I have moved my blog to my own domain which is www.drbirute.com. Please go directly to that site to read any future blog postings. I will no longer be posting at WordPress.com.


Fire roars across landscape in eastern part of Tanjung Puting National Park

Fire roars across landscape in eastern part of Tanjung Puting National Park

Fire and smoke on eastern boundary of ParkFire rages on eastern boundary of Park
OFI rangers fighting fire on eastern side of Tanjung Puting Nationa Park

OFI rangers fighting fire on eastern side of Tanjung Puting National Park

Fire rages on eastern side of Tanjung Puting National Park

Please note that all photos are copyright OFI.

They say that a photo is worth a thousand words. Here is the equivalent of a few thousand words: photos of the fires that OFI is facing and fighting in 2009. The extreme droughts that enable human-made fires to blaze throughout Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Sumatra seem to be much more frequent than they ever used to be. The last El Nino was in 2006 when over 50 of our OFI assistants fought the fires for almost two months before the fires were brought to a stop.

Some scientists believe that the increasing frequency of El Nino years is related to global climate change. Having lived in Borneo for several decades I suspect that this belief is true.

The eastern part of Tanjung Puting National Park, which is directly next to palm oil plantations, burned in 2006, making it particularly vulnerable to fire again in 2009. It is in this critical area of double jeoparty that the above photos of OFI rangers fighting the fires were taken. Once forest is repeatedly burned, secondary succession is deflected and it is very difficult for the tropical rain forest to return.

At least one thousand of the six thousand wild orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park and its vicinity live on the eastern side of the Park where the fires are currently burning. It is crucial that these fires be stopped for the sake of wild orangutan populations and all wildlife in the area. OFI is doing all it can to make this happen but we need help and funding.

Please take a look at the map in the previous post! You will see that only one post on the boundary on the eastern side of the Park is threatened by fire. Our guardposts are the little blue figures while the red spots need no explanation. Those are the fires burning at the end of August 2009.

The fire near our guard post is on the verge of being eliminated. Notice that the fires burn where we do not have guardposts. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The map tells the story. Words are not that necessary.

Hot spots in  and around the vicinity of Tanjung Puting Park as of the end of August 2009

Hot spots in and around the vicinity of Tanjung Puting Park as of the end of August 2009

The fires are blazing again in Kalimantan! I sit weary and exhausted in front of my computer but not nearly as weary as the OFI (Orangutan Foundation International) assistants who have been fighting these fires for several weeks now since the end of August. We were warned that 2009 would be an El Nino year for months but the persistent rains which fell in July belied the situation. It wasn’t until mid-August that the sun took on that deadly red glow as it hung in the grey sky, the glow that tells us this will be no normal dry season. When the sky takes on the colors of a Japanese print we know. We know that it is going to be a long severe season of drought.

The Park is ablaze but not where the tourists go. They may smell the smoke and see the haze in the sky but Camp Leakey and the forests around it remain untouched because we are there and have been for 38 years. It is where the farmers work and where the enclaved villages are located within the Park that the fires burn out of control. It is also on the Park boundaries next to the palm oil plantations that the worst fires burn.

In 2006 during the last El Nino year OFI and its partners battled fires that ultimately destroyed about 15% of Tanjung Puting National Park. We are now trying to prevent the same. We are fighting the fires shoulder to shoulder with our partners in the Forestry Department and we need all the support that we can get.

Blogging – Interrupted

I haven’t blogged for over a month, but goodness knows, I have tried. Being in the field all this time in Kalimantan made it virtually impossible to have internet connections. Putative swine flu felled three of the volunteers on the first OFI team at the end of July and they were quarantined for 10 days by the Indonesian health department. This brought on its own problems, problems we had never encountered before. Everyone emerged from the experience healthier than ever and swine flu was never actually proved.

There were also visitors galore, many most welcome and a pleasure to see but still it kept me hopping. And, of course, the orangutans! They keep us busy nonstop, night and day, it seems.

I am now in Jakarta and will attempt to blog again. Please forgive me but the forests of Indonesian Borneo, where I do my work, seem to be more accessible by palm oil concessionaires, fires, and illegal loggers than by internet.

