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Pacific Connections

Hanging with the Orangutans


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The critically endangered Borneo orangutan. 

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Maui's Mark White, at home in the forests of Borneo.

Whether it's the orangutan habitat of Borneo, the dense forests of Sulawesi or the watersheds of East Maui, conservation challenges can require similar approaches. 

So says Mark White, the Conservancy’s Maui Program director, who has extensive experience in all three locations.

White recently traveled to Indonesia to complete a Coda Fellowship, which was aimed at gathering information and identifying the lessons researchers could learn—both from their successes and failures— doing conservation in Borneo and Sulawesi's Lore Lindu National Park.

In Borneo, White worked with researchers following a small family of three orangutans as they moved through the treetops in Kutai National Park.

“The orangutans, their feet are shaped like hands, and it's almost as if they have four hands. They build large nests up in the trees, and then move to follow the ripening fruit through the year. They're feeding on all kinds of delicious fruits in the canopy—rambutans, jackfruits, magosteens, mangoes, figs and lychees,” White said.

One day in the canopy above him, an adolescent female leaped to a tree too small to hold her weight. The tree bent nearly to the ground, and the orangutan would have landed on top of White if a researcher had not pulled him out of the way.

The humans were surprised; the animals not. “The animals just kept on feeding, as if we weren't even there,” he said.

The Borneo orangutan and its smaller Sumatran cousin are both critically endangered. Borneo orangutans numbered near a half million 20 years ago and are at about 45,000 now, and falling. Sumatran orangutans have dropped to a population of about 7,000.

If you look at Borneo on Google Earth, you can see why. Their jungle habitat is fast disappearing, replaced by oil palm plantations, but also displaced by villagers' farms, gold mines, coal mines and logging operations.

“The habitat loss is astonishing. That was one of the hardest things about being there; it's all happening so fast,” White said.

The Nature Conservancy has been active in helping protect the orangutans for about four years, and has been a conservation partner in Central Sulawesi's Lore Lindu National Park for 19 years.

The orangutan project is more species-based; doing whatever can be done to protect the orangutans and their habitat in Borneo and Sumatra. The Lore Lindu project is habitat-based; protecting the diverse habitat of a specific, half-million-acre national park.

But like Hawai'i, both areas are extremely important in their role in global environmental diversity. The islands of Indonesia have 1.3 percent of the world's land mass, but 17 percent of its species of plants and animals, many of which are endemic, or unique to that region. (Half of Hawaii's roughly 20,000 species of land and marine life are also endemic.)

As part of his fellowship, White produced two reports. Among the conservation lessons he identified are the importance of engaging local governments and creating sustainable financing systems. Even more important are partnerships—something that has also been true of the Conservancy’s work in Hawai‘i.

“The Conservancy has partnered with dozens of local and international groups and non-government organizations in the Borneo, Sulawesi and Sumatra regions,” White said. “You need to develop strong relationships with the human communities of a region, in order to protect the natural communities there.”

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