Indonesian orangutan conservator Jamartin Sihite looked into the eyes of a captive orangutan against others’ advice some 10 years ago, and the result changed his life and career.
Sihite, then an environmental scientist and ecology specialist working for organizations including the World Wildlife Federation Indonesia and the Nature Conservancy, found himself haunted by what he saw in the eyes of an adult orangutan confined in a cage for some 25 years.
“They trapped me,” he said. “Most people fall in love with a baby’s eyes. It looks like a human’s, which is why some want them as pets. … When I looked in the (adult’s) eyes, I saw a loss of hope, a loss of soul.”
Sihite could not escape that look and vowed quietly, “I will work to make you free.”
While he was not able to help that individual orangutan — adults kept captive cannot be returned to the wild — Sihite has spent the last decade as head of the Indonesian nonprofit Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which rescues the Asian great apes, protects their shrinking natural environment and returns hundreds to protected forests in Borneo, an island largely controlled by Indonesia, with some territory owned by Malaysia and Brunei.
That work brought him to Waco this week to speak Thursday night to update Cameron Park Zoo supporters about his foundation’s work in conservation and its growing relationship with the Waco zoo. Part of the groups’ relationship will involve an exchange that will have the zoo’s orangutan caretakers train foundation personnel in medical treatment techniques.
The Cameron Park Zoo opened its orangutan exhibit in 2009 and now has five orangutans: adult males Mukah and Kerajaan, females Kutai and Mei, and year-and-a-half-old Razak.
Sihite’s visit to Waco comes after interim zoo director Johnny Binder and program and exhibits curator Terri Cox spent two weeks this summer at one of two Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation centers that rehabilitate and return orangutans back to the forest. Seeing five orangutans released to the wild proved an emotionally powerful experience, Cox said.
In 2015, Cameron Park Zoo helped expand the center’s housing for baby orangutans to accommodate the large number of young orangutans orphaned by a devastating fire season. More recently, the zoo raised money to buy milk for infant orangutans.
While money helps, so do skills and support, Sihite said.
“What do you have now (at the Cameron Park Zoo)? Training is one of the things you have,” he said, referring to the zoo’s cardio health program where animal caretakers Laura Klutts, Emily Ellison and Denise Wagner teach behaviors and commands that allow them to take orangutans’ blood pressure with finger and arm cuffs, take blood samples and do electrocardiograms.
The Cameron Park Zoo and Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia, are considered leaders in cardiovascular health programs for orangutans, Cox said. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation centers employ more than 100 staffers who work with some 500 adult and infant orangutans, and training assistance will expand their capabilities, Sihite said.
In protecting endangered species and their habitats, every little bit helps, even down to the level of conversations on social media, he said.
“In conservation, you cannot do it alone. No one (person) can be a hero,” Sihite said.
About 100,000 orangutans still live in their native home of Borneo, less than half the population that existed almost 20 years ago, according to biologists’ estimates. Without efforts to stop animal poaching and destruction of forest environments, it is possible the Asian great apes could become extinct in two decades, Cox said.
The animals’ behavior and fertility complicate efforts to protect dwindling orangutan populations. They are solitary and shy, as opposed to more social apes like chimpanzees and bonobos. Multiple births are rare, and female orangutans often go six or seven years between births. An adult female may have only three offspring in her lifetime, making it difficult for the orangutan population to recover from population losses caused by poaching and environmental destruction, Cox said.
Agriculture, particularly that of large-scale palm oil plantations, and fires, the latter exacerbated by drier conditions attributed to climate change, are eliminating the tropical forests where the orangutans live. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation has been acquiring and preserving forest land, but given that an adult orangutan needs about 250 acres of space to survive in the wild, land needs add up, Sihite said.
In addition to teaching forest survival to orangutans before releasing them to the wild, a process that can take years to complete, the foundation seeks to rescue orangutans raised as pets or kept in substandard conditions, an expensive work considering the global trade in stolen animals, transportation expenses and reimbursement to owners.
However, even moving the apes from confinement abroad to a more open captivity in Borneo is worth the effort, Sihite said.
“When (the orangutans) wake up in the morning, they don’t see the walls, they don’t see the bars,” he said. “They just see the sky.”
Life in the wild is not in the future for Waco’s orangutans.
“It’s never an option for putting animals born and raised in captivity back to the wild,” Cox said.
Cox said she considers the zoo’s orangutans, as well as all of those in zoos, as animal ambassadors whose presence encourages humans to work on behalf of those living in the wild. They also help maintain a genetic pool for an endangered species, she said.
“By supporting Cameron Park Zoo, you are supporting animals being released in the wild,” she said.
Sihite agreed. He also said many conservation strategies aimed at helping wild animals also help humans. As an example, he cited tree replanting programs to counter forest habitat lost to agricultural clearing and fires. In addition to providing habitat, the forest traps carbon dioxide and supplies oxygen, thus helping humans, he said.
“We need to save our humanity and we can do that by saving the orangutan,” Sihite said.