Protecting Forests for Orangutans – Bringing Together a Historic Team of Forest Guardians in Borneo

Orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Katie Hawk/TNC

By Dr. Herlina Hartanto, Director of the Indonesia Terrestrial Program, The Nature Conservancy

A glimpse of red fur hanging on a tree branch caught my eye while cruising along the Kahayan River in Central Kalimantan (Central Kalimantan is in Indonesia, on the island of Borneo). The red fur coat turned out to be a young female orangutan hanging under the sun close to one of the feeding platforms on Kaja Island. I caught several other orangutans close by once my eyes adjusted to the shapes. Observing their quiet and deliberate movements, I came to understand why Birute Galdikas in her book, “Reflections of Eden,” called orangutans the master of hide-and-seek. Their soundless movements high in the dark shadows of the dense tropical forest canopy make it extremely difficult for untrained eyes to catch their presence.

Kaja Island, operated by the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), is one of the five islands in Central Kalimantan that are currently used to “train” rescued orangutans before releasing them into the wild. BOSF has relocated about 50 orangutans to Kaja Island after their natural habitats were converted into large-scale industrial timber or oil palm plantations or mines. The tropical forests in Indonesia are disappearing at an alarming rate: around 700,000 hectares (or 1.7 million acres) per year in the last several years. As a result, orangutans are losing their natural habitats and are forced to venture into new territories, many of which do not provide adequate protection and shelter. Orangutans are even perceived as pests as they eat young palm trees, and therefore are often killed. The Nature Conservancy and 18 other NGOs in Indonesia conducted a survey from 2008 to 2010 that showed that 78% of the orangutan population in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) lives outside protected areas.

Understanding the challenges that orangutans are facing, the Conservancy’s Indonesia Terrestrial Program sets an ambitious goal of protecting and improving management across 10 million hectares of forests — the orangutan’s forest — by 2020. We will do this by working with forest guardians — communities, companies, non-governmental organizations and all levels of governments — to:

  • protect the areas of the orangutan’s forest that are most critical to wildlife and people;
  • transform the way government and companies support and manage the orangutan’s forest; and
  • inspire the people of Indonesia, and all of us, to safeguard the orangutan’s forest and our future.
A community member patrols Wehea Protected Forest, which provides important habitat for orangutans. Photo © Nick Hall
A community member patrols Wehea Protected Forest, which provides important habitat for orangutans. Photo © Nick Hall

The goal of protecting tropical forests in Indonesia is not new. The Conservancy has indeed been working in Indonesia for more than 25 years, and we have been working in the Indonesian part of Borneo for more than 15 years. Over the last decade, we have been working with local governments and engaging indigenous people in Wehea (East Kutai District) and in Lesan (Berau District) to protect their surrounding forests, especially those that have a high population of orangutans. We have increased their awareness of the importance of orangutans, directly engaged them in forest patrolling against wildlife poaching and supported the development of livelihoods to complement their forest-dependent lives.

What is new now is our initiative to engage private companies, especially forestry and palm oil, to sustain large landscapes of healthy and productive forests — orangutan-safe forests. We are working with private companies to:

  • put in place land management practices that lessen impacts to forest habitat while maintaining productivity;
  • incorporate specific practices to conserve orangutans and their habitat so that the large landscape of forests outside of protected areas continues to provide a home for orangutans; and
  • obtain international sustainability certifications that will help them grow in markets that increasingly demand high social and environmental performance.
Well-managed logged forests can still provide safe habitat for orangutans. Photo © Nick Hall
Well-managed logged forests can still provide safe habitat for orangutans. Photo © Nick Hall

Recently, The Nature Conservancy signed a Memorandum of Understanding with five private companies (three logging companies, one oil palm and one industrial timber plantation), provincial government agencies, and the leader of the Wehea traditional community to manage a landscape of 265,000 hectares where around 1,000 orangutans live. This public-private-community partnership to manage orangutan habitat across a large landscape was the first one in Indonesia. The initiative may expand when adjacent companies join force.

Although orangutans are safe and well taken care of in Kaja Island, the island is just a temporary haven. They should not have had to find their way there in the first place. To protect orangutans, we have to protect their natural habitats. This can be done if governments, companies and local communities work together.


Herlina Hartanto. Photo © Nick Hall Dr. Herlina Hartanto is the director of The Nature Conservancy’s Terrestrial Program in Indonesia. Herlina joined the Conservancy in 2010 because she wanted to have a real impact on the health of forests, communities and wildlife in her home country. She is inspired everyday by the people she meets in Indonesia’s villages, companies, governments and non-profits, who are all fighting to safeguard their forests and their futures.




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Protect. Transform. Inspire. The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to be a leader in taking on the most complex challenges facing the planet. Our place-based projects in over 40 countries serve as living laboratories where new ideas to protect nature are tested, perfected and adapted for other places. We engage businesses, governments and communities in delivering these on-the-ground results – demonstrating how conservation innovations can transform how our food, water and energy are produced. And by empowering more leaders and communities all over the world with solutions that work, we will inspire action at the scale of the challenge.