Related News

Home » Feature

Palm oil foresterPalm oil foresters drive out orangutans

HOPING to unravel the mysteries of human origin, anthropologist Louis Leakey sent three young women to Africa and Asia to study our closest relatives: it was chimpanzees for Jane Goodall, mountain gorillas for Dian Fossey and the elusive, solitary orangutans for Birute Mary Galdikas.

Nearly four decades later, 62-year-old Galdikas, the least famous of his "angels," is the only one still at it. And the red apes she studies in Indonesia are on the verge of extinction because forests are being clear-cut and burned to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations.

Galdikas worries many questions may never be answered. How long do orangutans live in the wild? How far do the males roam? And how many mates do they have in their lifetime?

"I try not to get depressed, I try not to get burned out," says the Canadian scientist, pulling a wide-rimmed jungle hat over her shoulder-length gray hair in Tanjung Puting National Park.

Burned-out land

"But when you get up in the air you start gasping in horror; there's nothing but palm oil in an area that used to be plush rain forest. Elsewhere, there's burned-out land, which now extends even within the borders of the park."

The demand for palm oil is rising in the United States and Europe because it is touted as a "clean" alternative to fuel. Indonesia is the world's top producer of palm oil, and prices have jumped by almost 70 percent in the last year.

But palm oil plantations devastate the forest and create a monoculture on the land, in which orangutans cannot survive. Over the years, Galdikas has fought off loggers, poachers and miners, but nothing has posed as great a threat to her "babies" as palm oil.

There are only an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 90 percent of them in Indonesia, said Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa. Most live in small, scattered populations that cannot take the onslaught on the forests much longer.

Trees are being cut at a rate of 300 football fields every hour. And massive land-clearing fires have turned the country into one of the top emitters of carbon.

Tanjung Puting, which has 4,144 square kilometers, clings precariously to the southern tip of Borneo island. Its 6,000 orangutans - one of the two largest populations on the planet, together with the nearby Sebangau National Park - are less vulnerable to diseases and fires. That has allowed them, to a degree, to live and evolve as they have for millions of years.

"I am not an alarmist," says Galdikas, speaking calmly but deliberately, her brow slightly furrowed. "But I would say, if nothing is done, orangutan populations outside of national parks have less than 10 years left."

Even Tanjung Puting is not safe, in part because of a border dispute between the central government, which argues in favor of a 1996 map, and provincial officials, who are pushing for a much smaller 1977 map. If local officials win, the park could be slashed by up to 25 percent.

Galdikas, of Lithuanian descent, was an anthropology student at the University of California in Los Angeles when she approached Leakey, a visiting lecturer, in 1969. She followed on the heels of Goodall, who today devotes virtually all of her time to advocacy for chimps, and Fossey, who was brutally murdered in her Rwandan hut in 1985.

Twice featured on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, she wrote an autobiography, "Reflections of Eden," describing how she fell in love with the sound of cicadas, and marveled at the sudden shifts of light that in an instant transformed drab greens and browns into translucent shades of emerald.


One of Galdikas' main projects today is her rehabilitation center in a village outside Tanjung Puting, overflowing with more than 300 animals orphaned when their mothers were killed by palm oil plantation workers. With forests disappearing, the red apes raid crops.

"Many come in very badly wounded, suffering from malnutrition, psychological and emotional and even physical trauma," says Galdikas, as she watches members of her staff prepare six young orangutans for release one overcast Saturday afternoon.

"It is getting harder and harder to find good, safe forest in which to free them," says Galdikas, who today spends half her time in Indonesia.

Forestry Minister Malem Kaban says the government is committed to protecting Indonesia's dense, primary forests and that no permit should be granted within one kilometer of a national park. Even so, one palm oil company has started clearing trees within Tanjung Puting's northern perimeter, leaving a wasteland of churned-up peat and charred trunks.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend