Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Irresponsible tourism threatens the endangered orangutan’s survival

Mina might be a cantankerous beast, but she’s a sucker for bananas. When the bananas stop, however, watch out. Amid lush jungle greenery, Mina squats on the ground, facing a man who indulges her banana obsession.
Her baby plays in a tree nearby.
The man calls to a group of tourists, who quickly climb the trail to glimpse what they’ve come for: orangutans.

None of the visitors seems phased that the guide is violating the warning at the park entrance, “Do not feed the orangutans.”

Like many gap-year students from Europe who pass through Bukit Lawang on extended trips around Southeast Asia, they are understandably mesmerized by this close encounter with a wild species amazingly similar to themselves, albeit covered in an abundance of long orange hair.

They start taking pictures. Then two park rangers spot the guide, and tell him off. The visitors only have time to take a few more pictures before Mina loses interest in the guide, and walks toward them.

“Start walking away” warn the park rangers. Mina lumbers worryingly close. “Now run,” they add. Too late. A strong, hairy hand clasps a trembling knee.

 “Stay calm,” one park ranger says, as Mina gradually wraps herself around one of the tourists. Maybe his faintly orangutan-esque facial hair has distracted the animal from a distinctly human outfit: lumberjack shirt and swim shorts.

Mina seems more amorous than aggressive, but the tourist has been warned about this notoriously unpredictable local celebrity. He doesn’t look comfortable in her embrace.

After twenty minutes of intense negotiations between Mina and the park rangers, she eventually lets him go, unharmed.
Mina is well-known in this part of Gunung Leuser National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Every guide has a story about her. She interrupts lunches, opens backpacks to search for food, and scares tourists, sometimes hurting them or dragging them to the ground.

Experts say she should be removed from the area; she has become too aggressive, dangerous to tourists and by extension, to herself.

Darma, one of the park rangers, blames unscrupulous tour guides. “Some guides bring food to attract orangutans and please tourists. When they prepare lunches, sometimes they pack an extra portion of nasi goreng for Mina,” he says, referring to Indonesia’s popular stir-fried rice dish.

 But orangutans are critically endangered. Tasty as it is, nasi goreng doesn't offer the same quality of nutrition as their natural diet of fruit and leaves from the forest.

Apart from making orangutans aggressive when they’re deprived of food they shouldn’t have in the first place, the main risk of feeding and touching orangutans is contamination.

Although they remind us so much of ourselves — their name in Indonesian literally means “forest person” — they have no immunity to human diseases, explains Panut Hadisiswoyo, director of the Orangutan Information Center, a local NGO.

Like their cousins in Borneo, the population of Sumatran orangutans is drastically declining, due to poaching and above all the destruction of their natural habitat.

Their last stronghold is the 3,000-square-mile Gunung Leuser National Park, adjacent to Bukit Lawang, on the border between North Sumatra and Aceh provinces. All around the park, mines, logging sites and palm oil plantations have wiped out vast tracts of Indonesian rainforest.

The WWF, or World Wildlife Fund, estimates the number of remaining Sumatran orangutans at 7,500 individuals, and believes that the population may decline by 50 percent in a decade — and by 97 percent in 50 years if habitat loss continues.

Read more with pictures: Globalpost

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