If Indonesia Can’t Protect Its Orangutans, Why Doesn’t It Just ‘Sell’ Them?

Erik Meijaard of the Jakarta Globe argues that if Indonesia does not have the will or equipment to take care of its orangutans then they should be passed to nations who can value them properly. Read more below to find out how this would happen and how this would benefit orangutans.

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Sumatran orangutan.

Photos by Rhett A. Butler. 

It is obvious that at the moment Indonesia neither has the political commitment nor ability to safeguard its dwindling populations of orangutans. 

Despite its Presidentially supported Action Plan to stabilize all remaining wild populations by 2017, orangutan habitats in Sumatra and Borneo are disappearing as rapidly as ever. A recent study published in the international journal PLOS ONE estimated that between 44,170 and 66,570 orangutans were killed in Kalimantan in the past 20-odd years, mostly for food or because of crop conflicts. 

Recent newspaper articles in West Kalimantan showed pictures of a local man proudly in front of a big pot of orangutan stew. 

The other day, I was looking at some satellite imagery of a national park in Kalimantan. The peat swamp forests around this park are vital for maintaining fisheries and hydrological processes in this wetland of global importance. They are also among the last local refuges for orangutans. 

Bornean orangutan in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan
Bornean orangutan in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan

After a 25-year fight by many local and international conservation organizations, these forests were simply cut down in 2013 and replaced by oil palm. These developments will unquestionably result in the extinction of this orangutan population. 

Such processes happen throughout Sumatra and Borneo, often irrespective of whether the areas are legally protected for conservation or not. In fact, another study in PLOS ONE showed that between 2000 and 2010, Kalimantan’s protected areas lost their forest at the same rate as timber concessions

Under such management, the future of orangutans and most other species of Indonesia’s incredible biodiversity looks very bleak. 

It is not my job to determine policy in Indonesia. That responsibility lies with local and national governments and the Indonesian people who elect these. It is obvious though that Indonesia does far too little to ensure the survival of legally protected species such as orangutans. 

Bornean orangutan in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan
An orphaned baby orangutan outside Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan

There is absolutely no way to match the government’s goal to stabilize all wild orangutan populations by 2017, with the ongoing and legally sanctioned destruction of habitat and the illegal killing of these great apes. 

Why then not be practical about it and publicly admit that Indonesia is not equipped at this point in time to save its wild orangutan populations, and that the country has more important priorities such as national development? Then at least the government viewpoint would be clear. 

It would open up new opportunities, for example, of giving Indonesian orangutans to countries that would like and are able to safeguard them, either for free or for a fee. 

China’s pandas are leased to overseas zoos for US$ 550,000 per year, so why should Indonesia not charge other countries for taking over orangutans that Indonesia no longer wants? 

Maybe Brunei, which has no wild orangutans itself, would like to take a few thousand off Indonesia’s hands. At least that country has very little forest loss and not much of a hunting problem. And then there is the Malay Peninsula, which some 12,000 years ago still contained orangutans, and maybe their government would like some too. 

Deforestation for palm oil production in Sumatra 

The Malaysian State of Sabah generates some US$ 1.5 billion through ecotourism in which orangutan viewing plays an important role. They are a bit short of orangutans in their western forests and might want to add a few from Kalimantan. 

My proposal is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because I doubt that Indonesia will ever give away or sell its orangutans to Malaysia. But my point is valid. If you are not interested in keeping something because you don’t think it has enough value, why then not pass it on to someone else who does value it? 

The much better solution of course is that Indonesia would take its national and international conservation commitments seriously. That would mean designating additional key forest areas for protection and allocating enough funding for management of these areas. It would also mean that its conservation department should be capable of implementing conservation management. And if not capable, then some other organization should be assigned the management authority. 

Most importantly though, this is not just about orangutans. Orangutans stand for forest and forests stand for a wide range of economically, socially, and culturally important services. 

At the moment Indonesia is rapidly converting forest into non-forest lands, and thereby losing ecological services crucial to human survival. The short-term economic gains from this are obvious, but the long-term losses less so. 

Good government planning depends on understanding both short-and long-term benefits of particular decisions. Sacrificing orangutans, forests, and forest services for oil-producing palms might turn out to be less smart than it looks. 

Sumatran orangutans 

This op-ed originally appeared in the Jakarta Globe