Responsible orangutan watching

Sumatra and Borneo are synonymous with the orangutan, the long-limbed old man of the forest, whose iconic ginger frame can be seen swinging through the canopy of ancient rainforests of these mysterious islands. However, while 100 years ago over 300,000 orangutans roamed these forests; today just 20 percent remain. The Bornean orangutan is classified as endangered, with around 104,700 individuals remaining. The Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered, with just 7,500. A third species (the Tapanuli) was discovered in 2017; just 7,500 live in North Sumatra. 

Eerily human, it is – ironically – the orangutan’s similarity to us that has endangered it so; the apes prefer the lowland forests, proximity to freshwater and fertile soils that are so appealing to farmers. The illegal wildlife trade, logging, forest fires and mining all threaten the future of the orangutan, but the greatest danger by far comes from palm oil plantations, which flatten and fragment ancient forest.

National parks, sanctuaries, rescue and rehabilitation centres are dotted across their habitats, and supporting these places is an important step in guarding their future, as well as raising awareness of their plight. Whether you come to volunteer, see them feeding in a rehabilitation centre, or support local communities who strive to protect their historical neighbours, make sure you do it in the right way.

Wildlife & environment

Volunteering – the right way

After hearing about the threats facing the world’s last orangutans, it’s natural to leap at the opportunity to volunteer with them, and to support their conservation. However, philanthropic travellers should take a step back: choosing the wrong volunteer placement is not just worthless – it can actually cause even more harm. A common cold can quickly kill a baby orangutan, and spread rapidly throughout the group. Additionally, fully wild orangutans will avoid contact with people; it is the ones who have become habituated to our presence that are caught straying on plantations or farmland – or attacking a human. So any contact they have with people reduces their chances of successful rehabilitation, and reintroduction into the wild.
What you can do
Pick your placement well. Most involve daily tasks such as cleaning, constructing and repairing enclosures, building climbing frames and maintaining paths. You should never be offered the chance to come into contact with the orangutans themselves to avoid the spread of disease.

Harriet, from our volunteering specialists The Great Projects, explains more:
“Now and again you do come across a project that allows hands-on volunteering – however, these volunteers will have been in quarantine for ten days, and the tests you have to go through are quite rigorous. There is also quite a significant amount of training – this just isn’t suitable for someone on a two-week holiday.”

Do your research – find out more about the place you will be volunteering, including the kind of work you will be doing there and where your money will end up. One way to do this is to check online traveller review sites; the reviews on Responsible Travel are also unedited and honest, and we provide a list of questions you should ask when searching for a placement.

Thea Powell, from our orangutan volunteering experts Orangutan Foundation UK:
“If you can, call or email the office of the people you are visiting. They should be able to tell you where their funds are spent and what they are in need of most. If people don’t reply then you can usually find our more by reading their mission statements and comparing which projects they highlight on their websites. Keep in mind that smaller, younger sites may be organised differently to more developed or more tourist focused sites."

Roger Salwey, from our volunteering holiday specialists Oyster Worldwide:
“People need to ask what volunteers have actually done – what have they achieved? Ask to speak to someone who has actually done it to find out more.”

Volunteer opportunities tend to be focused on Sabah, thanks to a number of well-established projects here, but don’t rule out volunteering elsewhere.

Roger Salwey, from Oyster Worldwide, explains why you should consider volunteering in Kalimantan: “If you look at a map of Borneo, you’ll see that the Malaysian side is tiny; almost all of the orangutans are in the Indonesian side, while most of the tourists are in Malaysia. It’s an awful lot of work to rehabilitate orangutans. They are rehabilitating maybe 50 a year, it’s a really small number, but it is significant, and they are also able to send them off to breed. They definitely need many more rehabilitation centres, but the awareness of them in Indonesia is just not there.”

