Dec 03, 2016 Last Updated 10:50 AM, Nov 29, 2016

Ecotourism: can it save the orangutans?

Published: Sep 30, 2007

'We were in the rainforest for fifteen hours and spent eleven of those waist-deep in a swamp looking at orangutans'. Trekking through the swamps and rainforests of Kalimantan may not be everyone's idea of a fun and relaxing holiday, but to an increasing number of ecotourists there is no better way to spend a couple of weeks.

After speaking with a group of ecotourists, recently returned from Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, their motivations for going became clear. They went in search of adventure, excitement and, most of all, orangutans. Daily treks through Tanjung Puting, in search of wild orangutans, and active involvement in data collection and habitat surveys, turned the ecotourists into willing volunteers.

Babies

The treks were long and arduous, but the group remained determined. Some did not even get to see any wild orangutans, yet still they trekked for hours in search of them. Others saw many. Margaret, an ecotourist from Western Australia, said that her group found one orangutan with an infant within an hour of going into the jungle. 'We were very lucky. We stood for four hours under two trees, watching them eating the fruit. It was great to see. We also took very detailed notes on the habitat and the orangutan', she said.

The group also came into close contact with the rehabilitant orangutans at the Ministry of Forestry's (MoF) feeding station. Although not officially permitted, holding the rehabilitant orangutans was the highlight of the trip for most of the ecotourists.

Australian ecotourist Terry likened the experience to nursing a human child. 'We ended up carrying the babies around. They just run up and hug you and want to be carried', he said. For Judith the experience was more profound: 'I cried when I got to hold them. To me it was such an honour to accomplish one of my goals.'

Lesson

Canadian anthropologist Dr Birute Galdikas oversees the non-government Tanjung Puting tours. For her, ecotourism is not just about cuddling baby orangutans. She ensures there is a strong emphasis on raising awareness about the plight of the critically endangered orangutan. She does this by involving the ecotourists in the collection of data, and by arranging lectures and trips to see local Dayak villages and areas of deforestation. This last is a sobering lesson.

The deforestation they saw astounded all the ecotourists. 'Oh, the destruction! We went up to the gold mine, just outside Tanjung Puting, and that was so important to see because there was so much destruction there', said Australian ecotourist, Ros. 'The river, the logging, the records we kept, all those things were reinforcing all the time about the habitat destruction and the invasion of western civilisation'.

Others began to see the futility of efforts to save the orangutan if their habitat was continuing to be destroyed. 'People are working to rehabilitate them, but the government and companies are chopping the trees down', said Gordon, another ecotourist from Western Australia. Gordon was involved in an orangutan rescue during his stay at Tanjung Puting. 'It's illegal to log in the forest where we were, but you see the rafts full of logs every day. Yes, they all want to save the orangutan', Gordon went on, 'but even as we left in January the papers were saying Indonesia is going to increase its export of timber to help its balance of payments. We went two thirds of the way across Kalimantan to save four orangutans and put them back into Camp Leakey. But at the other end they are chopping the trees down'.

Pay for itself

Ecotourists' desire to see orangutans in the wild have not been lost on the Indonesian government. Nor has the possibility that ecotourism offers as a conservation tool that, theoretically at least, pays for itself. Andi Mappisammeng, Director General of Tourism, says: 'Ecotourism can be a great ally of conservation efforts. It can encourage love of nature as more people seek solitude with nature. It can also provide a self-financing mechanism for the conservation of the natural heritage through proper management and ecological control.'

Echoing such sentiments, the government has resolved to establish more orangutan ecotourism centres in Kalimantan. At present, Tanjung Puting is the only orangutan centre open to ecotourism. But there are plans for ecotourism centres at Sungai Wain and at Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan.

The dilemma for ecotourism planners in Indonesia, as anywhere, is to ensure that they achieve a balance of economic, social and ecological control. To date, however, a lack of political will and commitment to achieving genuine sustainable development has flawed the government's conservation record.

Priority

Economic and political concerns take priority over ecological ones. How strong really is the government's desire to establish an enterprise that is truly sustainable? Indonesia's forests are among the nation's most valuable resources, second only to oil. Business people both overseas and within Indonesia constantly lobby the government to win the right to exploit them.

