Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

'They just want love...'

Published: Sep 22, 2007
Disasters and greed threaten the orangutan in Kalimantan

Willie Smits

On Monday, April 26, early in the morning our team leaves for Samarinda, 100 kilometres to the north. A convoy of four cars, consisting of one hired truck with heavy cages, two four wheel drive vehicles we received from WWF, loaded with light aluminum cages and other equipment, and one other normal car. We call at the Samarinda nature conservation office to pick up two forestry policemen and the necessary legal papers to do orangutan confiscations.

In Samarinda a lady with scared looks opens the door. When she realises what the police have come for she starts weeping. A tiny male orangutan baby shows up, about 15 months old. She has had it for two weeks. Her husband bought it in Sebulu for Rp 150,000 or less than US$20.

In a corner of the room hiding behind her we discover a baby gibbon as well. After signing the confiscation papers it is time to go. The lady cries and hugs and kisses her baby for the last time, tears rolling over her cheeks all the time.

It is easy to understand why people want these little orangutans so much. They just want love and give it so easily themselves. We have to pull the two loose and leave with a bad feeling in our stomachs.

On the way to Sebulu we pass through a blackened brownish landscape. There is hardly any green colour left to see. The wind blows up dust, as do the passing cars with water tanks. Yes we did have some rain during the last three days but it will take many weeks of constant rain to help the trees and to return a flow of water to the streams and the wells of the people. This is normally the end of the rainy season and in a few weeks the regular dry season will start.


When we arrive in Sebulu we stop at a house where we caught several orangutans who were attacking the last green trees there. Robby and some people that already know our cars show up. Robby is a contractor for the local timber estate and very concerned with the wildlife that is suffering. Nobody is home and together we walk to the back of the house to see the tree where we rescued Billy.

I still shiver when I think of the sight two weeks ago on this very branch of this jackfruit tree. An orangutan with bloated face, no eyes visible anymore, breathing with difficulty, blood and saliva dripping from his mouth and a harpoon sticking through his right arm. His throat pouch had a deep hole just under his chin and a disgusting smell of rotten meat overwhelmed anyone coming near.

Using an old saw and under a light anaesthetic I managed to remove the hooks of the harpoon and pull them out the other side of the arm. Immediately upon arrival at Wanariset, Billy's neck wound was operated on.

Then we discovered that his jaw was broken, a terrible ordeal. We tried to find a surgeon in the nearby town of Balikpapan, but to no avail. Finally Dr Heriyanto and Dr Amir of our project pulled the jaw together and connected it with wires as good as they could.

Amazingly, just before we left on this trip, Billy was eating, climbing and his face looked normal again. He even reacted in an almost friendly way to the technicians, and that after all that people had done to him. He had come in between the people's houses looking for a single green tree left there. They beat him almost to death using wooden clubs as well as machetes and a harpoon.

His neck wound needed restitching two times, but now it seems that he is going to make it back to the forest after all. Every time again I am amazed at their strength to overcome injuries.


Next is a long trip up the river system behind Samarinda. Often the river is covered with smog and we see the red glow of fires all along the river banks for hours and hours as we travel through the night. We give up and decide to sleep on the wooden deck of a boat whose captain is so friendly to offer this spot. Just before we do there is another little shriek.

I jump off and indeed in the light of small lamps we find that another cage is hidden behind a makeshift eating place. A very aggressive little orangutan hoots at us. A lot of people wake up and come to see us. We have to be careful how to bring up the subject of confiscation in this lonely place in the middle of nowhere.

The woman claiming to own the orangutan shows up. She says she has had the orangutan for two weeks now. When we ask her how she got this three year old a lot of people start talking. They all point to the other side of the river. The fire came to the water's edge and the orangutan and its mother were completely trapped between the fire and the river.

The little orangutan dropped itself into the water when the flames touched it. It almost drowned, but the woman's husband managed to pull it out of the water into the boat with which he had rushed to the scene. While he rescued the little one, the mother was burned alive, without making a sound. The body is still there at the place where she died in the flames. This fourth confiscation of today does not make us any happier either.

