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Orangutans Edging Closer to Brink of Extinction

Willie Smits is a man on a mission. He has just completed a cross-country speaking tour in the United States, and he has one message: It’s now or never when it comes to orangutan conservation.


“What is a human without education, without culture, without the love of his parents? Nothing. The same is true of the orangutan,” says Willie Smits, director of the Wanariset Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Indonesia.

A forestry scientist from the Netherlands, Smits emigrated to Indonesia 20 years ago to help the country grow trees. Today he runs the world’s largest orangutan rehabilitation center and is in the forefront of a campaign to save the species in the wild.

He faces great odds.

Orangutans once ranged throughout Southeast Asia. Today they can be found only on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Scientists estimate that in the last 10 years their numbers have been reduced by up to 50 percent, to perhaps as few as 13,000 living in the wild.

“We need to take action now; in 20 years it will be too late,” says Smits. “We still have a chance to set aside some very large areas of undisturbed lowland rainforest, but I don’t think we’ll have the chance in another five years. It is now or never.”


In 1989 Smits stumbled upon a dying baby orangutan being sold in the street markets of Balikpapan, a town in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. The sight so haunted him that he returned later that evening and found the baby in its crate tossed on the garbage dump.

“She was so sickly, just gasping for breath; they thought she was going to die so they just threw her away. Of course when they saw me take her, they chased me, yelling, wanting to be paid.”

Smits nursed the baby, whom he named Uce, and searched for a way to return her to the wild. “Orangutan babies are like human babies; helpless. Just releasing her into the wild would have been a death sentence.”

The search for an alternative led him slowly but surely down a path that resulted in a profound career change from forestry management to orangutan conservation.


Humans and human activity present the biggest threat to orangutans, which are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Loss of habitat resulting from increased population pressure in particular poses a huge problem — 100 years ago, 10 million people lived in Indonesia; today that number is 200 million.

Subsistence farmers burn the forests to clear land to grow rice; wealthy landowners use the same slash-and-burn technique to clear forest land for palm oil and rubber tree plantations that can cover hundreds of acres.

The loss of habitat means that orangutans are pushed deeper into the forests, where illegal logging has reduced much of the original rainforest into a patchwork of forest islands. The fragmented pieces of forest are too small to support a population large enough to survive in the long term.

The cycle of extreme drought, followed by the devastating fires of 1997-98 struck a devastating blow to orangutan populations. Those that weren’t killed in the fires faced starvation. Forced closer to human settlements in search of food and water, thousands fell prey to poachers.

“Orangutans already had been pushed into less quality forest, where it was more difficult for them to survive,” says Smits. “Then when the fires came, they had no water, no food left; it was completely dark for months in a row. The orangutans came out of the forests toward the rivers and became victims of the people there who didn’t like to see their very few last crops being raided by those wild animals.

“Thousands of orangutans got killed during that disaster period. And thousands of baby orangutans started showing up in trade.”

The economic and social crisis raging in Indonesia further exacerbates the problem. “Forty million people became jobless and many of them go hunt for orangutans for the meat, pet trade, and the skulls that foreign tourists buy as souvenirs. As the provinces of Indonesia struggle for autonomy, nobody’s clear what’s going to happen, but everybody is grabbing their chance to take whatever they can from the forest.”

“We are losing the forest habitat at unprecedented speed.”


The Wanariset Center, located in the jungle 24 miles (38 kilometers) from Balikpapan, has been accepting confiscated and rescued orangutans since 1991. Today it is home to more than 200 orangutans.

The orangutan rehabilitation center, which operates on a shoestring budget, reintroduces rescued and confiscated orangutans back into the wild in groups of 30 to 35. The rehab process takes years and is extremely labor intensive. Animals coming into the program are quarantined, screened, vaccinated and raised in social groups. An orangutan must be taught a whole slew of skills and essentially pass a test before being released back into the wild.

Orangutans from Wanariset are released into protected areas where there are no wild populations for fear of spreading human diseases. More than 300 have been released since 1991.

“Many of the people seem to think this is a success and look at all these orangutans who are now truly living as wild orangutans; ’you have succeeded in getting them healthy, teaching them all these hundreds of different food items, the climbing skills, get them into groups with friends’ — it looks like a wonderful thing,” says Smits.

“But I must stress, basically the very fact that we do have orangutan rehabilitation means that we have failed to do what is really important, and that is rescue the wild orangutan in its habitat.”

One of the catalysts for Smits’ visit to the U.S. was to provide support for the Great Ape Conservation Act of 2000, which Congress passed this session. The legislation provides $5 million a year for five years for great ape (gorillas, bonobo, chimpanzee and orangutan) protection. Smits is hopeful that some of this money will be devoted to preserving the rainforests that are home to orangutans.

“The situation is extremely critical,” says Smits. “It’s now or never if we want to do something to try to rescue them.”

Uce, the baby orangutan first rescued by Smits, was the first orangutan to graduate from the reintroduction program and give birth in the wild.

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