in Indonesia is the conversion of forests into commercial plantations. Image: Shutterstock
A country being cleared of forests
The Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP) works at the frontlines of the fires, crimes against orangutans, and battles with palm oil companies. As one of Indonesia’s most dogged activist groups, they hijacked the 2013 Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in Medan, Sumatra by barging in on the meeting dressed in orangutan costumes. In the 20 minutes before the police removed them, they displayed a banner urging onlookers to boycott the palm oil companies present there.
Leading COP’s habitat campaign efforts is Paulinus Kristianto from Kalimantan. Deforestation is a deeply personal issue for Kristianto, an indigenous Dayak. Kristianto is a videographer whose call to action is documenting what’s happening in Kalimantan to show to his own people.
Kristianto’s film and photos have propelled COP’s advocacy work to international acclaim. Image: COP
Kristianto in his traditional Dayak garb. The Dayaks of Kalimantan battle mining, logging, hydroelectric, and palm oil companies for the rights to their ancestral lands. Image: Paulinus Kristianto
The Dayaks have always shared the forests with orangutans – their fates are intertwined. “When I see the Dayak tribes, my family, lose the forest, we can’t do anything. We try to fight and the companies send us to jail. So, I must go to fight. It comes from my heart. I must prove to the people what’s happening is bad,” says Kristianto.
Across Borneo, the Dayaks are fighting tooth and nail in a complex battle for their rights to live in their forests. As part of a research policy cluster, I joined EnviroLab Asia in Malaysian Borneo to investigate the impacts of palm oil on Dayak communities. After hours on muddy roads, we came to a barricade and a bamboo shelter – the Baram Dam blockade. While we wanted to talk about palm oil, the activists running the more than two-year old blockade wanted to talk about a more immediate threat; the flooding of their lands. If a new dam (part of a huge hydroelectric project in Sarawak) were to be completed, 20,000 people would be displaced.
After the Dayak’s catastrophic loss from the controversial Bakun Dam, the blockade was erected to avoid such a repeat. One of the elders at the blockade described to our group the singular image which continues to haunt him.
“After it [the lake] was all filled up, we came back to see what it looked like now. What I saw there I will never forget. Because our burial grounds were there too, and the coffins were made of wood. They were there on the surface, floating up.”
The Dayaks are witnessing the end of their way of life, the forceful drowning of an entire cosmology. A tangible Native Apocalypse is in sight. Against this deadly trifecta of palm oil, hydroelectric development, and logging, Kristianto has come to embrace the danger and sacrifice that his storytelling entails. On his journey in conservation and activism, he recounts: “The first year I said these are my adventures; the second year I said this is my work; the third year I said this is my life. When you see the eyes of the orangutan, there’s no escaping.”
Kristianto was dispatched by COP to Indonesian Borneo to fight the forest fires in 2015. The uncontrollable flames quickly spread throughout other regions of the island, including West Kalimantan, where his home was.
“My house was in the peat area. I was in Central Kalimantan trying to stop the fire but I couldn’t get to my home,” Kristianto tells me in an interview. “The same moment I was in the fire there, my grandfather called me to say, ‘Linus your house is burning. But it’s okay, our family is okay. Don’t worry about it, I’ll stop the fire here.’ He told me we will build the house again. My battery died, and at night I finally went back into town and charged my phone – and there was a text from my mother saying that my grandfather died, just 2 hours after calling me.”
When Kristianto finally reached his home days later, there were only ashes where his wooden house once stood. He vowed to quit conservation work to be with his family – but his colleagues urged him not to let his grandfather’s death be in vain.
COP’s work is unrelenting, and Kristianto continues fighting habitat destruction at the frontlines and investigating crimes. “We’re just like firefighters. If there’s a problem, we go there. I don’t know much about the data of how many orangutans are in the forest. But if you ask me how many died there, I can tell you.”
The body of a decaying orangutan. Besides the dangers of the fires, they are considered agricultural pests and become victims of violence perpetrated by companies protecting their crops. Image: COP
Although Kristianto and many others have dedicated their life mission to saving their forest, and by extension themselves, some still claim that one of the top reasons that orangutan populations are decreasing is because they’re being hunted by Dayaks.
“In all my 7 years of conservation work, I’ve never seen an orangutan killed because of hunting by indigenous people,” Kristianto counters. The spike in orangutan mutilations and murders is not caused by villagers; it’s a matter of protecting private, commercial property.
