In the order of primates, the sub species Homo sapiens sapiens have done more harm to our brothers, genus Pongo (orangutan), than good.
One woman has, for over 20 years, been dedicating her life to repairing the damage we have wreaked upon this all but defenceless creature.
Lone Drøscher Nielsen is a fierce and world famous conservationist and champion of orangutans, whose DNA make-up only differs by three per cent from that of their human oppressors.
With the help of Dr Willie Smits of the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS), and with the financial backing of the Gibbon Foundation and BOS Indonesia, Lone founded the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Project in 1998, based in Central Kalimantan to deal with the swelling numbers of orphaned orangutans.
She was able to build the facility under an agreement with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, and Nyaru Menteng officially opened its doors to the first dozen orangutans in 1999.
Lone arrived in Australia on Sunday and will leave again this Saturday in a whirlwind tour speaking to audiences in Brisbane, then Sydney and Melbourne via Knockrow.
This is her first time on the Australian lecture circuit and the Macadamia Castle’s Tony Gilding jokes that is was her lack of local knowledge that was Knockrow’s advantage.
‘The good news is that Lone accepted my invitation to do a presentation at the Macadamia Castle as part of her “capital city” tour’, says Tony. ‘Having never been to Australia before Lone thought that Knockrow was a capital like Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and we are the winners.’
Tony says that soon after he started working in orangutan conservation over 10 years ago, he began to hear the name Lone Drøscher Nielsen in revered terms.
‘She was the Danish stewardess who started working at the very tiny Nyaru Menteng conservation project in central Kalimantan in 1993 and went on to oversee the largest primate rescue centre in the world with over 600 orangutans in her care.
‘She is considered a national treasure in Denmark and we are very grateful and lucky to have her.’
Lone says she fell in love with the land that would become her home before she met its natural inhabitants.
‘When I first went to Indonesia, I came to study wild orangutans. After two weeks I saw no orangutans but I fell in love with the forest.
‘As I made my way through the forest I began to see the orangutans. Seeing them move through the tree tops is like watching an aerial ballet.
‘The elegance of these animals is incredible. I fell in love again.’
Lone says that speaking tours are not her natural ‘habitat’ but she strives to talk to as many people as she can for the sake of her charges.
‘I am nervousness in front of two people or 200’, says Lone. ‘The only reason I am here is that 20 years ago I made a pact with a group of orangutans to be a voice for them and today I am able to do that.’
Lone says that the biggest decimator of orangutan populations is the lust for palm oil. It is used in so many of our daily consumables and it this greed for the extract that if left unchecked, will see the eventual extinction of the animal.
Second to the oil is the use of the timber from forests that are cleared to make way for palm plantations, and another killer is the abduction of infants, actually physically torn from their beaten and broken mothers, to make pets for, you guessed it, humans.
Both shocking and horrific is the fact that some of the mothers who do survive this vicious renting of babies from their bodies, are used as shaved, groomed and bejewelled receptacles in local brothels.
Lone says that there is good news. Attitudes are slowly changing as people understand the plight of the orangutans, and the animals which are being rescued, rehabilitate well with a low mortality rate and there are many successful releases, through the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Project, into safe areas.
‘I am not here to beg for money’, says Lone. ‘I am here to ask you to stop buying palm oil products; stop buying products made from the timber, even some small trinkets in your house might come from this timber and you just don’t know; and consider supporting the people who are supporting the orangutans.’
Lone says that the project does have a lot of loyal supporters, to whom she is very grateful, but only about 80 per cent of the operational costs are covered and she is touring to raise awareness and funds.
Lone says that currently there are a little over 500 orangutans ‘in care’ at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center and there are another 120 released animals and babies who are monitored by a team in the field whose sole purpose is to keep track of their health and safety.
Lone says there is another group of orangutans who need ongoing support as attack and capture can leave behind the permanent scars of trauma.
‘At the moment we have a group of about 20 not-for-release animals. That is because of physical or mental handicaps.’
Lone says it is up to us to make changes that will have a positive effect on the future of these creatures she has dedicated her life to.
‘The main message is there are still a lot of people out there who don’t really know what the situation is in Indonesia – how bad it really is. The orangutan is not going to go extinct over the next decade or anything like that, but there are still a lot of very bad things happening and that needs to stop.
‘We as consumers are the only ones who can stop the invasion of palm oil. Palm oil is the biggest enemy.’
The way you can help is to stop using palm oil products, stop buying timber products made from the forests and adopt a baby orangutan or donate to support the project. For more information visit the website: www.orangutans.com.au.