Poaching alone, valued at $US1 billion a year, claimed 6000 mothers and
babies from the wild in 2003. When you throw in forest fires, the
effects of climate change and disease, the population of a once abundant
species has been whittled down from 3 million in China, South-East Asia
and India 10,000 years ago to around 50,000 in pockets of Borneo and
A race against time
November 7, 2004
Willie Smits is working desperately to save the wild orangutan from
extinction. He has only three years, writes Annie Lawson.
Dr Willie Smits is Borneo's answer to Indiana Jones. A typical day can
be spent anywhere, in the depths of the dense jungles of Indonesia,
lecturing university students or rubbing shoulders with international
politicians, diplomats and corporate giants.
Such is the frenetic nature of his job that the Dutch-born tropical
forest ecologist, who was knighted in his native Holland for his
conservation work, has travelled round the world three times in the past
That this 47 year-old - who is in Australia to promote orangutan
awareness and conservation as part of the International Orangutan
Awareness Week - is fluent in six languages and cuts a dashing figure
heightens the obvious comparisons with the fictional archaeologist.
Saving wild orangutans, which he believes could be doomed within three
years, comes at a price. He has not seen his Indonesian wife and three
sons for seven weeks but he says they understand his long absences are
necessary to defend Asia's only great ape against imminent extinction.
His influence not only resonates in the upper echelons of the political
and corporate world; he has also captured the interest of the main space
agencies around the globe, which are now helping to extinguish one of
the biggest threats facing orangutans - habitat destruction through
"When you destroy one part of this beautiful ecosystem you're
influencing thousands of other parts and, thereby, endangering the
survival of the whole system," Smits says. "There's a real, real chance
we're going to lose all our biodiverse lowland rainforest in just a few
decades from now and with them we will lose an uncountable number of
species. Mankind will suffer the consequences for sure.
"If you want to have an orangutan population to survive, you need 1000
individuals, which means that they need more than 30,000 hectares of
perfect-quality forest without any roads going through. These fragments
of forest of that size - lowland rainforest with enough fruit trees in
it for orangutans to survive - have become extremely sparse.
"We are now looking at a very sad situation. . . right at this moment
there is not a single population that looks safe for the future."
The use of satellite technology to track illegal loggers is shaping up
to be one of the biggest developments in preserving the orangutan and
The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS, formed by Smits in 1991,
set up the company SARVision (Synthetic Aperture Radar Vision), which
has developed a dynamic radar monitoring system based on data supplied
by the European Space Agency, Japan AeroSpace Exploration Agency and
NASA. Using a complex set of algorithms to decode the radar images
supplied by satellites, BOS can detect changes in the forest canopy
regardless of cloud coverage.
Willie Smits with one of his charges: "The world would be a lot better
place if we humans were a bit more like orangutans."
Smits says: "We take images of the faces of the people stealing timber,
what equipment they use, and a day later we leave with a team of police
and the army and we arrest them.
"Since we have started adapting this technology five months ago, we
cannot find any wood thieves any more. It has a good preventative effect
and this is one thing that gives us hope.
"It is widely acknowledged that 60 to 70 per cent of all wood harvested
in Indonesia is from illegal logging and, if you add the timber that
illegally comes out of the land preparation of these oil palm
plantations, you're looking at almost 90 per cent illegal activities in
Indonesia and timber harvesting."
There is no refuge for orangutans enduring the twin threats of the
multi-billion-dollar illegal logging industry and the black-market pet
trade. Poaching alone, valued at $US1 billion a year, claimed 6000
mothers and babies from the wild in 2003. When you throw in forest
fires, the effects of climate change and disease, the population of a
once abundant species has been whittled down from 3 million in China,
South-East Asia and India 10,000 years ago to around 50,000 in pockets
of Borneo and Sumatra.
No less alarming is the propensity for people to ignore the reality of
The frequency and savagery of attacks on orangutans by poachers and
forest degradation by loggers raises inevitable questions about their
Although many scientists and ecologists are optimistic about the
outlook, Smits' prognosis is disturbingly gloomy.
He warns that the wild orangutan will lose its chance to sustain its
population within three years.
"It's clear we are losing the orangutans if nothing changes, so the
present trend is directly towards extinction and, in three years from
now, less than 1000 days, it will be too late."
Smits, who worked as a senior adviser to the Indonesian Government on
conservation matters, has been instrumental in finalising a
debt-forgiveness scheme that could arrest the rapid decline.
Under the deal, the Indonesian Government hands over a large area of
forest to be permanently protected under the management of BOS.
The Dutch and German governments are close to wiping up to $US100
million of Indonesia's debt in exchange for carbon credits under the
Kyoto Protocol. This allows countries that exceed their carbon emission
targets to offset this by buying carbon credits in less developed areas.
Oil giant Shell has agreed to invest $10 million to help BOS manage the
500,000 hectares of protected forest in the Mawas region of central
Kalimantan in southern Borneo, as part of the carbon credit system.
BOS has so far rehabilitated and released 1000 orangutans and has
another 550 in its centres.
"This is merely proof of our failing to protect the wild orangutans,"
says Smits. "If we had been successful, we would have been able to close
down these centres
Smits love of nature and animals became apparent at the age of six, when
he developed an interest birds. Later, he took part in a campaign to set
free hawks and owls.His interest in saving orangutans was triggered by a
chance encounter with a distressed orangutan at a market in 1989.
He later rescued and released the creature.
Since establishing BOS, Smits has developed a reforestation method using
local tree species.
It is supported by thousands of Indonesians who are taught forest
management and nature conservation.
The Indonesian Government awarded him a development medal of merit in
1998, the highest Indonesian conservation award handed to a Europe-born
Indonesian. This is one of many international awards he has received for
Orangutans, which share 97 per cent of humans' DNA, have an advanced
brain and the ability to understand language, and they experience many
Unlike humans and chimpanzees, orangutans are not inherently aggressive;
rather, they are more peaceful and altruistic creatures. "The world
would be a lot better place if we humans were a bit more like
orangutans," Smits says.
The depth of his passion is evident when asked to name his mentor:
Dr Willie Smits will give public lectures at the Australian Museum,
Sydney on Tuesday, the Australian National University, Canberra, on
Wednesday, and Melbourne University, Melbourne, on Saturday. Visit
www.orangutans.com.au for information.