A Dream for International Orangutan Day–A Primatologist Works to Protect the Orangutan’s Forest

Dr. Ahmad Yanuar scans the forest for orangutan nests. Wehea Forest, Indonesian Borneo. Photo © Katie Hawk/TNC

By Dr. Ahmad Yanuar, Orangutan Program Manager & Primatologist, The Nature Conservancy

Indonesia, where I’m from is famous for its diversity of primate species. And some of these primates are found only in Indonesia. Unfortunately, many of them are also threatened with extinction. This is what first made me interested in studying these animals, who share so many characteristics with humans. The first primate I studied was the Mentawai gibbon in west Sumatra for my undergraduate degree in 1990. After that I traveled across Indonesia to survey a variety of primates, from Sumatra and Java to Sulawesi and the North Maluku Islands.

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

One of these trips was to study a population of Bornean orangutans in Kalimantan (Indonesia Borneo) in 1991. It was here that I first met a wild orangutan up close. I was surveying in the afternoon by canoe in a lowland swamp forest. The orangutan was holding her baby while she ate fruits on the river bank. She didn’t run away as my canoe approached her, and I was struck by how immense and calm she seemed. Then when I returned to our camp deep in a pristine dry lowland forest, I unintentionally encountered a male orangutan with a huge cheek pad. He was walking on four legs along the forest floor. He ran and climbed a tree when I approached and looked angry as he broke a twig and threw it at me.

I think that these two encounters with orangutans in their natural habitat are what made me fall in love with conservation work. I’m especially dedicated to the conservation of gibbons and orangutans because they play a role in healthy natural ecosystems as animal seed dispersers. By saving these species we also save other species.

Orangutan nest high in the top of a tree in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Melisa Holman/TNC
Orangutan nest high in the top of a tree in East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Melisa Holman/TNC

Eventually, I earned my PhD at Cambridge University studying primates, but I always remembered my interest in conservation. So, I was lucky to join The Nature Conservancy in 2014 as the manager of our orangutan project. My job is to help the Conservancy to save the habitat of orangutans by involving the community, government and the private sector. This work is personally very interesting and challenging for me. To maintain the existence of orangutans, we must prevent damage to their habitat and prevent poaching of this species.

Orangutans are highly protected by the Indonesian government because of their rarity and their steadily declining population numbers. But, the vast majority of orangutan habitat in East Kalimantan is outside ​​conservation areas in “production forests” designated by the government to be managed by the private sector (such as logging, industrial timber and mining). These industries are mostly located in productive lowland forest, which is also important habitat for orangutans.

Wehea Protected Forest, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Nick Hall
Wehea Protected Forest, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo © Nick Hall

The Conservancy had some early successes in protecting the habitat of orangutans since we began working in East Kalimantan in the early 2000s, including the establishment of protected forests in Wehea and Lesan River. These protected forests are inhabited by orangutans and are officially recognized by the government. But with so many orangutans living in production forests, we realized we must do more.

That’s why the Conservancy recently signed an agreement with private companies, communities and government to jointly protect important orangutan habitat in production forests surrounding Wehea Protected Forest by implementing management practices that help to conserve orangutans.

The Conservancy is also helping the government protect orangutans by providing policy recommendations. These recommendations are based on studies and surveys done by the Conservancy and our partners to determine the distribution of orangutan habitat and threats and conservation opportunities throughout Borneo within the last five years.

The Nature Conservancy works with logging companies in Indonesian Borneo to help them implement practices that can sustain profit while protecting orangutans. Photo © Nick Hall
The Nature Conservancy works with logging companies in Indonesian Borneo to help them implement practices that can sustain profit while protecting orangutans. Photo © Nick Hall

Just this June, the Conservancy held a forum where we presented our recommendations for government to implement policies and practices that will protect the orangutan. For example, we recommended that the government use spatial planning when deciding whether and where to permit companies to use the forest so that important areas of orangutan habitat can be connected, allowing orangutans to travel between them. And companies that do receive permits within orangutan habitat should be required to implement specific management practices that protect orangutans and their habitat. We also recommended greater law enforcement to reduce orangutan poaching.

There’s still much work for The Nature Conservancy and our partners to protect orangutans in Indonesia given the threats of habitat loss and climate change, but I have a dream and this dream keeps me pushing forward. I would do anything for the orangutan.

Please join me this International Orangutan Day (August 19th) in my dream to protect orangutans and their forest homes.

Dr. Ahmad Yanuar. Photo © Katie Hawk/TNCDr. Ahmad Yanuar is The Nature Conservancy’s orangutan project manager. His passion is to bring orangutans back from the brink of extinction. That’s why Yanuar is preparing guidance to ensure that forestry and oil palm companies, which perhaps stand to have the biggest impact on the life or death of orangutans, can implement the best measures possible to protect orangutans. And, of course, what’s good for orangutans is good for other wildlife.

See what Yanuar and other forest guardians are doing to help orangutans. #forestguardian

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.
  • Karen Kenngott

    Thank you for your stamina and dedication, Dr. Yanuar. I enjoyed reading your story and learning more about the situation orangutans are facing. I am so glad The Nature Conservancy has someone with such extensive first hand knowledge of these animals working with them to find solutions to these complex problems such that these iconic creatures can survive. I hope you find time to provide updates along the way. You never know what assistance may be offered simply by keeping these animals in view through your public interest pieces.

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