The orangutan population may be dangerously low, but conservationist Dr Willie Smits has made a place for hope.
What should you do if an army colonel comes home while you’re confiscating his orangutan? For Dr Willie Smits, the Dutch-born founder of Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS), the unexpected clash became a near-death experience.
“He pulled his gun, chk chk, on my chest…‘I’m going to kill you here and now’.” Smits recalls as he jabs at the spot the weapon hit him. “But you still have to be able to remain quiet, look him in the eyes and say ‘Colonel, you know the punishment for having an orangutan and…for shooting a man. You take your pick’.”
This frightening encounter is just a glimpse of the 52-year-old’s intense commitment to the survival of the orangutans, our closest and most intelligent primate relatives.
Smits visited Australia in 2008 to promote his co-authored book, Thinkers of the Jungle. His dedication to the red apes vibrates through every sentence he utters. “I want to show what marvellous beings orangutans are,” he says. “They are so altruistic and really, they are the better humans. So it’s a genocide that is taking place.”
With over 200 staff across four different sites in Borneo, BOS is the world’s largest primate protection organisation. Smits, who holds a doctorate in forestry, works “20 hours a day, seven days a week,” nurturing those in his rescue centres and campaigning against the illegal logging and animal traders that threaten them.
There are only about 57,000 wild orangutans left in Indonesia and Malaysia. At the current rate of decline, BOS believes that the primates could be wiped out by 2015. “If we cannot even save orangutans, then what hope is there left for the rest of the world?” Smits asks.
Smits is tall and broad. His brown eyes flare and his voice simmers with rage as he speaks about the clearing of forests to satisfy overseas demand for timber and palm oil – now an ingredient in everything from ice cream and chocolate, to toothpaste and pet food. He’s outraged and bewildered by consumer apathy in western countries. “I don’t think anyone who understands the injustice that is happening to the orangutans and the local people could sit still and do nothing. I cannot imagine that.”
His own path to action came by chance. One evening in 1989, while working as an advisor to the Indonesian forestry minister, he saw a sick orangutan baby thrown on a rubbish heap in Balikpapan, a coastal town on Borneo. He decided to look after it and from that moment on, more and more red apes were delivered into his care. Two years later, running out of room at his home, he established BOS.
Despite the passing years, the first orangutan remains the most special to him. He called the baby Uce, after the sound of her heavy, strained breathing. When it came time for her release in 1992, she refused to go. Smits consoled the ape and offered her a leaf as a parting gift.
In 1998, he saw Uce again. “I really thought I’d lost her in the forest fires, but then we found her and she had a baby,” he says, his anger vanishing as he recalls their reunion. “She took me to a Licuala palm and she bit off a leaf and gave that to me. That was the same leaf, the same species I gave to her. She knew I would understand that she was saying thank you after all these years,” he says.
That’s just one example of the intelligence and culture that Smits says he sees everyday, from fishing and tool use, to self-absorbed preening before a mirror. As he flicks through the photos in his book, he points with pride at his primate friends, his voice now brimming with care and admiration. “Orangutans put flowers in the edges of their nest. They have aesthetic feelings. And how they love to look at themselves in pictures,” he says, laughing. “They start posing.
Despite the dire outlook for the species’ survival, Smits still has room for optimism. He is inspired by the early success of BOS’s nature park, Samboja Lestari. There, the organisation is re-vegetating cleared land to provide a habitat for 2000 orangutans.
Local families farm sugar palms in the land surrounding the reserve. They earn a sustainable income and protect the inner ring from fire and illegal forestry. “You can actually do something that creates jobs and still creates safe havens for nature. So it doesn’t need to be all gloom and doom,” he says.
Besides, Smits says, what makes it all worthwhile is that his favourite ape, Uce, is now pregnant for the third time and her first baby is “a truly wild-born, independent orangutan”. He only sees her every few years. “I’m waiting for the next chance to go see her, but the love will still be there.”