A dipterocarp seed on the ground in the newly bought forest

A dipterocarp seed on the ground in the newly bought forest

Mr. Freddy and Dayak village elder Mr. Ijai on forest land bought by OFI

Mr. Freddy and Dayak village elder Mr. Ijai on forest land bought by OFI

Mr. Freddy is a local businessperson from whom OFI recently bought 20 hectares of forest land.  He has nothing to do with my son Fred who is called Freddie by some of his friends.

Upon my return to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the first thing I did was check, once again, the 20 hectares of forest OFI had bought from Mr. Freddy.  A small part of the 20 hectares consists of an open field with some of the tallest coconut trees I have ever seen, perhaps 50 feet tall. 

The boundary of the purchased forest is in tropical peat swamp forest with some large trees, including dipterocarps, found within.  The rest of the forest consists of dry ground forest.  There is a footpath which makes walking through the forest a treat.  As we walked there, the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  There were virtually no mosquitoes, despite the presence of the swamp forest nearby. 

At the end of our walk, everyone was thirsty.  I had run out of water as I had brought a very small container, only half full of water.  I hadn’t realized that we would be walking the forest boundary which was still ankle deep and occasionally knee-deep in water.  The forest floor was soggy mud.  Only at the height of the dry season does the swamp turn into solid ground. In mid-July we are still a few weeks away.

It was a hard walk.  I was wearing my black Crocs, very much showing their wear and tear after three years of non-stop use. The swamp water conveniently poured out of the decorative holes in my Crocs but the age of the shoes also meant my feet had no traction and no real support as I slipped and slid on the smooth roots of trees and in the mud.

When we finally got to the clearing I was relieved.  I asked if any of the young Dayak assistants could climb one of the coconut palms and toss down a few young coconuts so we all could relieve our thirst.  Mr. Freddy who comes from Sumatra volunteered that he couldn’t do it.  He mentioned that in Sumatra people train pig-tail macaques to climb coconut trees and pick coconuts.  However, in Borneo Dayak men frequently climb trees; it is one of the cultural traits for which they are known (actually some Dayak women also climb trees fairly well).

I looked at the 67 year old Pak Ijai.  “Malas” he said (which translates to “lazy” but meant he didn’t want to make the effort to do it).  I guess the look of disappointment on my face, which I tried to hide,  got to him as he suddenly smiled and said “I’ll do it if you take my picture!”  I agreed happily.

So the 67 year old Pak Ijai climbed up a tall coconut, seemingly effortlessly.  When he came down, having tossed down at least 20 young coconuts and fighting off biting red ants in the palm fronds at the top of the tree, he scarcely seemed winded. The sheen of sweat on his face was minimal.  By this time I was sweating profusely.

Of course, Pak Ijai had brought a machete and we sat down, cut open the coconuts, carved out some of the delicious, fresh flesh and drank the sweet juice.  There were about seven or eight of us and the coconuts we didn’t open, we took with us to give to the orangutans at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in the Dayak village.

What wimps we modern people are!  Even the young Dayaks who could climb (I’ve seen them!) said the coconut palms were far too tall for them.

I looked at the 67 year old Pak Ijai and marvelled.  He was just an ordinary older Dayak man.  There was a good chance he couldn’t read or write but he could climb a coconut tree in the same manner that younger people climb stairs.  I knew he had skills that we could barely imagine.  I noticed that while walking in the swamp, his gait was as though he was walking on a level wooden floor.  I couldn’t keep up with him. 

He could probably carve a machete handle beautifully, make a fire without matches, find a vine full of water in the depths of the forest, identify all the birds he heard, find poison for the darts he made out of different forest woods to use in the blowpipe he manufactured himself, and make a hut for himself in a matter of minutes if overnighting in the forest.  And he probably could do much, much more!

Yet some people might call him uneducated because he never went to school!  For a few moments, I was in total awe of this traditional elder who could do so much in the forest while we could do so little.  I thanked him profusely for the young coconuts we had enjoyed and showed him the photos I had taken of him climbing up the coconut palm.  A slight smile curved his mouth as he watched the pictures on the screen of my digital camera.

