Fidelis E. Satriastanti
This week’s death of the orangutan that suffered burns in West Kalimantan highlights an age-old problem of deforestation and habitat loss as well as proper handling procedures for animals encroaching on human settlements and plantations.
“When orangutans began to enter farming grounds, it is usually because their habitat is no longer a comfortable place to live, because they are afraid of human encounter,” said Hermayani Putera of WWF-Indonesia’s West Kalimantan program.
The male orangutan, aged about 16, sustained burns after residents tried to drive him out of their plantation area in Pontianak last Saturday. Residents sought help from the local Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) to tranquilize the animal, but it escaped.
The residents tried to fumigate the coconut tree where the ape was hiding, but the tree caught fire.
Hermayani said a veterinarian told her the burns sustained by the orangutan weren’t very serious but dehydration and stress could have been the cause of death.
The orangutan died on Wednesday en route to a treatment facility owned by the International Animal Rescue in Ketapang, West Kalimantan
Adi Irawan, administrative manager of IAR, said that people should be informed about how to evacuate safely orangutans from human settlements and plantations.
“There should be information to the people in case primates, or orangutans entering their plantations,” Adi said. “In Ketapang, the IAR has just disseminated information about evacuating orangutans from their farming areas.
“We haven’t reached Pontianak yet, so assistance from other NGOs are required. This must also be supported by the BKSDA.”
Adi said the residents should not have used fire or firecrackers because of the high risk of starting fire on vegetation.
“We don’t blame the residents who are helping,” he said. “Their intentions were good. But there needs to be a better understanding so that residents don’t panic.
“The way I see it the people and the orangutans are equally as panicked, but more often it is the people who panic. There is also a sense of curiosity among them because they have never seen an orangutan before.”
The high stress level experienced by the orangutans could be the reason why the tranquilizers didn’t work, Adi said, adding that an IAR evacuation process usually involves a small number of people.
WWF’s Hermayani confirmed that this is the first evacuation of any kind for people in Pontianak. “So, we can understand the psychology of the people at the time,” she said.
Adi said residents can scare the orangutans away by using dogs.
“This is to chase away, not to hunt them or chase them down,” he explained. “Just scare it away so it doesn’t travel deeper into the plantation area. Use dogs because their barks are enough to scare them. But don’t unleash the dogs that they’re free to chase after them.”
Adi also highlighted a proper land-management system that creates a buffer zone between orangutan habitats and human settlements and plantations.
“If buffer zones are clear, conflict management between orangutans and humans are established and orangutans can be prevented from entering deeper [into human areas],” Adi explained. “Firecrackers or fire carry too much risk, like what happened in Pontianak. If prevention doesn’t work and [the orangutan] instead goes deeper into plantations or people’s settlement then a translocation is done, usually with tranquilizers.”
Experts say there are 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans remaining in the wild. Eighty percent of them are in Indonesia and the remainder are in Malaysia.
Many conservationists have raised concerns that the country’s orangutans might become extinct.
A joint survey by 19 organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, WWF and the Association of Primate Experts, recently discovered that about 750 orangutans died in 2008 and 2009, mostly because of conflicts with human beings.
In an effort to deter people from keeping orangutans in captivity, animal activists and researchers have demanded tough sanctions for anyone keeping the animals as their pets, even after turning them over to the authorities.
Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, an orangutan researcher at the National University in Jakarta said that people who live in and around plantation and mining areas find orangutans and tend to keep them. The animals most likely wandered out of their habitat because of encroachment due to growing plantation and mining activities.
The researcher added that the process of releasing orangutans back into the wild takes a long time and costs a lot of money. Steps must also be taken to prevent their being recaptured or return to captivity, she said.
Suci added that it costs about $3,500 per year to care for an orangutan that has been in captivity and prepare it for a life in the wild. That does not include health care.
The Orangutan Reintroduction Center of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Nyaru Menteng, Central Kalimantan, has released 23 of the 40 orangutans scheduled to be released this year.
At the Reintroduction Center in Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, only six of the projected 30 primates have been released.