Saturday, July 4, 2009

Orang utan expert amazed at Sabah's conservation

Daily Express
Published on: Thursday, July 02, 2009

Kota Kinabalu: The world's leading orang utan expert, Dr Birute Mary Galdikas, is full of praise for the Sabah Government's conservation efforts to save the apes, one of the world's most endangered species.

She told Daily Express in an exclusive interview that Sabah is doing progressive work in orang utan conservation by making efforts to eliminate illegal logging and trying to find a permanent home for orang utans such as in the Malua forest reserve.

"I am also impressed to learn that the Government is going to create 'corridors' to protect wildlife. That's wonderful and I am not saying it just because I am in Sabah.

"I would say exactly the same thing in Indonesia or in the United States (where she is often invited to give lectures). We need to do more for the future and I am so glad that you are already doing it. We can all do better."

Last December, Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Hj Aman announced that 250,000 hectares of lowland forests in the Ulu Segama-Malua area would be set aside for the orang utans. It is estimated that there are more than 3,000 orang utans in the Malua forest reserve alone.

On Tuesday, State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, Datuk Masidi Manjun, said the State Government wants to purchase privately-owned land at zones neighbouring the fragmented Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary to ensure the long-term survival of iconic Sabah wildlife such as the orang utan, rhino and elephants.

A committee was set up under his Ministry to prepare the policy that will be known as Kinabatangan Corridor of Life (KCoL).

Dr Galdikas, 63, who is based in Indonesia, has been studying and living with the orang utans at a reserve in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) called Tanjung Puting Reserve (now a national park) since age 25 in 1971.

She has worked ceaselessly to save orang utans, especially orphaned ones, and rainforests, and to bring their plight to world attention.

This was her second visit to Sabah, having been invited by the Sabah Government to attend a conference in 1990. She has been touring places of interest and one of the things that caught her attention was the gated checkpoint put up by the Wildlife Department at the Tabin Wildlife Centre to curb illegal poaching.

Dr Galdikas, who founded the Los Angeles-based Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) in 1986 and became its President, noted there are some 5,000 orang utans in the Danum Valley as calculated by scientists.

What fascinated her in the Danum Valley was also the diversity and richness of wildlife there.

"The forest (Danum) is awesome and just takes one's breath away. I am not joking. The only forest that comes close to the forest of Sabah that I saw in Danum are the redwoods in northern California. They are beautiful, breathtaking.

"In the Danum Valley, there are 400 different types of birds recorded but in Tanjung Puting where I work, we have something like 200 recorded.

That in itself tells you about the richness in the Danum Valley, and I am so glad that it is protected."

Dr Galdikas, who visited Sepilok then and had an amazing experience with the orang utan, is equally impressed with the fact that Mt Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia is in Borneo, and likewise, the tallest tree in Borneo (standing at 88.3 metres) is also found in Sabah.

From her observation, there is massive tourism in Sepilok, Sandakan, compared with the much smaller tourism in her place.

"The real work, like what is done in Sepilok, gets done in non-public facilities, so we don't have the visitors. We get a few thousand foreigners a year."

Dr Galdikas attributed the situation in Kalimantan Tengah to the total lack of infrastructure, saying the Indonesian Government has to deal with the fourth largest population on this planet.

"Conservation is important to the Government but I think it's such a wide and diverse nation that it has many priorities, not just conservation."

Asked whether she would convince the Indonesian Government to make a similar conservation move, Dr Galdikas, now an Indonesian citizen, said:

"The problem is that we have to worry about infrastructure at a very basic level. You have excellent roads in Sabah but in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), especially Kalimantan Tengah, the roads are still being built, and some of the bridges have not yet been completed. The problems in Indonesia are much more overwhelming."

Making a further comparison, Dr Galdikas, noted that Sabah has been very fortunate because it has magnificent forests that allow great prosperity.

"And now you are paying back, you are giving back," she quipped. "In Kalimantan Tengah, the forests are not as tall and don't have as much valuable timber.

"So the prosperity that was made possible in Sabah by the abundant resources you have here by your history simply does not exist in Kalimantan Tengah, Central Indonesian Borneo. That's my province...it's the poorest of all provinces in Kalimantan." However, she was proud to say that there are no beggars in Kalimantan Tengah.

When told that only one-fifth of the land in Sabah has been cleared for oil-palm cultivation, Dr Galdikas said some 50 per cent or up to 70 per cent in some areas in Kalimantan Tengah is planted with palm-oil.

Describing palm oil as the Number One enemy of orang utans and all wildlife, she lamented that these creatures are being annihilated in Kalimantan because of the mass destruction of rainforests for oil-palm plantations and timber estates.

"Tropical rainforests constitute the orang utan species' only natural habitat.

But what is happening makes me worried about the future of the orang utans. Their population has declined in recent years. Maybe there are about 30,000 left. You can see the forests being destroyedÉwhere there were trees five years ago, there is now a palm-oil plantation."

Asked if the continued poaching and habitat destruction due to deforestation truly signals the end for the orang utan population, Dr Galdikas said:

"I think we are not losing but we may not be winning. As long as we can save some trees, and some forests, save orang utans, make a difference, we are not losing but the problem is we may not be winning.

"I will not give up as long as I can breathe."

Interestingly, Dr Galdikas revealed that she initially applied to come to work in Sabah in the late sixties after graduating with a Bachelor's degree in zoology and Master's degree in anthropology from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

"But there was no reply. I don't know what the problem was. We didn't get a reply from Sabah, we didn't get a reply from Malaysia. So we wrote to the Indonesian Government, and there was a reply. I think I was fated to go to Indonesia," she quipped.

Currently, she heads the Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine near Pangkalan Bun. It is an official co-operative programme between OFI and Indonesia's local Nature Conservation Agency.

She has successfully lobbied the Indonesian Government to set aside parks and curb illegal logging and orang utan trading at the expense of being threatened, harassed and even kidnapped by those who oppose her work.

Between 1996 and 1998, she served as a Senior Advisor to Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry on orang utan issues. In June 1997, she won the prestigious "Kalpataru" award (or Indonesia's Hero for the Earth Award), the highest honour given by the Republic for outstanding environmental leadership.

Born Lithuanian, she is the only person of non-Indonesian birth and one of the first women to be recognised by the Indonesian government for making outstanding contributions.
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