Earth Day 2017: Blogs from the Wildlife Conservation Society

In Borneo, 4 Generations of Orang-utan Conservation

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A new generation of orang-utan conservationists has been inspired by forebears who gave wildlife and their habitats a voice. Photo by Daniel Kong/WCS.

By Melvin Gumal
April 21, 2017

There had been much anticipation about going into the field among my young new colleagues who had come to practice orang-utan conservation in the Sarawak state of Malaysian Borneo. It would be a field trip unlike anything they experienced in Biology 101. All in their early 20s, some were new conservation educators, others researchers itching to conduct orang-utan surveys, and still others simply excited to take part in field patrols with various government agencies.

Joining us would be communication specialists providing a new tool in our ‘conservation toolbox’: helping rural school students living in and around orang-utan habitat to develop better art and English language skills.

Each discipline has a role in protecting the magnificent great apes and their habitat. English enables community members to speak with the tourists so critical to their livelihoods, while developing drawing skills could further engage students we’d often seen doodling when we interacted with them on orang-utan conservation.

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With my new young colleagues in Sarawak to practice orang-utan conservation. Photo ©WCS Malaysia.

The journey to the rural school meant a 5-hour road drive from Kuching City to the Batang Ai Hydroelectric Dam, followed by an hour-long boat-ride.

A familiar face smiled at me when we reached our boat. I greeted the boat driver or pilot, Steward, whom I’d known since he was a boy and who had helped us with orang-utan conservation in his early 20s. “Tuan,” he called out, using a name of respect for me as younger Malayans tend to do. “I have seen your staff at other river systems but not you for a few years.” Other boat drivers had taken me up the river lately.

“In place of sustainable enterprises like ecotourism that can provide a steady livelihood, developers and loggers have encouraged local people to seek instant gratification through the planting of oil palm and other monoculture crops.”

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Steward, our river guide (center), would bring our group to meet his father and grandfather, both of whom assisted in the creation of Batang Ai National Park for the protection of orang-utans. Photo ©WCS Malaysia.

In that time, the old farmlands had become taller forests, with the older now boasting still taller, majestic trees. Sadly, this wonderful natural transformation has been a magnet for illegal loggers hell bent on grabbing timber until the biologically diverse landscape becomes degraded.

In place of sustainable enterprises like ecotourism that can provide a steady livelihood, developers and loggers have encouraged local people to seek instant gratification through the planting of oil palm and other monoculture crops. In the process they have deprived themselves of clean waters, fish and wildlife, and a spiritual link to lands rich in cultural importance.

After an hour’s ride, we arrived at the rural school. The headmaster welcomed us and soon one of our colleagues had whipped the students into a frenzy with ‘Ooomph’ orang-utan calls. In the corner of my eye was a skinny girl with fluorescent yellow head band who shouted ‘Ooomph’ with vigor and passion. I recognized her at once as Steward’s daughter. The 11-year-old girl, Dharvienalynn, shared her impressive knowledge of orang-utans.

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Sago palms and selunsur trees hug the waterway on our journey. Photo ©WCS Malaysia.

That evening, Steward noted that some of the people I’d known had passed away. His father, Nyanggau, and grandfather Tuai Rumah Rimong (known as Headman Rimong) had retired and were living in Sebubut. I wanted our new conservationists to meet these living legends who had given up their time and their lands to create the Batang Ai National Park for the protection of orang-utans.

When we arrived in Sebubut, Nyanggau immediately came to the door to greet us. Headman Rimong stood slowly and beamed a smile. The previously muscular man looked pretty good despite a recent stroke. He walked gently towards me and held my hand for a long time. Apparently Nyanggau mentioned I was coming and he told Nyanggau that he was abandoning all his morning activities to prepare for our meeting.

“In this moment, I could see four generations of a family connected through a passion to save orang-utans and their habitats.”

We’ve all heard tales of kids following their parents to be lawyers, teachers, and doctors. In my own family, my mum had been with the Forest Department, working in the same office in Kuching from the late 1950s to 2001. Now one of my own daughters is studying veterinary medicine with a desire to help wild animals.

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Gathered in the Sebubut home of Headman Rimong, I could see four generations of a family connected through a passion to save orang-utans and their habitats. Photo ©WCS Malaysia.

My hope for Sarawak is that future generations will continue to protect orang-utans. A larger hope is that the new generation of orang-utan conservationists that I followed to the field will be inspired with the true tales of gentle people who gave the wildlife and their habitats a real voice…and not just the word ‘Ooomph.’

May your Earth Day be full of natural wonders and may nature continue to inspire you.

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Dr. Melvin Gumal is the Malaysia Country Director for WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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