Palm oil literally costs an arm and a leg
Some palm oil companies have placed bounties on orangutans because they are viewed as pests. With plantations encroaching upon their habitat, orangutans become a threat when they eat the palm oil fruit and damage the cash crop. Companies have decided to deal with this is by paying villagers and workers to bring back a severed hand, foot, or even head as evidence of killing.
More than 70% of orangutans live in unprotected areas where there is palm oil, logging and mining, according to Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) director Jamartin Sihite. “The area that we need is mostly similar with the orangutan’s needs. Most of us love to stay in flat areas, close to rivers, 700m above sea levels. That’s the same area where orangutans are living too.” When companies move in, orangutans get pushed out.
With fewer options for food in a shrinking forest, orangutans resort to eating the fruit of palm oil trees. Over the last decade, several palm oil plantations have offered bounties up to $100 for every orangutan killed to protect crops.
Indonesian law states that it is highly illegal to kill an endangered species like an orangutan; doing so could get you up to five years in jail and a fine of US$7,400, but such a sentence has yet to be given to any of the suspects arrested over the years.
COP returned the day after this photo was taken to continue their investigation, but the orangutan body was gone. Image: COP
The most notorious case reported in 2018 was of an orangutan found with 130 bullets lodged its body. Kristianto himself performed the autopsy and determined that it was not only shot at an extremely close range, but it actually survived for 3 days like this. It was found nearby a newly opened plantation of PT Wana Sawit Subur Lestari. The suspect received a mere 7 months in jail in this case.
Despite a moratorium issued on the opening of new palm oil plantations, local governments face no sanctions for non-compliance and can allow old permits to operate new plantations. Abetnego Tarigan, former executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and now senior advisor to the President, has a unique perspective on the government’s stake in palm oil.
“The strategy to maintain the position of Indonesia in the palm oil sector is to improve productivity,” he tells me in an interview. “So the moratorium is actually a way to improve the palm oil sector by increasing productivity.” Tarigan too agreed that the moratorium in itself is not enough – reviewing permits is crucial, and “it’s public knowledge that many permits are released to bribery without the support of an environmental impact assessment or disaster risk,” he adds. Palm oil even surpassed oil and gas as the biggest source of revenue for the government in 2016.
The starkest division of Indonesia’s forests, fast yielding to palm oil. Image: COP
According to the World Bank, about 35 percent of the Indonesian workforce is employed in agriculture, with palm oil and pulp-and-paper industries being key contributors. Even Kristianto, who has seen the devastation of palm oil, declares himself not to be anti-palm oil. “Palm oil is still needed in Kalimantan,” he says. “So many places are isolated, and palm oil companies build infrastructure.”
BOSF director Sihite pulls all threads of human development into the picture: “You cannot talk conservation with hungry people. Give people a way to find an alternative livelihood. It’s so complicated with poverty alleviation, rescue and release, monitoring, and combating fires.” If indigenous people (orang asli) can secure their land rights, the forest will be secure. Land rights for the indigenous tribes should be at the top of agenda in conservation, as Kristianto demonstrates that the Dayak’s future is contingent upon conservation as well.
Jamartin Sihite of BOSF releasing an orangutan. When Sihite got involved in conservation work, he was told: “Don’t look in the eyes of the orangutan – you’ll fall in love.” He has helped to release over 200 orangutans back into the wild since 2012. Image: Jamartin Sihite
BOSF’s strategy for orangutan conservation is collaboration. In 2011, the NGO was unable to release a single orangutan – there was simply not enough suitable, safe habitat available. In an interview, Sihite shared that after unsuccessfully lobbying the federal government to provide more protected forest for release, BOSF then went to local governments and then reached an agreement to actually buy the licenses of logging companies (good for 60 years) and pay tax for land where they can release orangutans. They now have 557 orangutans in centers around Kalimantan.
Rebuilding what’s broken
For the orangutans fortunate enough to be rescued from habitat destruction and hunters, the journey back to the wild is uncertain and harrowing. The Wildlife Rescue Centre (WRC) in Yogyakarta supports the COP’s program to rehabilitate and release orangutans, and is home to 168 animals including orangutans, macaques, sun bears, gibbons, eagles, monkeys, cassowary, and many more animals rescued from illegal trade or poaching.
