Orangutan Conservation & Rehabilitation


The Dutch conservationist Erik Meijaard once said, “Saving orangutans is easy: just don’t kill them or chop down their forests,” Indeed, orangutan conservation is not complicated: it is simply about protecting the forest habitat on which the species depend. At present only 36 per cent of Bornean orangutans live in protected areas. In Kalimantan only three populations with more than 1,000 individuals are protected-in Gunung Palung, Tanjung Puting and Sebangau national parks. The size of the population in a fourth reserve, Danau Sentarum, is unknown. At the time of writing, three other significant populations remained unprotected, the largest one in the Belantikan Hulu region of Central Kalimantan.

 The picture appears better in Sumatra, where most of the island’s 7,000 orangutans live in the Leuser Ecosystem conservation area.

On paper there is reason for hope. Malaysia seems to manage its protected areas well, and the Indonesian government is prepared to create new parks and reserves: it gazetted Lamandau Wildlife Reserve in 1997 and Sebangau National Park in 2004. However, the level of protection afforded to parks and reserves in Indonesia is mixed. Historically corruption and a lack of sustained commitment from the governments to provide adequate support to the parks’ managers has seen all conservation areas losing orangutan habitat.

At the same time a range of other factors has helped to complicate the situation, including undefined park borders, poor law enforcement, poverty and high market prices for natural resources.

In other parts of the world, particularly in east and southern Africa, tourism directly supports conservation. Visitors pay to see wildlife, and this revenue often provides a significant boost to the country’s economy In Rwanda, for example, tourists — most of whom are there to see mountain gorillas — represent one of the country’s highest sources of foreign income. Not only can tourist revenues be used to meet the costs of conservation, but they provide governments with an economic incentive to protect their wildlife.

When it comes to orangutan conservation, however, tourism doesn’t play such an important role. Not only are wild orangutans hard to find, but once they have been located they are difficult to observe because they lead solitary lives and spend the majority of their time high up in the canopy Free-ranging ex-captive orangutans can be a draw for ecotourists. however. Orangutan viewing is better established in Sabah than in Indonesia, but in neither place does is contribute significantly to conservation. With appropriate development this situation could improve.

 Although a number of NGOs work tirelessly to protect the remaining orangutans, ultimately their survival depends on the people and governments of Indonesia and Malaysia committing to protecting habitat throygh effectively managed national parks and strict law enforcement. The donor community. NGOs and pressure groups can help support this process but the will must be generated in-country.


There are many arguments for saving orangutans. They are Asia’s only great apes. They are one of humankind’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom, which gives us a moral obligation to ensure their future survival. Most importantly, perhaps, they are keystone species and symbols for the fragile, threatened rainforests that are their home: so if we save the orangutan we will save literally millions of insects, thousands of plants and hundreds of birds and small mammal species.


Rehabilitation is the process by which orphaned, confiscated or injured orangutans ate returned to a life in the wild. Usually it starts when forestry department officials seize an illegally held orphan (orangutans are protected under law in Indonesia and Malaysia) and transfer it to a rehabilitation centre.

 Depending on the orangutan’s health and age, it may require months of hand rearing and nursing. This can often mean 24-hour care. Young orangutans are subsequently able to learn how to live in the wild. Every day caters take them to nursery forests to practise climbing and encounter the sights, sounds, tastes and smells they will eventually meet in the wild, Once they ate considered strong and healthy are proficient climbers, can make their own nests and find their own food, they will be moved to protected release sites.

After release, rehabilitated orangutans are usually offered food every day at designated feeding sites. This allows researchers to monitor the orangutans’ wellbeing sometimes the only time individuals are seen is at feeding). It also decreases the chance of competition between the rehabilitated orangutans and other wildlife when natural food is scarce. The amount given is only a supplement, however and it ensures the orangutans stay healthy while still having to search in the forest for their own food. The location of the feeding sites is changed regularly and it must be remembered that, while the feedings at Camp Leakey, for example, ptovide the best opportunity for short-term visitors to see these elusive apes in their natural environment, they are run prindpally for the benefit of the orangutans rather than for tourists.

Conservation or welfare?

A common perception is that orangutan rehabilitation and orangutan conservation are one and the same. This is only partly true. The fundamental basis of orangutan conservation is habitat protection. If deforestation could be stopped, so could the need for rehabilitation; the number of orangutans being brought into care is only a reflection of the rate of habitat loss. As Biruté Galdikas, president of Orangutan Foundation International, says, “In the final analysis, orangutan rehabilitation has to be seen as a symptom of our failure to get to the underlying cause of the problem.” While the plight of the orphan orangutans is a welfare crisis, the fact is that reintroduced orangutans will not replace a wild population.

Originally rehabilitation was seen as a means of law enforcement, and thus as a form of conservation, as it allowed the authorities to confiscate illegally held animals. However, after more than 40 years of orangutan rehabilitation, the number of orangutans in care is increasing, not decreasing, causing some people to question the efficiency of rehabilitation and whether it helps to save the species.

 Of course, the issue that underlies rehabilitation is that wild orangutans need to be better protected. But until they are, orangutans will continue to be killed and orphans will need to be rescued, so there remains the question of what to do with these animals. They need to be taken into care — that is welfare. And rehabilitation can lead to direct conservation gains.

 Release sites need to be large and secure, Some reserves have been established especially for this purpose, thereby increasing the overall size of the protected area network.


Tanjung Puting National Park is as famous for its population of rehabilitated orangutans as it is for its wild ones. Indeed, these are the animals which most visitors to the park will see at feeding stations. In total, around 200 ex-captive orangutans were released into the park, by Biruté Galdikas and Orangutan Foundation International, between 1971 and 1995. In 1995 the Indonesian government passed legislation that ex-captives should not be released into areas such as Tanjung Puting National Park where there are large, viable populations of wild orangutans. The aim of the law was to separate wild and ex-captive populations so there was no competition for resources, and to prevent the possibility of the latter introducing disease.

 With nowhere to release the large numbers of orphaned and confiscated orangutans that were still being found Galdikas lobbied the government to create a conservation area in an expired logging concession to the west of

 Tanjung Puting which was at that time destined to be converted into a palm oil plantation. Her efforts paid off, and in 1997 the government designated the area an official orangutan release site Lamandau Wildlife Reserve In accordance with national guidelines, it is not open to visitors. Since 1998 more than 130 orangutans have been released into Lamandau.

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