Protecting a Critically Endangered Primate

Image © Hutan

By |2018-09-27T14:54:12+00:00November 27th, 2017|Community, Forests, In-Depth|0 Comments

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.

Image © HUTAN/Azri Sawang

An aerial photo of Kinabatangan

What were the greatest personal challenges you faced when you first moved to Borneo?

Well, first I had to convince my husband to follow me! He was working in Saudi Arabia. He had a wonderful job managing the oryx rehabilitation centre, so it was a huge challenge for him to give up that great job and step into the unknown in Borneo, especially because we had a one and a half year old baby at the time. But fortunately it all turned out alright…

We settled in a small village and that was one of the hardest things because people back then had no idea what we were doing. They couldn’t believe that we had just gone there to study orang-utans. Some of them were a little suspicious – they thought we must have another agenda, maybe to take their land or something like that. Also, we couldn’t speak the language at all and nobody could speak English so communication was very difficult. We hired a few of our neighbours to do the first surveys and there was a lot of sign language involved!

A special place

What makes Kinabatangan unique and why should people care about this place?

Well it’s a unique place in the sense that it has a really remarkable abundance and diversity of wildlife. In terms of species, particularly for primates, birds and reptiles, it’s really special. There are ten primate species, 8 species of hornbill, elephants, proboscis monkeys, so it really is a unique place in that sense…

And that’s despite the fact that so much of the original primary forest has disappeared?

Yes, actually the forest has been so reduced, contracted and fragmented over the last 20 years that a lot of the wildlife has concentrated in those fragments of forest. Most of the species have been able to adapt to those changes, the loss of all the primary forest, and that’s what we’re still studying now. Some of the species have a harder time adapting, and populations have really declined very quickly. One very important factor is that the human population in the region is Muslim, and they generally don’t eat wild animals, so there’s hardly any hunting at all and the animals are not that shy. This means you can get closer, so of course it is good for tourists and anyone interested in seeing wildlife…

Image © HUTAN/Felicity Oram