The Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, Borneo, was considered a conservation wasteland just a decade ago. Most of its forest had been destroyed, and its orangutans virtually eradicated by massive forest fires and human development. It was thought by experts that a priority population of an estimated 600 orangutans had dwindled to perhaps no more than 30.
But surveys of the Kutai National Park in 2010 discovered areas with excellent quality forest and a strong orangutan presence. The findings indicate the park’s orangutan population could be as large as 1,000-2,000. Concurrently, other areas of the park are also showing strong orangutan presence in the form of large numbers of healthy, reproducing orangutans. The important message is that these orangutans and the park are recovering well from serious damage and, as such, are important conservation priorities.
Beyond their numbers, Kutai orangutans have special importance as members of the easternmost subspecies of the endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus morio). This subspecies is considered the most durable of all orangutans—East Borneo is the worst orangutan habitat—but they are poorly understood, especially in East Kalimantan.
The Orangutan Kutai Project was launched in 2009 as a long-term science-for-conservation project on these Kutai orangutans. It was designed as a five-year knowledge-building core with two linked goals:
- 1. Improving knowledge of morio orangutans
- 2. Enhancing the effectiveness of morio conservation efforts in and around the park
The Orangutan Kutai Project focuses on the range of orangutans because ranging offers a good overview of their habitat needs, social lives, energy management, flexibilities, and limits. Effective protection depends on designing programs to suit their needs, preferences, flexibilities, and limitations. The project is directed by Dr. Anne Russon, an Orangutan Conservancy board member and researcher with 23 years of experience studying orangutan behavior in Bornean forests, and operates in the field with a team of six local field assistants, a manager and a counterpart from the Kutai National Park authority.
The Orangutan Kutai Project operates from a field site that runs approximately four kilometers along the south side of the Sangata River, Kutai National Park’s northern boundary, and inland from there. This site was chosen because censuses showed a strong orangutan presence and the need for additional protection there. A public road, recently built, runs along the opposite side of the Sangata River, as close as 30-50 m from the river’s banks. Local people have been actively clearing and settling on the land between the road and the river. Such easy access to this part of KNP leaves the area very vulnerable to illegal entry, so continuous project presence can help maintain its safety.To date, the project has found 26 orangutans in the study area, including five adult females with dependent youngsters and a large number of males. All are healthy, well fed, and reproducing normally. Regular work in the field involves following these orangutans nest to nest and monitoring environmental conditions (plant food availability, weather) that influence their health, habitat use, and travel.
Specifically, the Orangutan Conservancy carries out this mission as follows:
- 1. By providing funding to a variety of orangutan protection programs;
- 2. By providing funding to various Wildlife Rescue Programs in Indonesia. These programs are established to support and coordinate animal conservation efforts in Indonesia;
- 3. By providing emergency funding to help protect critical habitats of the orangutan. This includes assisting efforts to control forest fires where important populations of such animals exist or supporting other emergency activities to protect and preserve the target species of the organization; and,
- 4. By improving public awareness of the plight of the orangutan and their habitats on Borneo and Sumatra and in the United States.
The Orangutan Conservancy (OC) is an independent US nonprofit 501(c)(3)organization that operated primarily by dedicated volunteers, and it strives to keep administrative costs to a bare minimum to ensure that donations reach the projects in the field where they belong. OC’s formation was inspired by the Balikpapan Orangutan Society (BOS) in Balikpapan, Indonesia, which was established in 1991 by Dr. Willie Smits in the town of Balikpapan to support the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Program. OC continues a close and supportive relationship with the BOS in Indonesia, now known as BOS Foundation.