But suitable habitat for release is scarce. “Right now it’s hard to find a habitat to release the animals. For example, most of the national parks are already full of eagles, and eagles are territorial, so we almost can’t release more,” says Ignatius Prasetyadi of WRC.
Many conservation organizations lack the resources to build adequate enclosures and provide enrichment for their primates. Image: WRC Jogja
“The forests are overfilled and conservation centres are at maximum capacity. The solution isn’t to make more cages, but to build enclosures, sanctuaries, and mini-forests,” Prasetyadi adds.
Sihite is motivated to get orangutans back into the trees, climbing in their natural environment. “You go to rehabilitation centers and see the big orangutans who have already spent 15 years in the cage. You see their eyes. They look empty. No hope, it’s like a loss of soul. I work so hard, not for the baby eyes, but to get these orangutans out of the cage,” says Sihite.
With a shrinking amount of suitable habitat for release, many orangutans must live out their days in captivity. Image: Jamartin Sihite
Conservation director Rosalia Setiawati is frustrated after 8 years of running WRC Jogja. While the public is more aware of deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade, the poachers are also becoming more sophisticated. She recounts to me some of the communications traders use to stay one step ahead of law enforcement, including systems of ringtone codes and burner phones.
It’s important to remember that deforestation affects the animals which don’t get the spotlight as well. “If you lose orangutans, you lose the 40 types of plants that are grown through their digestive systems,” she mentions. Sihite agrees: “Orangutans are the gardeners of the forest.” If we lose orangutans, the entire forest ecosystem will change in ways we can only predict. More rescue and rehabilitation centres are needed to support law enforcement and to house greater numbers of homeless animals.
WRC Jogja is home to 2 sun bears, who are endangered by the triple threat of the illegal wildlife trade, poaching, and habitat loss. Image: Shutterstock
There’s no time to wait for boycotts on palm oil to become effective. Every day spent waiting to shift demand and supply by boycotting is a day where 25 orangutans are lost. Companies and policies must directly eradicate unsustainable sources of palm oil from their supply chains. Iceland Foods in the UK led the way by pledging to remove palm oil from their products, and released an an animated video about palm oil and orangutans narrated by Emma Watson in a children’s rhyme. It was banned on UK broadcasting for being too political, and went viral on social media instead.
More than a decade ago, Friends of the Earth campaigned for a year to pressure Tesco and other retailers (by even protesting outside storefronts) to develop a framework to certify sustainable palm oil and require product labeling for consumers to know the source of their palm oil and its harm to orangutans.
It will require tireless advocacy to not only raise awareness, but to get businesses on board to change their policies, their supply chains, and even their ingredients.
Kristianto would be more than happy to put himself out of a job if this were to be successful. “I believe conservation is not about how much we rescue the orangutans. It’s about how much people care about them. Conservation is successful when you don’t have to rescue them anymore.”
Baby orangutans are frequently brought to COP after their mothers have been killed. The infants are adored for their human-like features while their mothers are killed for bounty. Image: COP
The race to save Indonesia’s orangutans is a challenge for Indonesia to balance its frenetic economic development with a dire need for conservation. Partnerships are essential to save Indonesia’s national gem, as well as the other hundreds of species of animals suffering from habitat loss. Their conservation does not always lead to full rehabilitation and release. Many of WRC’s orangutans and other animals are too old to be released back into the wild and must remain in captivity as permanent residents.
The pressures on Indonesia’s forests are complex. Habitat loss is driven by a combination of oil palm, hydroelectric projects, development, and the resulting deforestation from all of these activities. To combat deforestation and biodiversity loss like this, the United Nations dedicated Goal 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals to life on land. These targets focus on conservation efforts and halting illegal wildlife trafficking by 2020. Between now and then, there remains considerable work to be done to reach these targets.
Indonesia’s unprecedented economic growth is stirring up questions about the environment’s carrying capacity in the Ministry of National Development and Planning. Image: Lucija Ros
An analogy from Sihite stuck with me as I considered the urgency for cross-sectoral cooperation: “Everybody has their own part to play. Nobody is bigger than the other,” he begins. “But sometimes it’s not about resources, it’s about the willingness. We work together like an orchestra. How can you say the violin is better than the piano? The piano is more expensive than the violin, but in the orchestra all have the same role to play in order make a symphony nice to hear.”
I pondered what he said, and then I asked: “But what if the piano isn’t playing its part?”