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Orangutans Find Refuge in Borneo Preserve

Orangutans, the red apes of Sumatra and Borneo, have been threatened by drought, fire and human encroachment. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with a woman who became a surrogate mother to many of the creatures, and heads an organization devoted to saving them.

In 1971, Birute Mary Galdikas was a 25-year-old anthropology student when she set up a camp for orangutans in Indonesian Borneo. Naming it Camp Leakey after the noted Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey, she offered a refuge to displaced animals.

She coped with blood-sucking leeches and meat-eating insects, but adapted to the setting and eventually became an Indonesian citizen. Today, she divides her time among Camp Leakey, western Canada, and the United States, where she heads the Los Angeles-based Orangutan Foundation International.

She says she was attracted to the animals because they're close to humans. Orangutans have no language, of course, but researchers have found they can master a limited vocabulary using sign language.

"They are so close that when you work with them on a day-to-day basis in a situation where the orangutans are free and you are free, in other words, there are no cages involved, it's very easy to forget that they're not human," said Birute Mary Galdikas.

Ms. Galdikas says devastating fires in Indonesia in 1997 and '98 destroyed large parts of the orangutan habitat.

"And the net effect of those fires on orangutans was absolutely brutal," she said. "Just brutal. Thousands of orangutans must have died as a result of those fires."

Others were displaced to areas where survival was difficult.

Estimates of the world's orangutan population range as low as 15,000, but the researcher believes the actual number is closer to 30,000. Still, she says, the species is in grave danger.

"The main phenomenon is the clearing of forests, massive clearing of forests, to establish plantations, particularly palm oil plantations and timber estates," she continued. "And you also have massive illegal logging throughout Indonesia, that still to this day has not been controlled. And then as a result of the forest disappearing, orangutans become refugees. They have no place to go."

She says that makes the animal vulnerable to capture for the pet trade.

Ms. Galdikas says the United States has helped preserve the orangutan habitat through the U.S. Agency for International Development, as has the United Nations Environment Program.

But she says more needs to be done to help the apes of Asia, and also of Africa, where the hunting of apes for meat is depleting their numbers.

"And in Indonesia, what needs to be done is the areas that the Indonesian government has set aside as national parks and reserves need to be safeguarded form logging," said Birute Mary Galdikas. "The only place that this is happening is the place where I work, Tanjung Puting National Park. That is the only park which has large populations of orangutans which is now totally protected."

She says one of the reasons the conservation effort is successful in Indonesian Borneo is that the local population is behind it. She says the region's Dayak people, even those who live in cities, view orangutans and other forest creatures as part of their natural heritage.