The Orangutan Kutai Project was launched in 2009 as a long-term science-for-conservation project on Kutai’s morio orangutans. It was designed as a multi-year knowledge-building core with two linked goals:
- Improving knowledge of morio orangutans
- Enhancing the effectiveness of morio conservation efforts in and around the park
The Orangutan Kutai Project focuses on the range of orangutans because ranging offers a good overview of their habitat needs, social lives, energy management, flexibilities, and limits. Effective protection depends on designing programs to suit their needs, preferences, flexibilities, and limitations.
The project is directed by Dr. Anne Russon, an Orangutan Conservancy board member and researcher with 23 years of experience studying orangutan behavior in Bornean forests, and operates in the field with a team of six local field assistants, a manager (Purwo Kuncoro) and a counterpart from the Kutai National Park authority.
The Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, Borneo, was largely considered a conservation wasteland just a decade ago. Most of its forest had been destroyed and its orangutans virtually eradicated by massive forest fires and human development, and it was thought by experts that a priority population of an estimated 600 orangutans had dwindled to perhaps no more than 30.
But surveys of the Kutai National Park in 2010 discovered areas with excellent quality forest and a strong orangutan presence. The findings indicate the park’s orangutan population could be as large as 1,000-2,000. Concurrently, other areas of the park are also showing strong orangutan presence in the form of large numbers of healthy, reproducing orangutans.
The important message is that these orangutans and the park are recovering well from serious damage and, as such, are important conservation priorities.
Beyond their numbers, Kutai orangutans have special importance as members of the easternmost subspecies of the endangered Bornean orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus morio. This subspecies is considered the most durable of all orangutans—East Borneo is the worst orangutan habitat—but they are poorly understood, especially in East Kalimantan.
2016 Update from Anne Russon:
We are now in our sixth year of orangutan research and conservation work in Kutai National Park (KNP), East Kalimantan Indonesia. KNP is home to the only remaining large wild population of E Bornean orangutans in Indonesia, but it has been seriously threatened by human “development” for decades in the form of settlements, mines, plantations, and two massive forest fires. Only last year, 60,000 ha of KNP’s 190,000 ha were excised to legalize illegal settlements inside its boundaries.
The research site we established in 2010 is along the Sangatta River, the park’s nothern boundary. It overlaps Mentoko, the site of Rodman’s orangutan research in 1970-71 – the first wild orangutan research in Indonesia – so it offers an exceptional opportunity to compare KNP orangutans’ behavior now, when this forest is recovering from serious damage, and 1970-71, when it was near pristine.
Our aims have always included contributing to orangutan conservation. On a day to day basis, since starting research in KNP, we have monitored our research area and reported any evidence of illegal activities to the KNP authorities. On numerous occasions, this has resulted in catching poachers and stopping illegal activities ranging from logging to illegal planting and poaching. The number of illegal activities we detect has decreased over time, so there is some indication that our monitoring has been of some value. Read the entire update here.
The Orangutan Kutai Project operates from a field site that runs approximately four kilometers along the south side of the Sangata River, Kutai National Park’s northern boundary, and inland from there. This site was chosen because censuses showed a strong orangutan presence and the need for additional protection there. A public road runs along the opposite side of the Sangata River, as close as 30-50 m from the river’s banks. Local people have been actively clearing and settling on the land between the road and the river. Such easy access to this part of KNP leaves the area very vulnerable to illegal entry, so continuous project presence can help maintain its safety. To date, the project has found 26 orangutans in the study area, including five adult females with dependent youngsters and a large number of males. All are healthy, well fed, and reproducing normally. Regular work in the field involves following these orangutans nest to nest and monitoring environmental conditions (plant food availability, weather) that influence their health, habitat use, and travel.