When we explain to the woman, who has nine children, about the dangers of the orangutan she realises what her smallest daughter Laura might suffer. Six-year old Laura was the only person the orangutan, aptly named Krisis (Crisis), trusted. Only she could bathe her and feed her. We give Laura some parasite treatment. When Laura's father arrives out of nowhere around 1 o'clock late that night the confiscation documents are signed without further problems. This poor man and woman will not be called to court. They neither killed a mother orangutan nor wanted to sell the baby.


We reach a camp where a small river has been dammed by the workers and some brown water is left in small pools. Immediately we spot the wide-spread hanging silhouette of an orangutan. We run towards the orangutan, eating the bark of the planted Acacia trees. I let some of the visitors taste it and it is disgustingly bitter. Nevertheless this is the only food these orangutans have left.

Years ago their forests were converted to these plantations, and they were left with small pockets of forest on steep slopes. These are now completely burned out, and the only thing left to eat is the bark of these Acacia mangium trees. If you look at the number of trees damaged you can understand that the company that planted the trees cannot be very happy either.

On the way, Zainal suddenly calls over the radio, an orangutan. A female with a baby alongside the road. We go for it immediately. The female is running over the ground into the forest. When we get near she goes up a tree, but a branch breaks off and she falls back down, onto a black tree stump. She climbs up again and we notice the head of a tiny baby shaking as if it is going to fall off.

The mother starts grunting and hooting, making the characteristic aggressive kissing sounds with her stretched lips while breaking off and throwing branches. After three expensive darts miss their target Udin finally gets a dart in at her back. We must be extremely careful not to hit the baby, her head or her belly.

The poor female desperately swings from one tree to another while the baby's head rocks dangerously backward and forward. A green slurry of excrement rains on us standing ready with the net. It even still smells like the bitter Acacia bark. How could she survive for so long on this terrible diet? Then the female stops and hooks herself in two tree tops that she keeps together.

Nothing can move her and through the binoculars we see that she is unconscious but her hands are locked around the branches. Shaking also has no result. Odom shinnies up the tree and tries to shake her loose. No result. We have to cut the top she is holding on to. Odom cuts the one top and suddenly it comes down. But because the female is holding on to it the second top now also breaks off under her weight. Fortunately the tree top comes down first, breaking the fall. We rush to the fallen female and try to turn her around because her little baby is underneath, only a tiny skinny hand visible. When we turn her we see what looks like a dead baby hanging on to a completely dry nipple.

We take the seemingly lifeless little body off her and rush the mother to the road, where the truck and cages are waiting. At the road side the baby starts to shriek and move a little. Immediately we try to get some water into her mouth. She has blue lips, sunken eyes and is only skin and bones with a disproportionately large head, typical starvation and dehydration symptoms.

She is barely conscious but starts to swallow the water greedily. Then we give her some quickly prepared milk. Half an hour later she regains some strength. The mothers' belly completely collapses as if a balloon is being emptied. Her vagina is still reddish from giving birth a short while ago to the baby.

I would never have imagined the drought and the fires could lead to this. If we do not rescue the surviving orangutans from the burned area in the next two months the orangutans of East Kalimantan could face extinction. How many can we still save ? How can we build enough cages? How can we get enough food for some 200 orangutans already at the centre while people are lacking food as well? How can we.... I hope some of you who read this can help us solve some of those questions.

That Wednesday night I sleep five restless hours. Tomorrow the team will leave again, now to Bontang where today some five orangutans were reported to be attacking some houses of villagers. I will have to go to Jakarta to meet the Minister tomorrow and will try to catch up with a loaded mailbox again.

Dr Willie Smits directs the Orangutan Reintroduction Centre at Wanariset in East Kalimantan. Send donations to support his work to BOS-USA Inc (a non-profit NGO), PO Box 2113, Aptos CA 95001-2113, USA. Email: Michael Sowards @sprynet.com>.

Inside Indonesia 56: Oct-Dec 1998

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