Tourism Helping Orangutans? Kalimantan in the Burning Season

Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia, which Todd and I visited in October 2015, was permeated by smoke. Parts of Indonesia get hazy every fall as farmers burn their fields (an ancient practice that can enrich the soil) and as palm oil plantations burn down the rainforest to expand. (They’re supposed to dig out the trees, but burning is easier.)

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Indonesians told me they get a bad smoke year every seven to ten years, and 2015 was the worst year in about a decade.

I’m not sure what I expected when I agreed to go on a tour of Tanjung Puting via klotok (riverboat): rainforest, yes, and orangutans, and of course I hoped birds would magically appear in front of my eyes, which they seldom do in forests. I was skeptical of the tour at first because I had planned to see orangutans on Sumatra, but Todd thought a klotok tour would be more fun. He discovered a tour company on Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) run by a woman named Siti and booked a trip with her.

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On our second day on the boat, we woke up to an orangutan grunting. We were on the Sekonyer River, which rises from the estuary at Kumai (along with the Kumai River) in an ironwood boat called the Nefertiti. It was amazing and otherworldly to wake up to the sound of a great ape, but then I opened my eyes to white haze so thick I wore a mask for a while.

Photo by Todd Bradley.

Photo by Todd Bradley.

My parents smoked in the house, I smoked on and off for fifteen years, and I lived in a house with high levels of radon, so I try to limit my exposure to other things that could damage my lungs.

The air didn’t smell bad, but we couldn’t see the sun, except sometimes as an orange ball, or the moon and stars. We couldn’t see very far ahead up the river or into the trees.

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Robby was our guide. He worked hard to find birds for me, often popping up and shouting, “Hornbill!” to me as we passed one on our way up the river.

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He took us to localities doing work supported by Orangutan Foundation International:  Tanjung Harapan (where the seedlings looked neglected); Pondok Tanggui (where there were loads of European tourists with huge lenses, but no orangutans); Camp Leakey; and Pesalat, where Kedan lives with his seedlings and takes donations from tourists to finance his restoration. We saw orangutans at feeding stations in several places; the best sighting was a mother swinging from tree to tree with her child.

If there was an office somewhere for Tanjung Puting National Park, I didn’t see it—we seemed to be visiting a bunch of little operations run by nonprofits.

It was a trip I’ll never forget, but I do regret one thing: I wasn’t able to get a picture of any of the fires themselves. I have many pictures of haze, and even a picture of a bust of some kind, complete with a menacing law enforcement official.

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In a way, fires in the rich peat bogs that underlie forests in Kalimantan are like mine fires in Colorado. They can burn for years, spreading through the system (of mines or peatlands), and are difficult to put out.

This year’s horrific burning season may have put some sense into corporate heads at palm oil companies:

“After years of pressure Wilmar, the Singapore-based company that controls 45 percent of the palm oil trade, and Unilever, one of the world’s largest palm oil buyers, announced a “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation Policy” to protect peatlands and orangutan habitat from expanding palm oil plantations. Other palm oil companies, most notably Golden Agri Resources, committed to no-deforestation pledges after Unilever, Nestlé, Kraft, Burger King, and other customers dropped it as a supplier.” (The quote is about halfway through the article.)

The article explains that the origin of the fires was former dictator’s Suharto’s Mega Rice Project, which cut canals into peat bogs in Kalimantan. (Damming them may hold the key to stopping the fires.)

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Was our trip a form of restoration? Can a klotok holding two to four tourists (upstairs) and that many crew (downstairs) hold back the world’s demand for palm oil?

Maybe we helped a little. But we can’t restore orang habitat just by taking a boat trip.

You could stop it, though. Stop buying products with palm oil. Get your friends to stop too.