Sixty-seven year old Dayak village elder Pak Ijai climbs a tall coconut tree

Sixty-seven year old Dayak village elder Pak Ijai climbs a tall coconut tree

P Bun and Malaysia June 26,2009 047Walking through the 20 ha.forest bought from Mr. Freddy

The main threat to orangutan existence as populations in the wild consists of deforestation.  The forests of Southeast Asia, where orangutans live, are being destroyed by massive cutting and burning to establish palm oil plantations and industrial timber estates.

Orangutans are the largest arboreal frugivores (fruit-eaters) on the planet.  They need vast areas of tropical rain forest to survive.  So what is the point of OFI buying 20 hectares (approximately 50 acres) when an orangutan male might need 100 square kilometers (100,000 hectares) of forest to survive in the course of his long life. (Orangutans have lived more than 60 years in captivity and probably sometimes live even longer in the wild.)

An old proverb says that the longest journey begins with the smallest step. OFI is trying to initiallyaccumulate at least 1,000 hectares of forest in this area, forest that is being threatened by palm oil concessionaires who are sweet-talking, intimidating, and trying their hardest to persuade local people, including Dayaks in the area, to sell their forest land for conversion to palm oil.  By buying the forest, we save it forever.  A thousand hectare chunk of forest is enough to make a difference for orangutans and other wildlife.

But we know that without much financial help from the rest of the world, we will not be able to stop the palm oil concessionaires from buying much of the local forest.  Even with palm oil prices down, palm oil plantations are a major driver of local economies.  Palm oil plantations are  machines to print money.  We can’t compete with these people.  But what we can do is buy forest and try to set up wildlife corridors where orangutans and other animals can escape the savage annihilation of their habitats and find a bit of respite.  We are trying to link the coastal swamps to the dry ground forests in the north.

OFI needs to buy the rest of Mr. Freddy’s forest, all 80 hectares (approximately 200 acres) of it.  The smiling Mr. Freddy says he prefers to sell the remainder of his centrally located forest to conservationists but has made it clear selling to palm oil concessionaires is a strong alternative if OFI doesn’t buy his forest soon.

How soon?  Very soon!

The cost?  $ 500 per hectare (2.5 acres).  The price was less even a year ago but the palm oil companies need land.  They have the seedlings and the labor.  What stops their money printing machines from operating  is lack of land.  Many palm oil companies clear the forest, sell the commercially viable timber, and then burn the rest during the dry season, utilizing the ash as fertilizer for the palm seedlings they plant.

$500 per hectare (2.5 acres) and the land belongs to the orangutans and other wildlife forever.  Please help save Borneo’s rain forests a hectare at a time.  Help orangutans and all the other extraordinary wildlife found in these verdant, lush forests which are in so much danger of annihilation.

Send contributions to OFI at www.orangutan.org Find the postal address there and more information about our work. If these 80 hectares of forest are sold to the palm oil concessionaires, that forest is lost to the orangutans, and humankind as well, forever.

Governor Teras Narang of the province of Kalimantan Tengah listening to presentation

Governor Teras Narang of the province of Kalimantan Tengah listening to presentation

Shortly after my arrival in Jakarta I was told (in typical local fashion) that we had an appointment to meet with the Governor of our province, Kalimantan Tengah (Central Indonesian Boneo) in two days’ time.  The appointment was at one o’clock in a suite at a hotel in Palangka Raya, the provincial capital, where the Governor was attending a conference.

Ms. Renie and I, along with two others in our group, took the early morning Garuda flight from Jakarta to Palangka Raya.  I had to get up at some ungodly hour like 4 am in order to get to the airport at least one hour before the flight.  To my surprise, the drive to the airport ,which normally takes at least one and a half hours under the normal conditions of Jakarta traffic, took about 40 minutes in the early morning darkness!  “I had no idea that the airport was so close, “I told the taxi driver.

