Is orangutan tourism ethical?
Seeing the orangutans at Tanjung PutingBook your Kalimantan orangutan tour here
In the middle of the jungle of Borneo, the paradox hit me. Surrounded by the rustling of the animals, hours from civilisation, it all became clear. The very thing that is threatening the wildlife population here is the same thing that could save it – human intervention.
“You need to find a balance in life”, says Fred Galdikas from the Orangutan Foundation International.
“The good thing is people are more aware… the bad thing is we’re bringing more people here.”
So the issue stuck with me… Should I, as a tourist, be intruding on the animals’ land? Or will my presence here ultimately help them?
Yesterday I wrote about joining Fred to visit the orangutan conservation camps in Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo). He grew up here amongst the animals and, along with his mother and other workers, has dedicated his life to helping orangutans. The foundation saves orphaned babies who would die on their own, feeds adults when natural food is scarce, and works on projects for long-term sustainability. But from a tourism perspective, he has seen things change over the past 30 years. When he was a child, that was never the aim and only a couple of boats would arrive each week. But by 2011, there were about 5,000 visitors to Tanjung Puting. This year there have already been about 8,000.
It’s not easy to get here so you need a bit of dedication. First there’s a flight to Pangkalan Bun, then a transfer to Port Kumai, then a four hour boat ride to Camp Leakey – the main base for the orangutan conservation efforts. Those visitors who come here usually have the right intentions. But intentions don’t save a species.
“They were not put here for tourists”, Fred stresses. “This is where they live… but their habitat is being destroyed.”
But tourism could, in some ways, be the very thing that protects the orangutans and their habitat. The biggest threat to the animals is the destruction of the jungles here in Kalimantan. Local Indonesians are cutting it down to build palm oil plantations. But they’re only doing it because it’s the easiest way to make a living.
“We’re in a third world country where every day is almost a struggle to survive, to eat, to make money”, Fred explains.
“And when people see the rich guys like the palm oil guys, the local people look at that and wonder how they can do that. Well, one of the things they do is open up a palm oil plantation because that’s where the money is.”
Tourism in Kalimantan (Borneo)
But what if there was easy cash to be made from the thousands of foreigners who are now making the trek to Kalimantan to see the orangutans in their natural environment?
The foundation is now working on two things that are leading in that direction. They are using the money it raises from donations to buy the land around the national park so it can’t be turned into plantations. And they are investing time in increasing awareness amongst the local population.
On the river, as our boat passes beneath the fronds of overhanging trees, I see three other boats come towards us. As they get closer I realise they are full of Indonesian school students.
They are on their way to a tree-planting camp where the local rangers will show them the importance of the forest. I’d just been there myself and Ledan, who had worked there for twelve years, had let me join in the planting. (I’d chosen a Nyatuh tree, which he assured me was one of the best for the orangutans.)
He plants about 300 or 400 trees a year but seems to spend most of his time on the educational side of things. The sort of change that the experts here are hoping for is generational and will take a long time. Fred has seen firsthand how hard it has been.
“Forty years ago my mother, a foreigner, was the first person to come here and study the orangutans. Not a local, but a foreigner, that tells you everything.”
But he’s confident things are shifting. As foreign tourist numbers increase, there’s the potential for more donations and more support for the conservation work that’s being done here. It also means the locals in Borneo can see the tourism benefit from the orangutans and are more likely to focus on that than palm oil. And Fred believes the Indonesians are starting to genuinely believe in the protection of the animals.
“Now they’re saying that they’re our orangutans, they’re our treasure, and we’re going to help protect them. And that’s what we want”, Freddie tells me.
“Without the Indonesian government support, without the local people support, in about thirty years there’ll be no more orangutans – even less than thirty years, in fact.”
For now, I feel like coming here is the right thing to do. Not just as a traveller but as someone who can help spread the message. The way things are set up, the visitors don’t interrupt the animals at all and they are able to live their normal lives in the wild as we watch from a distance. I do wonder whether that will always be the case, though. There are up to 9,000 orangutans in the Tanjung Puting National Park at the moment. It would be nice to think they’ll always outnumber the humans here.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.