The Last Place On Earth

The Remaining Habitat For Orangutans Is In Jeopardy

The closest living relatives to humankind are the great apes: gorillas, champanzees and the orangutans.

Their DNA is 95 percent the same as man. Does that mean apes have anything to teach us about being human? In the case of the orangutan you'll be surprised. What we know about this is largely due to one woman: Birute Galdikas. Galdikas left UCLA for Borneo 30 years ago and never looked back.

The apes she studies once roamed from China to the South Pacific but today they're contained on two islands: Borneo and Sumatra, both part of Indonesia.

Now, the woman who discovered how orangutans live is watching them descend toward extinction. The situation in Borneo has gotten much worse since 60 Minutes II correspondent Scott Pelley first reported this story last fall. Hundreds of people have been killed in ethnic fighting there and no one in the government seems to care that the orangutans are now losing what is for them the last place on earth.

Dozens of infant orangutans of the Indonesian rain forest would not be alive if it were not for the mothering instinct of Galdikas. The infants in her care are about 1 year old. For every one, there was a mother killed in the jungle.

"You face a situation where orangutans are going extinct in the wild, and you absolutely have to do something to save them," says Galdikas.

The forest of the orangutan lies far up the Sekonyer River. It's the second-largest rain forest after the Amazon.

"It is prime orangutan habitat. This is peat swamp forest, and there are more orangutans here than virtually any place on Earth," says Galdikas as a wooden boat takes her upstream.

"Unfortunately, there's a horrible possibility, and it's very tragic, that we could be traveling up the last river where orangutans are found in the wild," she adds.

Galdikas first explored Sekonyer River 30 years ago when it was a paradise for apes. "I look back to those days when I went into the forest every morning and followed wild orangutans, and, ah, those were wonderful golden days," she says.

She was sent by legendary anthropologist Louis Leakey, who assigned Jane Goodall to chimpanzees and Dian Fossy to gorillas. "One of the reasons I wanted to study orangutans was that they seemed so human," says Galdikas.

But no one had ever succeeded in tracking them. Orangutans are so elusive the native people of Indonesia used to believe they were ghosts.

In fact, when Galdikas came to the forest in 1971, she imagined that she might not ever see an orangutan.

The incredibly dense foliage makes it very difficult to find the primates. It is a problem Galdikas learned to overcome in her studies. "I once followed an adult male for 61 days," she says.

And with the persistence came the discoveries. "What surprised me the most is the fact that they live most of their lives alone, but they are not lonely," she explains. "I used to get trribly lonely in this forest, but they never got lonely. An adult male orangutan could be alone in that forest, year in year out, but he is serene; he is a universe unto himself."

Galdikas says orangutans make tools like humans. They bend limbs into toys, tools and even umbrellas.

In the Malay language, orangutan means "person of the forest." The orangutans are the only species of great apes that live virtually their entire lives high in the canopy of the rain forest. The trouble is, Indonesia is losing approximately 1 percent of its rain forest every year, according to estimates. The orangutans make their home in trees that comprise some of the most valuable timber in the world.

The trees standing inside a national park are off limits to loggers. The parks are protected by Indonesian law, which, it turns out, is no protection at all.

In the Tanjung Puting National Park, home to prime orangutan habitat, trees by the hundreds are headed for the sawmills in broad daylight. The habitat of the orangutan ends up going down gang planks - off to the furniture factories of South Asia.

Faith Doherty, who investigates the timber trade for a private group called the Environmental Investigation Agency, says 70 percent of all timber felled in Indonesia is illegal.

So how does the wood get to the mills without being confiscated by police? "If anything goes to court, you buy the judge to get the correct verdict," says Doherty.

"One of things for sale is not just that national park, but all of Indonesia's national parks."

Doherty shot video of a wood called ramin in a Borneo sawmill. The national park is the only source of ramin in the region.

When Doherty went to the mill owners with some questions, she was kidnapped, beaten and held for three days, she says.

Company director Een Jaharia was shown the video of her mill filled with ramin, which could only come from the park: "The ramin we have is all legal. It is all legal. We didn't take any wood from Tanjung Puting," said Jaharia. When pressed further, she ended the interview abruptly.

And deforestation is not the only threat to the orangutans. In their remaining habitat, men are literally tearing apart the rain forest in search of gold.

The gold miners turn the earth inside out, washing away the topsoil with high-pressure water hoses. By law, orangutans and the entire rain forest are to be protected but parts of it have become scenes of magnificent desolation. Where pristine rain forest once lay, there are now acres of barren fields of sand.

To bind the gold together, they add mercury to the mix. For the miners, it's a day soaked in poison for a handful of gold dust while the future of the forest is sent downstream.

The Indonesian government has so far done nothing to stop the miners and the loggers.

At this rate, the orangutans don't have many years left: "I would have to guess 10 years at the most," Gadikas estimates.

Time is running out because of another trait orangutans share with humans: The bond between mother and infant is long term. Orangutans are the slowest breeding apes in the world. In the last 10 years, the population has dropped 50 percent.

"A female only starts giving birth when she is 16 or 17 years of age, so if you start killing females you have to wait 16 or 17 years for infants to grow up and start reproducing," says Galdikas.

Because of this, when females are killed, Galdikas rescues the infants.

There may be as few as 10,000 orangutans left in the wild. Galdikas says it is urgent that humans save the species "because they are our closest living relatives, because they are unique, because they've been on this Earth for millions of years, and they deserve to survive."

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