Isabelle Lackman founded Hutan in Kinabatangan, Malaysian Borneo with her then husband Marc Ancrenaz in 1998 with the aim of conserving the Critically Endangered Bornean orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus).
In the almost two decades since, Hutan has worked with the local community to restore areas of degraded forest and help people and orang-utans to live side by side without conflict. Their work shows that successful conservation depends on far more than rigorous science and protected areas.
I spoke to Isabelle about how she started out in primate conservation, the challenges she and Hutan face in trying to conserve this Critically Endangered species and its habitat and asked her about some of the successes and challenges of ‘community conservation’.
An early passion
What first drew you into conservation when you were growing up?
Actually, when I was growing up I was always interested in wild animals. I wanted to study them and become a wildlife researcher, specifically to research primates. When I was studying Biology at university in Paris, two orphan orang-utans were seized at the airport and taken to the zoo right next to my university. This gave me an opportunity to study them, although there was really nothing to study, they were just two terrified baby orang-utans. But I was able to take care of them, and began to learn and read more about orang-utans and wild orang-utans – so I guess that’s how it started originally.
This interest eventually led to me working with and studying orang-utans in zoos in various countries. I wanted to do a PhD but couldn’t find a project that would take me, or that had funding, so I ended up studying baboons in Saudi Arabia – which was extraordinary – but after a few years there I still had that desire to study orang-utans.
When did you first go to Borneo?
I first went to Borneo in 1994 to meet with local conservation NGOs and local government to find out what was needed most. At first I was looking for a job there, but I couldn’t find anything, so in the end I decided to start my own project. At that time, everybody told me that there were plenty of orang-utans in Borneo, but they didn’t know where and they didn’t know how many. Most importantly, all the orang-utan experts working in Indonesia at that time were saying that orang-utans cannot survive in degraded secondary forest, that if the forests were logged then you lost the orang-utans and all of the forest. Almost 100% of the forest in Sabah was already logged, there was hardly any primary forest, so the government there was very worried about the orang-utans and whether or not they would survive, but in fact up until then there hadn’t been any studies on how orang-utans adapt to secondary forest.
Even so, when I went to Kinabatangan that very first time, I could see quite a lot of orang-utan nests. The forest was really degraded and fragmented and the canopy was very low, but there still seemed to be a lot of orang-utans, so I realised this would be very interesting to study.