Saving the forest for Borneo's great apes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


When Willie Smits walks through the rain forest in Borneo, Indonesia, giant adult orang-utans - with arm spans of up to two metres - come out of the trees and hug him. Then they go back into the dense forest.

'They never forget what I did for them,' he said. Years ago, he saved some of those orang-utans' homes from deforestation.

He was working as a biologist in Indonesia in 1989 when he first saw a baby orang-utan peeking out from a box in a dumpster, after having lost its forest home and been abandoned. Those were 'the saddest eyes' he ever saw, he said. Since then, he's worked for orang-utan rescue and welfare, starting the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and the Masarang Foundation in 2001.

Orang-utans are one of the most endangered species on the planet, and live only on the two tropical islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Smits realised that the orang-utans' fates were inextricably tied to the fate of the rain forest, which is being stripped for palm oil. For years, he appealed to people's ethics to raise opposition to palm oil's destruction of the environment, but concluded: 'It doesn't work.'

Now he uses technology to connect people around the world who have never set foot in a rain forest. In Earthwatchers, a collaborative software project he started with Microsoft Learning Partners, one million schoolchildren are each given a hectare of real Indonesian rain forest to monitor via satellite. If they see changes in satellite images of their plot, they can report them and Smits will send a plane to take pictures of potentially illegal logging, which can be used as evidence in court.

In a computer game that simulates an orang-utan moving through the rainforest, pupils can compete to earn points for a trip to Borneo. The catch is that the kids are playing the game in a real patch of forest, so the minute a palm-oil company decides to cut down that part of the forest, the game ends.

'The kids say 'but this is not fair. I was winning',' Smits said. 'But we are all losing. The orang-utan is also losing, the Dayak people are also losing. This is not geography or social sciences we're learning - this is the network in real life.'

He also recognises the importance of the local economy, and is promoting reforestation with sugar palms to replace the palm-oil industry. 'The sugar palm is a tree from heaven,' Smits said. The plant can produce 65 different products, and 20 times more jobs per hectare than oil palms.

Smits' supporters include the royal family of Yogyakarta province and the Dayak indigenous people, who are losing their ancestral land to the palm-oil business. So there's hope yet for the orang-utans.