Hangin' with the 'tans in Borneo

Deep in the Indonesian rain forest, our reporter braves tribal war to discover why orangutans may be driven to extinction by America's love for pool cues.

Published March 6, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

The soggy orangutan tries opening his eyes. He's clutched to his mother's breast, and I can barely see him as he focuses for the first time on the world around him. His first impression will be of grey bars. Just beyond is Borneo's rain forest, echoing with insects and chain saws.

His mother, Pijam, protective and serene, lounges on her back in the dim light of early morning, cupping him like a delicate flower. She seems sleepy, at peace. But I know things she can't and wonder what's in store for her and this still-damp newborn.

Pijam is a motherless mother. Like most of the animals at this clinic, she was orphaned by an illegal pet trade that grows as Indonesia's forests crumble. Adults are killed in the wild, infants shoved into sacks and sold for quick cash. Pijam is among the lucky few confiscated and brought to a clinic run by the Orangutan Foundation International where I volunteer. Our goal is to prepare them for life back in the wild.

Most of the volunteers here are vet students. I'm the exception. I came here because orangutans could be extinct within 10 years and I wanted to discover why. I brought a camera and journal to document the experience. As a freelance writer and filmmaker, I've spent the last few years covering anything and everything in a bid to find my niche. It's the orangutans who reveal my calling. Their astonishing beauty, their terrible plight, fills me with awe and outrage. Watching Pijam through the bars of her cage, I decide there is nothing I'd rather do than tell the story of those who are fighting for survival but cannot speak for themselves.

The clinic is in a rural village deep in Borneo's south. In addition to grappling with the usual patchy infrastructure, I had to dodge an unusual ethnic war to get here. The fighting is a backlash against the Indonesian government's habit of relocating people from crowded, urban islands to relatively "empty" outer islands. Indigenous people aren't consulted and conflicts almost always arise. Borneo's recent violence is a case in point. Thousands of Madurans from their jampacked island off the coast of Java were moved to Borneo at the expense of the government. As migrants poured in, local Dayaks felt they were losing their traditional lands, their way of life. They resurrected their ancient tradition of headhunting in a bid to reclaim what they say is theirs.

When I was packing for my trip to Borneo, the news hit the fan. Front page articles all over the country told tales of headless corpses of Madurans littering remote jungle roads. It was a tad unnerving, and the shaky support I had from family and friends about traveling to such a remote area immediately dried up. I defended my plans, pointing out that the orangutan clinic is in Pasir Panjahn, a Dayak village -- I'd be living with the hunters, not the hunted. I emphasized that Sampit, the hub of the fighting, was 100 miles north. Besides, no one was targeting foreigners. I packed my bags and hoped for the best. Four airplanes and two bus rides later, I arrived unscathed in Pair Panjahn, a few newly burned houses the only lingering signs of conflict.

When I first got to the clinic, I wanted to know how in the world peoplecould prepare orangutans for life back in the forest. The process is simpler than I expected. The idea is to let animals roam the "nursery" forest adjacent to the clinic each day, learning from each other and tapping into their instincts about which branches hold their weight, which insects taste good. "They say you can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl. It's kind of like that with orangutans," explains the founder, Dr. Birute Galdikas. "You cannot take the orangutan out of the orangutan. They are still forest animals no matter what happens to them."

When Galdikas first came to Borneo 30 years ago, she hadn't planned on getting into the orangutan rescue business. Her goal was to launch the first long-term study of orangutans in the wild. Her mentor was the late Louis Leakey, the lifeline behind Jane Goodall's work with chimpanzees and Dian Fossey's passion for mountain gorillas. Like her peers, Galdikas eventually shifted her focus from science to conservation. "My studies do continue, but this," Galdikas explains, waving her hand toward the clinic, "is more and more the focus of what I do on a day-to-day basis because the need is so great, the need is so overwhelming."

As we spoke, the orangutans' sleeping cages were unlocked and more than 100 animals came charging out. Like unruly flames, they fan out across the grassy field behind the clinic, disappearing into the looming trees. It's an astonishing thing to witness, a forest filling with rambunctious orangutans, the canopy shaking with their collective momentum. They spend the day up there feasting on wild fruits and flowers. A slew of Dayak staff hike out to keep an eye on them, making sure no one gets into trouble or wanders too far off. In late afternoon they herd the animals back to the clinic for supplemental food and vitamins. The orangutans aren't old enough to make it on their own just yet.

Going into that forest teaches me what clever thieves orangutans are. If I leave a water bottle unsupervised, an orange bandit inevitably swoops down, unscrews the lid and starts slurping, watching me out of the corner of his or her eye. The buttons and zippers on my bags are no obstacle either. These uncannily intelligent animals are masters at imitation. Take Nopi, for example. She moseys up to me one day, staring saucer-eyed at my blue backpack, then reaches out and carefully unzips it, imitating what she's seen me do many times. She yanks out my sunscreen and starts shaking it, eyeing it with curiosity until I coax it back from her.

Petty theft aside, the hard part of working at the clinic is taking care of animals when they get sick. Every day before the morning exodus, Rosa Garriaga, a volunteer vet from Spain, makes her rounds. She walks up and down the white-tile halls, past rows and rows of anxious orangutans clanging the locks on their doors. She listens to heartbeats, takes temperatures and thumps abdomens of animals that seem lethargic or refuse to eat. Her small medicine room, a hodgepodge of donated drugs, looks like a pediatrics ward; electrolytes, antibiotics, children's Tylenol, powdered milk and dehydration packets line clearly marked shelves. A dry-erase board covered in key Indonesian/English translations hangs by the door. I learn the Indonesian word for "constipation" before I learn how to say "good morning." Once Rosa shuffles through her scanty supplies, I help grind up pills and sneak them into sweetened milk or peanut butter to feed sick animals.