Some of the wealthiest people in the country have lucrative shares in logging concessions and timber processing companies. Most are closely connected with President Suharto - his children Siti Hardiyanti, Sigit Harjojudanto and Bambang Trihatmodjo, and other well-connected people such as Bob Hasan, Liem Sioe Liong, Sukanto Tanoto and Prajogo Pangestu.

The vast wealth and power that comes from this industry results in huge rewards offered in return for political favours that see certain companies and/ or individuals granted resource concessions over other bidders.

Kalimantan

If we examine the situation of protected areas in Kalimantan we will see how economic and political interests are favoured over conservation values. The total land area of Kalimantan is 536,150 km2. Of this, 20,338 km2 of forest has been set aside for protection. In reality, however, logging and other forms of human encroachment continue to threaten the future of many of Kalimantan's protected areas.

For example, in South Kalimantan 60% of conservation forests and 35% of protected forests have been grossly deforested. A case in point comes from the Pleihari Wildlife Reserve, which the MoF has converted into production forest for logging. This was the last remaining habitat of the barking deer.

Another example comes from the Bukit Baka/ Bukit Raya National Park. This ecologically rich stretch of rainforest was split down the middle by the logging company Kurina Kapaus Plywood. Then-Minister of Forestry, Hasrul Harahap, granted the logging concession.

Examples can also be found in the proposed and established orangutan ecotourism areas. In and around the 3,040 km2 of Tanjung Puting National Park, mining and logging companies and human settlements have destroyed many forested areas. In fact, although the official Tanjung Puting guidebook states that it remains substantially wild and natural, the Directorate General for Forest Protection and Nature (Phpa) has argued that pressures from transmigrants and oil, gas and gold mines on the park's border have caused extensive deforestation. In 1989 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (Iucn) listed Tanjung Puting National Park as a protected region in danger.

Kutai

At Kutai National Park the deforestation is just as alarming. Although Kutai is only 200,000 hectares it is regarded as one of the most important parks in the world, particularly in terms of its biodiversity value. Kutai is under extreme pressure, however. Mining and logging interests are literally camped at its doorstep, and local and migrant communities continue to clear vast areas of forest for crops. Approximately 100,000 hectares of the park has already been deforested.

The Sungai Wain nature reserve in East Kalimantan, the 11,000 ha release site for rehabilitated orangutans from the MoF/PHPA Wanariset Reintroduction Centre, has been subject to similar pressures. The oil company Vico has cut many lines through the forest for seismic probes and has cleared a large area for use as a helipad. Communities in the surrounding areas also use the forest regularly for their subsistence needs.

Negotiations are currently in place to have Sungai Wain upgraded to national park status so that orangutan ecotourism may begin. As we have seen, however, national park status will not automatically ensure forest protection.

Enclosure

These examples highlight another major obstacle to the success of sustainable orangutan ecotourism. That is, the use of protected areas by local communities. Obviously, to ensure forest conservation, limits need to be placed upon all forms of human access and use of these areas. However, it is the manner in which governments enforce this forest protection that will ultimately determine the success of conservation efforts.

The traditional solution to ecological protection in Indonesia has been to enclose specified areas, in the hope of limiting human activity. Ironically, if the government were to succeed in adequately protecting the forest in this way, the results would be devastating for human communities dependent upon the forest for their survival.

More often, however, the government is not successful in completely enclosing protected areas. As a result, environmental protection is limited, because disenfranchised groups continue to use forest resources illegally and unsustainably. This has certainly been the case since the enclosure of Tanjung Puting, Sungai Wain and Kutai National Park.

Whether the forest exploitation is to meet subsistence needs or for short-term commercial gains, these illegal uses further deplete the habitat of the orangutan while, in the long term, adding to human poverty as forest resources decline.

Incentives

Incentives for local communities to protect and conserve the environment are vital if the Indonesian government is serious about the promotion of orangutan ecotourism. Genuine socio-economic incentives, control over the direction and size of the ecotourism development and control over the possible impacts would empower local communities making them willing actors rather than reluctant subjects.

Planned correctly, ecotourism can help conserve the orangutan. This outcome depends on appropriate levels of management, a supportive political climate and commitment to achieving conservation and social participation at the local level.

Rachel Drewry recently completed an Indonesian Studies degree at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia.


Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997


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