“The less contact orangutans have with humans, the better. We are their main threat ”| Climate and Environment


Primatologist Karmele Llano with an orangutan at the Kalimantan (Borneo) recovery center.
Primatologist Karmele Llano with an orangutan at the Kalimantan (Borneo) recovery center.HERIBERTUS

Veterinarian Karmele Llano (Bilbao, 1978) rescues orangutans who see their habitat disappear under palm crops, which are then exported “to the first world” in Kalimantan (an area of ​​Borneo that belongs to Indonesia). With the International Animal Rescue Foundation (IAR), which he founded a decade ago, he has saved 260 specimens, and although the situation has improved, he recalls that the population of the species in the world –only the islands of Borneo and Sumatra– has dropped 60%. He knows that the rescue is to “patch a hole” and that the only way to end the felling of forests is to raise awareness among citizens of rich countries, who import cheaper raw materials from developing States to be able to consume cheaply. His work has received the BBVA Foundation Award for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

Ask. Why the orangutans?

Answer. Because there was a need and, in fact, we have rescued 260 specimens in the last 10 years. In the two decades that I have been working here, I have seen the destruction of its habitat by deforestation or by fires is increasingly evident. In addition, it is an umbrella species and its protection entails that of others that are part of the same ecosystem.

P. How do you rescue an orangutan?

R. The felling of the forests is causing them to be left without space, without a home. What we do is take them to forest areas where they can be protected as national or natural parks. We also rescue individuals affected by the illegal trafficking of species, as occurs when mothers with young are killed to sell them and keep them as pets. The decrease in habitat causes, at the same time, a conflict between humans and the orangutan that, having no space, enters the plantations and causes economic losses, which if not solved, will translate into farmers using force to get rid of they.

P. Hunting and killing them

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R. If that is.

P. How do farmers take their work?

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There is everything, but we have never faced dangerous situations. The conflict is economic, there is no desire of the locals to kill the orangutan. Even those who still hunt get the message that they are an endangered species and that killing them indiscriminately can lead to their extinction. The problem is ignorance. With gorillas it was a little different because they were sold at a very high price on the black market. Here it is easier to convince the locals that protecting the orangutan is necessary and essential.

The forest is being converted into crops, especially palm, to feed those of us who live in the richest countries.

P. Can deforestation be stopped?

R. It is a very complex problem. The forest is being converted into crops, especially palm, to feed those of us who live in the richest countries. Global awareness is needed of how our way of living, our consumerism, has environmental consequences, not only in climate change, but also in species and one of them is the orangutan. Not cutting down trees is in the hands of local populations and that is the work we do, but there is a global problem because rich countries import cheaper raw materials from developing countries so that we can consume at the lowest price. In the end, the rescue is not a solution, it is to patch a hole.

P. Have you experienced any dangerous situation with orangutans?

R. No, never, but because we are careful. There are orangutans that have spent many years in the center, who already know us, but they are still wild animals that have a lot of strength and a very large size. The females weigh between 45 and 50 kilos and the males between 85 and 100. They spend a lot of time in the trees, but an adult male will be about two meters tall.

P. How has the situation changed since you started your job?

R. In the last 20 years we have seen an increase in deforestation, which is now reversing. We notice this in that the number of orangutans we rescue is decreasing. 10 years ago we took care of between 10 and 25 specimens a year and this year there have been 4 or 5, so the populations, at least in the area where we are, because the island is very large, are stabilizing. Are good news.

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P. How many orangutans are left?

R. It is very difficult to talk about numbers, estimates can be made. Of the Bornean orangutan it is estimated that there will be between 45,000 and 55,000 in the wild throughout the island. To get an idea, they would not fill the Camp Nou football field, which can accommodate between 80,000 and 90,000 people. There would fit all the orangutans in the world. With IUCN data [Unión Internacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza]we have lost 60% of the populations in the last 60 years. Only orangutans remain on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

With IUCN data [Unión Internacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza]we have lost 60% of the populations in the last 60 years.

P. In this rescue, is an emotional bond established with them?

R. What we try is to accustom them to surviving in nature, and the less contact with man, the better, because the human is the one who hunts them, he is their main threat.. It is necessary to supplement the learning process of the young that are rescued and that have lost their mothers with whom they would have spent between seven and eight years. Their ability to learn is what differentiates them from other mammalian species and is essential for their survival.

P. But some special orangutan will be

R. Many have been and are very special. Specifically, the orangutan with which we started the project. He had spent his entire life in captivity, having had his foot tied to a pole with a 12-inch chain for about 12 years at the back of his owner’s house. Without a roof to shelter, exposed to heat, rain, with garbage around. It is the first one we rescued 12 years ago.

P. Did they have him as a pet?

R. Yes, because a baby orangutan can be handled at first, but then not and they are chained or put in a cage or both. Most in captivity end up like this.

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P. How do you make the mother of orangutans? How are they taught?

R. They learn very easily. The smartest or those who have spent the most time with their mothers in nature are the ones who teach the rest. They are in controlled areas, with fences, where we observe them, we feed them … but, above all, we monitor their behavior. Sometimes babies arrive months old and that means they will spend at least six or seven years in the recovery center.

P. Is it possible to get an adult back?

R. If an orangutan has spent many years in captivity and has reached adulthood, it is very difficult or impossible to recover them and introduce them to the wild. They are accustomed to receiving food, to the presence of human beings, and if they are released they would be unable to survive, they would not be able to make a nest every day in the top of a tree, nor to look for food and would approach the villages. Those specimens stay in the center and will be with us for the rest of their days. In captivity they can live for about 60 years, in the wild somewhat less.

P. They are very human-like

R. More than 98% of its DNA is the same as that of humans. Great apes are like our distant cousins, who have many similarities to us, both in their development and in their way of thinking. They imitate us especially when they have lived among humans, because they have that ability to learn and that intelligence.

P. What other animals are in danger?

R. A lot of. In Indonesia the elephant, the panther, the tiger, the rhinoceros, the Sumatran orangutan, the Bornean orangutan, different species of primates.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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