Home Page > News > Saving Borneo’s Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest

Written by Darek Figa

7th November 2012

Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest – a place I’ve not heard of until only a few months ago.  A place close to Borneo’s Tanjung Puting National Park and Camp Leaky – the famous orang-utan study site founded by Birute Galdikas and so named in honour of her mentor and teacher Dr Louis Leaky.  The very same person who inspired Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall.

Rawa Kuno (Row-ah Koo-nah) is also inspirational and, for the most part, a place that has recently shifted my approach to wildlife conservation.  Not only through its tranquil location and biodiversity, but also because of the realisation that saving this forest is an opportunity for me to take an active step to stop ever more animals coming into care, and thus stop their suffering resulting from long term confinement.  As an animal welfare officer and behavioural biologist, I’ve seen the damaging effects upon chronically housed captive animals.  More so, I’ve spent the past five years helping improve captive conditions for rescued animals throughout Indonesia.  Animals such as orang-utans, sun bear, various birds and reptiles.  Yet despite our efforts, the reality is they still suffer and will continue to do so whilst we continue clearing their habitat.  And each time we destroy habitat we leave fewer places to release the long term captives, only adding to the problem.  It’s time to rethink our approach.

Rawa Kuno is a 6400 acre (2600 hectares) habitat mixing ancient peat swamp and dry brush forest.  It’s located in Central Kalimantan close to the small riverside town of Kumi and within an hour of the Orang-utan Foundation International (OFI) care centre in Pangkalanbun.  A care centre that has hundreds of displaced and, in most cases, orphaned orang-utans.  In fact Indonesia has over 2000 captive orang-utans distributed across care centres –usually all run and managed by dedicated volunteers, and funded by concerned donors.

Having been displaced from their habitat each captive orang-utan has a similar story to share.  Imagine for a moment travelling through your street, to a market in search of food, only to reach the edge of what was once familiar that is now flattened and no more.  This is one way an orang-utan discovers its forest has been cleared (together with all food, shelter, social connection, and travel corridors), another is via the sound of bull dozers, chain saws, and crash of timber.  Global deforestation is staggering.  Human population has increased to over 7 billion and we are expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 if not sooner.  Yet our population needs somewhere to live.  We need food, shelter, social contact, fuel and access corridors to link us back to these resources to survive.  Seemingly, the only land we have left is wilderness – no wonder that deforestation usually involves clearing virgin habitat for timber, mining, and agriculture.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) we are clearing 6.4 million hectares a year (or 25 acres per minute), leaving only 30% of our global land mass forest-covered in 2011.  In Malaysia and Indonesia we are clearing vast areas of land for the purpose of mono-culture palm oil planation’s – on the promise of money for locals and profit for corporates.  WWF estimates 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour.  One of these targeted areas is now Rawa Kuno.  And if this land is not secured by December 2012 then the palm oil companies will have their next 300 football field statistic.

Why does it matter?  Well, if we don’t secure the land it will be cleared and instantly transform rich forest biodiversity into an extinct local landscape.  Small species such as amphibians, reptiles, nestling birds, and nocturnal mammals, such as mouse deer and porcupines will be killed.  Adult birds and larger fast moving mammals will disperse.  Terrestrial species such as long and pig-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, bearded pig, leopard, and sun bear will perhaps move to other forest habitats – if they don’t get killed in the process – but even if they succeed they only add to resource competition within the new habitat – and may still die due to conflict pressures between species.

And what of the 200 wild orang-utans that call Rawa Kuno home?  Some might be rescued before the forest is cleared, some will be killed accidentally by heavy tree-lopping machinery and bull dozers, yet others driven by hunger (just as many of those already captive) will make their way into these areas of shredded log piles, earth mounds, and dust looking for food.  Adult males may get beaten and killed, whilst infants will be plucked from the backs of their mothers and sold for the pet trade.  Protectant mothers will be tied up and may also be beaten.  The orphan will suffer the loss of the parent, not want to eat, be in fear and far from the familiar safety of a forest canopy.  Then they are locked up in small cages, fed human foods, and some may even be used as night club mascots or sex slaves in brothels.  And once they become too big to handle and control they are then handed over to a care centre.

The long process of rehabilitation then begins, teaching the animals the valuable forest skills needed to survive.  To find food, build nests, move through forest canopy, socialise, and if we’ve done our job well – then hopefully they will also reproduce in the wild as they were meant to.  In the wild, orang-utan infants are taught these skills by their mothers for up to 6 years or more.  Yet an orphan’s mother is dead, and whilst often suffering from physical and psychological trauma, they must learn these forest skills when housed in artificial captive environments, and be cared for by humans.  Unfortunately captivity can cause new problems.  Some individuals will lose valuable problem solving skills, physical strength, selective conspecific social contact and support, develop captive boredom and eventually suffer from negative changes in brain chemistry – which often leads to depression (only adding to the psychological trauma related to original displacement).  And once in captivity they must wait… until we find forest to release them (amongst the 300 football fields of habitat disappearing every hour).

So why does it matter to me?  Because… I don’t want to see more animals in cages, I don’t want to see that physical and associated psychological suffering.  I want to break the rescue, rehabilitation, release cycle.  Each individual in care also represents many more that have died during habitat clearing.  Furthermore, when you break down the long term costs, captive care programs are very expensive and a donor’s funds could instead be better used to secure and protect forests and its biodiversity, employing the locals as rightful guardians of their forest, thus helping them and their families too.

Though by far the most important reason why it matters to me is that, in five years time, I’d like to take my new born to Rawa Kuno and Tanjung Puting National Park.  So that they may see wild orang-utans in Borneo.  And in 30 years time they can then take their children to see the same.  To a place that has shaped my life and that has also inspired so many, including the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Overall it’s time that we refocus our need to ‘manage animals’ – for they can successfully manage themselves.  Instead we need to manage the resources that keep them and us alive – this is what we should be trying to achieve.

So please help if you can, to care for an orphaned orang-utan by donating to prevent the loss of its mother and habitat!

Darek Figa BSc Psych

Behavioural Biologist

OFI Australia CM

AnimalWorks CM

ENRICH Project Manager