Our main purpose in meeting the Governor was to try to convince him to cancel some problematical palm oil plantation concessions in the Seruyan Regency on the eastern side of Tanjung Puting National Park.  The Forestry Minister (I don’t care what anyone says; I have to compliment him on this one case!) has refused to sign off on these concessions.  The Regent of the Seruyan region, who had initially recommended them several years ago, recently changed his mind and wrote a letter to the Minister of Forestry cancelling his recommendation.  We were trying to persuade the Governor to do the same.

The four of us, including Ms. Renie and myself, were met in Palangka Raya by two state legislators who took us to a local Chinese restaurant for an early lunch.  In Indonesia it is still possible to take drinking water or other fluids on board domestic flights.  This proved a boon as for some reason, despite several entreaties by several members of our party, myself included, the waiter repeatedly forgot to bring me any water or the  fruit juice I had ordered.  I would have been reduced to drinking from other people’s glasses had I not been able to pull out my bottled water.  Sometimes it is best to be prepared.

The local freshwater fish, fried to a crisp, and the river prawns were delicious.  But, sitting in the private dining room off the main restaurant, I noticed that one member of our party was practically dancing with his legs as he sat at the table.  It turned out he had a gigantic cockroach go up under his pant leg.  He shook the cockroach out and it darted under the table, heading in my direction.  Suddenly I felt hard little legs going up my leg under my pants!  I grabbed the creature who was now in the middle of my left thigh under my pant leg  and squeezed as hard as I could with my fingers.  Then I shook my left leg and a smashed, decapitated giant cockroach fell out onto the floor.  I’ve been in Kalimantan too long, I thought.  The incident wasn’t even worthy of comment to anyone at the table.  However, I kept a very watchful eye on the floor for further cockroaches as I ate my meal.  My water and freshly squeezed fruit juice finally arrived just as we were getting up to leave.

We arrived at the appointment an hour early. This appointment was so important that we didn’t dare risk being one minute late.

 The hotel had just opened days ago and was gleaming.  The lobby was crowded with officials attending the conference on improving infrastructure in the provice.  I met the Governor’s older brother who was the head of the provincial legislature.  He was a Dayak in his late sixties. (The Dayaks are the aboriginal people of Borneo). The irises of his brown eyes were surprisingly rimmed with blue around the brown.  I told him I had never seen such a thing before.  He laughed, leaned towards me, and said that it was indicative of his European heritage.  I think  he was joking but I couldn’t be certain!

After the older brother left to join a conference session, someone said “That family are the Kennedys of Kalimantan Tengah.”  When I looked confused, he explained that in addition to the Governor, the older brother who was the head of the provincial legislature, and nephews who were provincial legislators, there were other members of the  family who were politicians or in government service.

The Governor saw us ten minutes late.  The meeting which was scheduled for one hour lasted about one hour and two minutes.  The Governor, a thoughtful man behind glasses, listened very attentively to our presentation concerning the forest in the Seruyan area.  The Governor asked several questions but the most interesting question had to do with the Regent of the Seruyan area.  “Why”, asked the Governor “had the Regent from the Seruyan changed his mind about the palm oil concessions and cancel his recommendation for them?”

We explained that the situation in the world had changed.  The Seruyan Regent realized that there was now a possibility that intact forests could be worth more for the voluntary carbon trade than cut down and cleared for palm oil.

Could the Governor, I asked, provide a letter that supported the cancellation of the palm oil concessions in the Seruyan area.  The Governor thought for a few seconds and said that he would have to consult with his advisors and other government officials before he could issue such a letter.  He seemed sincere and pleasant.  We were told that he was absolutely “clean” but gave away palm oil concessions as a reward for political supporters.   He could not be bought but did reward his loyalists.  How different is that from politicians anywhere in the world?

The next morning we left Palangka Raya, returning to Jakarta in the early afternoon.  We didn’t know whether our mission with the Governor had succeeded or failed.  Ms. Renie and I discussed it briefly but decided that only time would tell.

Delicious food in Palangka Raya: Fried river fish and prawns

Delicious food in Palangka Raya: Fried river fish and prawns

With the head of the chairperson of the provincial legislature, the Governor's older brother

With the chairperson of the provincial legislature, the Governor's older brother


View of Palangka Raya on a rainy day from fourth floor of hotel

View of Palangka Raya on a rainy day from fourth floor of hotel