I'm also in charge of giving extra food to an underweight puffball named Uda. She hasn't been thriving like the rest of the orangutans, her tiny stature stunted in perpetual youth. Each morning I spoon out high-calorie "primate food" donated by a zoo, passing it to Uda through the bars of her cage. She eats quietly, watching me closely. When it's time for her to head into the forest with the rest of the 'tans, she always makes a beeline for me. She climbs up my legs like they are tree trunks and settles herself piggyback. In the wild her mom would still be carrying her; her instinctual longing for maternal care is fierce.

As with human orphans, you can't simply feed these orangutans, provide them a place to play and expect them to thrive. They ache to feel protected and cared for, and they can succumb to lethal depressions if abandoned. Yet by nurturing these animals, do they become dangerously acclimated to people -- many of whom mean them harm? Can animals raised by people ever truly be wild again? It's a dilemma this clinic and others like it struggle with.

Days spent in the forest canopy, where people cannot follow, teach the orphans to fend for themselves. As they get older, there will be less and less interaction with people. Eventually, like human adolescents, they will naturally outgrow the need for caregivers. Around age 8 or 9, when they split from mom in the wild, they become haughtily independent. They don't want to be held, handled, fed or brought back to the clinic at night. They are strong enough to make it on their own and resent any intrusion on their independence. (Parents with teenagers should recognize this behavior.) It's the age when Galdikas transports these orphans deep into nearby Tanjung Puting National Park and releases them in the forests of their birth.

I want to take a look at Uda's future and head into Tanjung Puting with Galdikas. From the clinic it's a 20-minute drive on dirt roads past rice paddies and small villages to the filthy riverfront town of Kumai. We climb into a diesel "klotok" and push off into a brown river littered with trash. Fifteen minutes later we veer left into a grove of 20-foot nipa palms and begin chugging upriver. The water gradually clears, turning from sludge brown to crystalline black, the natural color of water in Borneo's peat swamps. The river is glass smooth, littered with the distinct reflections of clouds.

Two kingfishers whiz past, turquoise rockets zooming low over the river. We pass a troop of macaques hanging like Christmas ornaments from the crown of a tree. A 6-foot-long crocodile is sunning himself on the bank, jaws propped open, his body as black as the river. I feel a surge of astonishment and thankfulness to be witness to such a gigantic, thriving rain forest. I am glued to the rail of the boat. Next thing I know we float past a logging camp.

Five young men lounge in their underwear outside a covered wood platform on stilts, surrounded by felled trees and sawdust. The mud bank is littered with crumpled Endomie noodle packages, a staple of the Indonesian diet. This is the first of four illegal logging camps I would see that day. It's part of an epidemic that is consuming all of Indonesia's national parks, as Galdikas explains. "At least 50 percent of the wood coming out of Indonesia is logged illegally. I mean, over half," she sighs.

When the iron-fisted rule of Suharto collapsed after 30 years in Indonesia, a policy of decentralization swept through this archipelago. No one knows who has final authority over the national parks, leaving them unprotected. Meanwhile, plenty can profit from their destruction. Park staff and local officials aren't paid a living wage in Indonesia, making them ripe for corruption.

As I mull over these social problems, I start wondering where all this wood is going. Turns out the U.S. is one of the biggest markets. Despite knowing how much of Indonesia's wood is logged illegally, our government and businesses do nothing to avoid buying the illegal timber -- so it makes its way into everything we buy.

I traveled halfway around the world to a remote forest in Borneo to learn why orangutans are sliding into extinction, only to discover that stuff in my house is at the very heart of the problem.

Ramin, an ancient canopy tree that towers over the swamps of Tanjung Puting, is used mostly for manufacturing picture frames, pool cues and futon frames in the U.S. I can't help but wonder -- do we really want to turn Borneo's colossal rain forests into pool cues? Is our need for futons so urgent we have to tear down centuries-old trees to manufacture them? Rain forest conservation has been a mainstream issue for decades -- but we've never quite made the leap to wondering which forests our dining room tables come from. As a result, our consumer demand fuels the large-scale destruction we point fingers at.

Galdikas is working with local communities to launch logging patrols in Tanjung Puting, but the illegal-logging problem is gaining momentum. Groups like Smart Wood and the Forest Stewardship Council hope to cut to the very root of the problem. Their goal is to figure out which companies log responsibly, label the companies' wood and reward them with big customers. It would, finally, give logging companies financial motive to do it right. Big-time buyers like Home Depot and Ikea are signing on to the idea, but getting the apparatus in place to meet America's voracious demand for tropical wood will take years. Meanwhile, as long as there are markets for illegally cut wood, people struggling with poverty will rip down their forests, destroying their futures and those of animals, like Uda, who have nowhere else to go.

For now, the future of pool halls looks bright, while the future for orangutans looks grim indeed. More than 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years. The pace of the cutting is accelerating.

When we get back to the clinic, I head straight for Uda's cage. She is hanging from the ceiling and swings down to say hello. She gently grabs my head, pulls it to the bars, and begins grooming me. She pulls pieces of dirt and sticks from my hair and eats them. Her small hands look so much like mine, her fingers elongated, the nails black instead of clear. Her amber eyes look out over my shoulder at the forest disappearing around her. I begin telling her things she can't possibly understand, promising I'll always look uneasily at my wood knickknacks and wonder who went without a home so I could decorate mine.

By Jennifer Hile

Jennifer Hile is a freelance photojournalist and videographer in Irvine, Calif. She is on her way to Thailand to film a series on Asian elephants for the National Geographic Channel.

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