Finally, remember that helping rehabilitated wildlife is really sticking a plaster over a wound. Ideally, there would be no need for these centres in the first place. Look for initiatives that work with communities – on reforestation projects, or in community tourism which allows them to make money from the forest in its natural state, thus reducing the incentives for logging and poaching, and empowering them to stand up to big businesses. Planting fruit trees on the edge of a national park may sound less glamorous and exotic than snuggling a baby orangutan – but it’s far, far more helpful in the long term.

Deforestation and the story of palm oil

Across Borneo, over 50 percent of the forest has disappeared in the last few decades, while in Indonesia as a whole, three quarters of the logging that takes place is estimated to be illegal. Highly destructive logging and clearance techniques are employed by larger companies to reduce costs and maximise profit, while small-scale subsistence farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to make way for their crops, eventually exhausting it so that they have to move on to clear new land.

As well as reducing habitat for orangutans and other endangered species, replacing forest with farmland has several other tragic impacts. For example, poaching is more prevalent around palm oil plantations, as wildlife becomes more accessible. Orangutans that stray onto farmland may be shot as pests. And horrifically, these slow-moving primates are often killed or severely injured by fast-spreading forest fires.
What you can do
Visit forests and research stations, pay park fees and spend your money in local communities. This demonstrates that the intact rainforest has a value which will last for centuries – rather than the short-term gain created by logging and farming. Palm oil plantations cover up to 25,000km2 in Borneo – much of this land was once rainforest. Check ingredients lists – and avoid purchasing anything made with palm oil. Alternatively, look out for products with a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo. Buy Fairtrade, sustainable products from Borneo’s forests that encourage the preservation of the forest, such as wild honey, mountain salt, and locally made handcrafts.

Forest fires

Indonesia’s forest fires are constitute one of the most shocking environmental disasters of the 21st century, and have been described as 'a crime against humanity'. Raging through the country since the mid 1990s, causing widespread respiratory problems among the country’s people, as well as the depletion of huge swathes of rainforest forcing orangutans, rhinos and tigers from their natural habitat, the fires are showing no sign of waning and yet very little is being done to stop them.

 One of the fire hotspots is in Kalimantan's Sabangau Forest, home to the world's largest remaining population of orangutans, with around 7,000 estimated to be living wild in the forest. Even within the borders of the supposedly protected Tanjung Putting National Park, fires are causing widespread destruction.

‘Slash and burn’ is the quickest way to clear land, making way for plantation companies to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil. Prolonged dry seasons, coupled with the global weather disruption caused by El Niño, have resulted in a situation in Indonesia that is now very much more than out of hand, with 2015's fires causing the worst air pollution on record.

Levels of the Pollutant Standard Index in Sumatra and Kalimantan soared to 2,000 – anything above 300 is deemed dangerous – and the air above the cities turned a toxic shade of sepia. At its worst, it is estimated that daily emissions from the fires overtook the average daily emissions of the US in its entirety, and a 2016 study claimed that the "killer haze" had been responsible for around 100,000 early deaths across the region in 2015 alone.

While wetter weather diminished the fires' impact in 2016, 2017 once again saw dangerous pollution levels and public health warnings.  2019 was another record-breaker: by September, over 857,000 hectares (2.12 million acres) had burned. Read more on Indonesia’s forest fires in The Guardian.

People & culture

Cultural tourism and wildlife tourism may appear to be poles apart, but ultimately it is the people of Borneo and Sumatra who will play one of the biggest roles in the future of the orangutans. As the custodians of the forests, traditional communities, subsistence farmers and small-scale loggers all play a part in the conservation or otherwise of the orangutan’s habitat, and creating sustainable, ethical forms of income is the key to deterring people from irresponsible practices including illegal logging and poaching.

Many of these cultures are in fact as threatened by the loss of the forests as the orangutans are, and spending time with these people can be just as fascinating as spending time with the other “people of the forest” – the orangutans.
What you can do
The Iban of Sarawak and the Rungus of Sabah are famous for their longhouses, and there are opportunities to stay in one with the local families. Sarawak hosts some of the best community tourism projects; you can stay in communal longhouses, live alongside the tribes and your money should go directly into community and conservation initiatives. Here, you can visit the Penan – who number around 10,000 in Borneo though barely 200 are able to maintain their traditional, nomadic way of life. In North Sumatra, the Batak people – an umbrella term from several ethnic groups – have wonderful, pointed-roofed houses and are renowned for their musical performances, village tours are possible on your way to Gunung Leuser National Park.

Harriet Whitmarsh, from our volunteer specialists The Great Projects: “Our project is in Batang Ai, where there are wild orangutans. You stay with a local Dayak tribe and go out trekking with them in the forest, which provides local jobs. Additionally, that particular community was on the point of being evicted from the forest by the government, but now that they’ve established themselves as a money making tourist centre, the government were less inclined to kick them out. It really does help.”

Read more about the Penan at Survival International.

Responsible tourism tips

When visiting a rehabilitation or rescue centre, remember never to approach the orangutans; even if they move towards you, you must keep your distance. Orangutans which have become habituated to human presence cannot be successfully rehabilitated into the wild, and they are also very prone to human diseases – even a common cold can kill an orangutan. Staff at the centres should do their best to keep the orangutans away from visitors, and babies should be kept well away from tourists. Do not support any centre which does not adhere to these policies as it threatens the orangutans. The best centres will make their responsible tourism policies clear on their websites and promotional materials – you will also be able to speak to biologists and researchers, be told how your entrance fee is used, and learn about the success rates of the rehabilitation programmes. Only unscrupulous centres will be keen to hide this information, so the more you ask, the better the idea you’ll get. Many tour operators donate a percentage of the tour price to conservation or reforestation programmes – this is an easy way for you to make a difference, and by choosing an operator with a conscience, it encourages other operators to do the same. You can support orangutan conservation even if you are no able to travel all the way to Southeast Asia – adopt an orangutan from the Orangutan Foundation, or become a member. Never use flash photography with wildlife.
Harriet Whitmarsh, from our partner The Great Projects:
“Women travellers must be careful with how they dress – particularly in Indonesia. It’s so religious that you must cover your shoulders and wear at least three quarter length trousers. Definitely no strappy vests, even though it’s so hot – it’s just not the right thing to do at all. That applies in towns – but if you’re going to visit tribes you’re really going to shock them if you’re wearing very little.”
The food in this region is excellent, particularly the seafood. Two dishes you definitely want to avoid, however, are shark fin soup and bird nest soup. The former involves catching sharks – including some endangered species – slicing the cartilaginous fins off while the creature is still alive, then tossing it back into the water to drown. Bird nest soup is made using the nests of swiftlets found in caves, including those at Gomantong. The highly valuable nests are gathered by poorly paid workers climbing up to 20m up rickety bamboo ladders; the risk of injury or death is high. Another curious cuisine is the infamous “luwak coffee” – coffee made with beans which have been eaten and then defecated by civets (luwaks), and the most expensive coffee in the world. Sumatra is one of the biggest producers of these beans, but its authenticity is hard to prove, and genuine examples are rare. Additionally, if it is real luwak coffee, the chances are it’s not been harvested wild, but created using caged civets kept under cruel conditions, force-fed coffee cherries. And apparently it doesn’t even taste that good – so just stick with your regular Fairtrade brand.
Make sure you’re visiting a genuine wildlife rescue centre or sanctuary, and not a zoo. Harriet Whitmarsh, from our partner The Great Projects, says: “Zoos in Southeast Asia are just the most horrible places, especially in Indonesia, which is notorious for having some of the most despicable zoos in the world. They are just horrendous. So avoid zoos, and avoid any animal entertainment.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: DUPAN PANDU] [Volunteering – the right way: Natasha de Vere & Col Ford] [Deforestation and the story of palm oil: T. R. Shankar Raman] [People & culture : pxhere]