Dutch Doctor Brings Orangutan Crusade to U.S.

WASHINGTON, D.C., September 27, 2000 (ENS) - Orangutans, the great apes of Borneo and Sumatra, are disappearing from their last wild refuge at a rate of 1,000 per year and could be extinct by 2010, warn scientists led by Dr. Willie Smits.

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Dr. Willie Smits with a rescued orangutan. (Photo courtesy Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation)
Dr. Smits is the Dutch founder of the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project on the East Coast of Borneo. He oversees two orangutan reintroduction projects in Indonesia and is the founder of the Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation.

Smits is frequently the target of death threats for his efforts to confiscate illegally acquired orangutans throughout Southeast Asia.

He is touring the United States this week to speak on issues surrounding the orangutan's threatened situation. The tour is co-sponsored by the Balikpapan Orangutan Society, (BOS-USA) a U.S. non-profit organization dedicated to orangutan conservation efforts.

"Over the past 10 years, the wild orangutan population has declined by more than 50 percent due to habitat loss and the illegal pet trade of infants," said Smits. Some 25,000 orangutans remain in the wild but populations on Sumatra have declined by 1,000 a year in the last two years.

More than a third of the Borneo's wild orangutans are thought to have perished during forest fires in 1997 and 1998. Coupled with the high demand for infant orangutans as pets, increased deforestation in Indonesia has put the animals' future in the wild in doubt, says BOS-USA.

Poachers usually capture an infant by killing the mother, typically by shooting her out of a tree with the baby clinging to her. BOS-USA claims that because of the long fall to the ground, only one in four babies makes it to the black market alive. Yet demand for young orangutans remains strong in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Jakarta. Some are imported into the U.S.

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Kiki, a baby orangutan rescued by the Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation. (Photo by Sally Edwards, courtesy BOS-USA)
Smits was inspired to take up the orangutans' plight in 1991 when he rescued a sick baby orangutan from a garbage dump where it was left to die. A noted tropical forest ecologist, the doctor began a passionate crusade to protect and save the endangered species working with a handful of scientists, government officials and volunteers.

Now that crusade is threatened by lack of funds, death threats and organized retaliation.

Earlier this month, two baby orangutans were stolen from Jakarta Zoo, an act believed to be motivated by revenge carried out by poachers in retaliation for Dr. Smits' efforts to halt poaching.

In a regular newsletter, Smits explained that the Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation is in a funding crisis. "We have done too much, that is the problem," wrote Smits. "Besides confiscating hundreds of orangutans, we invested heavily in the facilities and personnel that we need to keep up with these previously unheard of numbers of orangutans."

In a letter, the foundation's directors warn of cutbacks and possible closure of both orangutan reintroduction projects within the month.

And in an interview with officials at the Los Angeles Zoo this week, Smits said his team has received several death threats within the last two weeks. "My family has paid dearly for my activities which create a lot of enemies," said Smits. "However there is no other choice. Knowing that we are at least able to do things out in the field, something many other organizations cannot, it would be unforgivable to just stop and let animals suffer where we could have rescued them."

Only good protection and management of lowland rain forests by those living nearby would ensure the survival of wild orangutans, Smits says.

In the last 20 years, their habitat has declined by as much as 80 percent due to deforestation. Indonesia's rainforest is disappearing faster than that of any other country except Brazil. About 47 square miles of forest disappear every year in Indonesia due to logging and unsustainable agricultural practices.

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Dr. Willie Smits meets orangutans at Los Angeles Zoo this week. (Photo courtesy BOS-USA)
Helping people realize that orangutans are more than just animals will be vital to their survival, said Smits. Orangutans and humans share 97 percent of their genetic makeup.

Orangutans fulfill an important ecological role in species diversity of southeast Asia's lowland rainforest ecology, Smits maintains.

Smits' tour includes public speaking engagements in Washington DC, Boston, New York, Chicago, Sun Valley, Seattle and Los Angeles.

For more information on orangutans at risk, visit http://www.orangutan.com/index.shtml