Travel: Monkey business in Borneo

By Annabel Matthews

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For those who have been bitten by the travel bug, you will know the signs - itchy feet, a constant need to explore new surroundings and a yearning to know every inch of the history and culture of an area. For centuries, humans have travelled to parts of the world not previously explored. However, our footprints are now all over the planet and high heritage value areas are shrinking to the point of disappearing.

Travellers are making their way into wildernesses and following in their wake is raw industry exploiting land for profit with scant regard for the environmental cost of their actions.

All around Borneo, and deep into its remote interior, the jarring mechanical buzz of chainsaws replaces forever the natural songs of the rainforest.

Palm oil dominates Borneo's agricultural production. Together, Indonesia and Malaysia produce 90 per cent of the world's palm oil and 40 per cent of foods contain it. Oil palm seeds are among the world's most productive oil seeds. Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of Borneo, and has rainforest that is incredibly rich in biodiversity including several species of primates. Two standout species of primate here are the orangutan and proboscis monkey. Both are critically endangered.

Orangutans share 97 per cent of their DNA with humans. To watch one for even an hour you will notice eerily familiar behaviours. The proboscis monkey is also engaging, especially the dominant male with his bulbous nose, permanent erection and bright red genitals to attract the ladies. They are even more endangered than the orangutan, with around only 15,000 left in the wild. With their habitat forever shrinking, who comes to their aid?

Dr Birute Galdikas and her former spouse, Rod Brindamour, established Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park in Southern Kalimantan in 1971, the same year she was on the cover of National Geographic magazine. Her lifetime mission has been to research wild orangutans and rehabilitate these apes so they can be released back into the wild.

However, the situation is now so critical that hundreds of orangutans are in rehabilitation centres all around Borneo, with simply no rainforest left in which to release them.

Galdikas is known as the last trimate, after Dr Louis Leakey chose Jane Goodall to study chimps, Dian Fossey to study gorillas and her to study the orangutans, and she still considers herself a scientific researcher of wild orangutans.

What can everyday New Zealanders do to help protect orangutans? We can try to avoid buying palm oil products ... but it would make for a complex and confusing trip to the supermarket.

There is no standard for palm oil labelling, and it is often just labelled as vegetable oil. Let your local politicians and supermarket know that you want standard labelling for palm oil. Already, because of public demand, the Progressive chain of supermarkets, which includes Countdown, pledged in 2010 to move to certified sustainable palm oil by 2015 and have on-pack labelling for all private label products. It is not about stopping the production of palm oil completely, it is about making palm oil sustainable.

In order to see positive changes in the rainforests of Borneo a balance needs to be achieved and Galdikas and Orangutan Foundation International, the organisation which she runs, is working with the largest palm oil producer.

Funding the protection of rainforest for orangutans, proboscis monkeys and the entire abundant diversity of the jungle of Borneo is of paramount importance.

You can read the Orangutan Foundation International website - www.orangutan.org - and either adopt an orangutan or make a direct contribution to the purchase of rainforest.

There is no need to argue over intrinsic values when rainforests are already recognised as huge carbon sinks, providers of oxygen and clean water and a rich source of medicines for mankind. With more than a quarter of our modern pharmaceuticals derived from tropical rainforests, what other riches are yet undiscovered?

You can take the opportunity to visit Camp Leakey directly with Orion Expedition Cruises (www.orionexpeditions.com) which, in October and November of 2014, is running expedition cruises between Singapore and Bali. Galdikas is a fellow guest on board for all or part of the voyage.

Not only do you get the chance to converse with this fascinating woman directly at Camp Leakey and on board the ship, you also get exclusive access to Orangutan International Foundation's care centre and quarantine facility, where you will be harassed by the teenage apes, tumble with the juveniles and cuddle and simply adore the little orphaned baby orangutans.

- Hamilton News

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