Orangutan research yields conservation dividends

6 min read

Awareness, government action cut illegal logging in forest home

Cheryl Knott remembers the first time she heard the sound of chainsaws shattering the quiet in Indonesia’s Gunung Palung National Park.

It was the late 1990s and Knott, an associate professor of anthropology who studies orangutan biology in the park’s rain forest, said researchers at the Cabang Panti Research Station listened as the ominous sound grew ever nearer.

“There were illegal loggers in the National Park, thousands of loggers,” Knott said. “Every morning, you could hear the sound of chainsaws, and knew they were getting closer.”

By 1999, Knott and her team had had enough. Illegal loggers had come so close to the station that areas where their study animals had once traveled were now logged. Realizing that if they did nothing, there might be nothing left to study, the researchers decided to augment their scientific work with a new conservation initiative aimed at educating people in the surrounding area about the value of the rain forest and the creatures that live there.

The result has been a multipronged education and outreach effort formalized in 2002 that Knott said has contributed to the cessation of illegal logging in Gunung Palung and brightened prospects for the great ape’s future.

The Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program seeks to combat both the lack of knowledge about conservation’s importance and the hard economic realities that lead to illegal logging and other environmentally destructive practices.

The population of the orangutan, one of humankind’s closest animal relatives, has declined with human expansion. The orangutan population declined by 97 percent in the 20th century and over 90 percent of their rainforest habitat has been destroyed.

The factors contributing to that decline – illegal logging, conversion of forestland to agriculture, and hunting to supply the pet trade – have long been known.

Once opened by the loggers’ trails, a rain forest’s character changes. In addition to the loss of the trees itself, holes in the canopy let moisture escape, causing the forest to dry out. Brush and debris left behind become like tinder, and fire becomes a concern.

Conservation has become a necessary partner to scientific work, Knott said. Not only is it important to ensure that wild places survive, but also local governments are asking foreign scientists to give something back to their communities.

“If I hadn’t done this, it’s possible there wouldn’t even be a study site there now,” Knott said. “There’s been a real big change from 20 years ago when people [focused on scientific research] weren’t doing a lot of conservation work; now it is a necessity for field-based research.”

Knott’s scientific research has been focused on orangutan reproductive biology and has illuminated the link between reproductive hormones, food supply, and the mammalian world’s longest interval between births – eight to nine years. Conception is tied to periods of plenty, which come infrequently, and the resulting long interval between births makes it difficult for the population to recover from mortality due to poaching and habitat loss.

Today the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program has 14 staff, most of whom are local people. It is the main orangutan conservation organization in the region.

From the initial emphasis on school-based programs, augmented by field trips to the forest and the study site, the efforts have become more diverse and more sophisticated.

The program today sponsors billboards with messages about the importance of conservation, a twice-weekly program on the local radio station, an annual “green festival” and other activities, outdoor conservation-themed movies shown on the walls of local buildings, and a comic book that tells the story of a young orangutan taken by hunters for the pet trade with a parallel storyline of a young girl who has been kidnapped.

Though the group’s focus has expanded, it hasn’t strayed from its emphasis on reaching schoolchildren. They have developed six formal classroom presentations tailored to different grade levels, three different field trips with more sophisticated activities as the children get older, an environmental club for high school level students and a school curriculum based on environment and conservation, along with teacher training modules, an area Knott said she’d like to expand. All together, the group reached 6,500 schoolchildren last year, Knott said.

Knott said the group recognizes the economic reality that drives people to illegal logging, so part of the program is aimed at providing economic alternatives. They are exploring promoting alternative crops, such as mushroom cultivation, and working together with the national and local government to develop an ecotourism and environmental education center outside the town of Ketapang.

They’ve also embarked on a program to intervene in the hunting and trading of orangutans by working with the government on enforcement. They provide temporary housing for confiscated animals as well as relocation to a rehabilitation center where the animals are cared for with the aim of returning them to the wild.

Knott said the program has been very successful. Environmental awareness is rising in the local area and their efforts have raised their profile with the community enough so they are now invited to meetings on critical stakeholder issues such as land use.

The program has borne fruits for the orangutans as well, Knott said, with logging way down in the park, particularly after a crackdown in which the government sent in the national police to augment the park’s regular ranger force. Knott said she feels the effort has been successful because it has worked at several levels and describes it as both “top-down and bottom-up.”

Having witnessed how these various efforts have led to the rapid decline of illegal logging in the National Park, Knott said she’s optimistic about the future of the Gunung Palung orangutans.

That optimism, however, is tempered by the appearance of a new threat. Lawmakers are talking about taking parkland to plant oil palm trees. The oil palm plantations would have the benefit of being both a legal and an economic activity, but they are potentially more destructive to the forest, replacing entire tracts of diverse natural vegetation with oil palm monocultures.

Whether oil palm plantations, hunting, or illegal logging, Knott said the conservation battle in Gunung Palung is not one to be won or lost – at least in the near term – but one to be continually fought.

“It seems like one threat goes down and another comes up,” Knott said.

Knott said her research team will be there to help meet both the scientific and conservation challenges facing Gunung Palung. The research site has been closed for three years due to illegal logging in the study area, which has felled trees tagged and studied for 20 years. The camp is being rebuilt, however, in cooperation with the Indonesian government, in time to host scientific crews again this summer.