Is orangutan tourism ethical?

Orangutan tours and tourism are increasing in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. Here I get a first hand look at whether they are ethical.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Seeing the orangutans at Tanjung Puting

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?

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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.

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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. (If you would like to book a tour, I recommend this one.)

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.”

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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.

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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.)

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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.”

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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.”

Tanjung Puting Orangutan Tour, Kalimantan, Indonesia

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.

If you would like to book a tour to Camp Leakey, you can do that 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.

20 thoughts on “Is orangutan tourism ethical?”

  1. You raise important issues. I would love to see orangutans and visit the most unspoilt places, but really is this type of tourism ethical? We bring resources, but for whom? If we leave orangutans in peace in their habitat untouched, don’t they have the right resources nature has provided them with? Probably this is too easy an argument, but sometimes I do ask myself if animals are really better off without anybody going to watch them…

    • It is a tricky situation – I think everybody admits that. In this case, they don’t have the resources because the local people are destroying the habitats. There needs to be some degree of human intervention and the work the foundation has done over the past 40 years has been extremely beneficial to the animals. The question now is how large can the tourism industry there get before it is too much…

    • Sadly, Angela and DJ and Michael Turtle, the real unethical part is what is happening with palm oil developers. It is not a simple case of animal lovers and conservationists leaving orangutans alone in their habitat and all is well. We are in a fight for our lives. read some of Dr. Birute Galdikas’s tweets about having to build a moat around supposed national park land, about fires being set, and people having their lives threatened for trying to stop it. Then what about the pictures of tortured and murdered mother orangutans. Sometimes observing orangutans in the rainforest and seeing how gentle and peaceful they are helps spur people on to action. We depend on donations to save rainforest and orangutans. Many people don’t know where Borneo is, they think orangutans are volatile like chimps, and they think orangutans are in Africa. Then, even for people who know where Borneo is, the problem can seem so far away. When people know that every bag of microwave popcorn helps to kill orangutans (it’s popping in palm oil), that their powdered coffee creamer probably has palm oil, and on and on, then maybe that knowledge combined with an eco tour will bring change for the better.

      • Thanks for your detailed comment. I have to say, I agree with everything you’ve said!
        I wrote this post because, when you’re out there, you do think about how appropriate tourism is (and to what scale) in a national park where the animals are living in the wild. But then you do some research, you hear about the threats, you see the work that’s being done – and you realise how important awareness is for foreigners and for locals.
        I wish you guys all the best in your ‘fight’ against palm oil. It’s not an easy struggle when they’re the ones with the money, but you’ve definitely got the general public of the world on your side!!

    • It’s not an easy issue. The people working there with the animals are the most ethical conservationists I’ve ever met. The animals are so well looked after and are always treated in such a way that they’ll be ready to go back into the wild once they’ve been cared for. From what I saw, small groups of tourists don’t cause any problems… but I’m concerned about what happens when hundreds or thousands of people want to come every day. That’s when there will be an impact!

  2. I think as long as the centre ensures that the animals are treated appropriatley and that the human visitors are learning the value of the animals then it is a good thing – i think the biggest threat to wildlife and the environment is people spending all their time in cities and not realizing the importance and our connection to the environment

    • Good point! Seeing something like this for yourself really does affect the way you look at nature, the environment, and conservation issues.
      I have to say, the animals are treated extremely well. The baby orangutan orphans would die if it wasn’t for the foundation taking care of them. And as soon as they’re able to fend for themselves, they’re released back into the wild. As long as human visitors are still learning, and the numbers remain small, it seems to be a good thing.

  3. I’m so jealous that you saw orangutans! This is near the very top of my bucket list. I also have conflicted feelings about it, but I guess orangutan tourism (which is bringing in much needed $ is better than palm oil which destroys the orangutans habitat.

  4. Tourists spending money on something that is both potentially going to save the orangutans and raise awareness has got to be a good thing. I knew palm oil was a bad thing, but I had no idea it was used in so many things. We are an awesome species…

    • Yeah, that’s pretty much the conclusion I came to as well. I had never realised how evil palm oil could be. When you see the effect it’s having on an amazing species like this, it makes you think about your product choices.

  5. Mineral rights, logging for palm oil, anarchic (indigenous) logging and the corruption that allows sales of national park land to interests are all HUGE issues in Indonesia, it’s legendary for it.

    There’s also the issue of the transmigrasi — villages of Javanese rice farmers dumped in cut-cleared forests to reduce population pressure in Java and increase agricultural production. They do terrible things to the rivers, notably pesticide fishing.

    So this is one country where eco-tourism really genuinely helps, particularly where locals can be involved in it. WWF Indonesia does good stuff too.

    I took a boat up the Batang Rejang in Sabah, and the devastation caused by palm oil in particular was utterly shocking. If Kalimantan, at least, can be partially saved.

    Really enjoying this series, thanks.

    • Thanks for all this information. It really sounds like there’s a lot of work to do on conservation issues in Indonesia. Ecotourism is probably a great place for many people to start – to see what’s at risk and hear what can be done to help protect it.

  6. I think it’s good to spread the word and educate as many people as possible, but I also feel that having too many tourists visiting could be disturbing. It might be good to have a limit on visiting times and the number of tourists accepted annually.

    Also, building awareness with those who are keen on destroying their habitat should be done. They should have corporate social responsibility and conservation should be at the top of their agenda.


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