The COVID-19 crisis has reached almost every country in the world.
The economic and social repercussions of the pandemic will be felt for years after it’s over. And the virus isn’t necessarily limited to the human species: our close relatives the Great Apes are also at risk.
Can orangutans catch COVID19?
Gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees and bonobos are known to be susceptible to human respiratory illnesses, sometimes having worse outcomes than humans.
In the wild, orangutans are solitary or semi-solitary animals. They are, unlike the more social African apes (and us humans) very good at social distancing. By staying in the forest canopy, wild orangutans very rarely interact directly with humans, so the risk of COVID-19 transmission to a wild orangutan is quite low. However, there is a bigger risk with orangutans at sanctuaries or rescue centres.
Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans, and are vulnerable to some human diseases – including some respiratory viruses.
The disease is not known to have been found in a Great Ape, but conservationists and rescue workers don’t want to take the risk. Sanctuaries and national parks around the world have closed or locked-down access to reduce the risk of transmission, and this includes in Borneo.
What is happening to minimise the risk in Borneo?
In Borneo, there are approximately 300 orangutans at the Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine (OCCQ) run by Orangutan Foundation International (OFI).
This includes ex-captive orangutans being rehabilitated for life in the wild, as well as wild orangutans who are under medical care or recovering from potentially life-threatening injuries. Understandably, with animals that are already at risk of developing complications from injuries or existing conditions, a dangerous virus like COVID-19 is a big concern.
Orangutan Foundation International has put the Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine (OCCQ) in Borneo into full lockdown to ensure the safety of these precious animals, with restrictions on who is allowed in and requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff and assistants.
Camp Leaky, Tanjung Puting National Park and Orangutan Trekking Tours
Camp Leakey and Tanjung Puting National Park were officially closed on March 19th by the Indonesian government. At this time, all guides and tourists were escorted from the park.
Staff at Camp Leakey are still tirelessly working to help save the orangutans, and there are a number of measures in place to ensure the health and safety of both the staff and the animals. These include social distancing, wearing PPE and the safe handling and preparation of food for the orangutans.
Because Tanjung Puting National Park is closed, and for the safety of staff, visitors and the orangutans, Orangutan Trekking Tours is unable to accept new tour bookings until we have visibility on when the park might reopen.
The flow-on effects of travel restrictions in Indonesia and Borneo
Unfortunately, the efforts to stop the spread of the virus to the orangutans – and to staff and residents of Borneo – will have the side effect of adding more stress and urgency to conservation funding.
The fall in tourism due to travel restrictions will have an impact on the protection of the species, either directly through decreases in donations restricting or preventing visitors to sanctuaries or national parks, or by tourism expenditure being slowed to a trickle or coming to a complete stop.
A drop in funding or donations to orangutan conservation charities or foundations means less money for food and supplies for these sanctuaries, and less income to spend on buying back parts of the forest from palm oil plantations.
Travel restrictions to Indonesia and Borneoare also being felt by the tourism industry: accommodation, tour guides, drivers and other providers will need to look for alternative sources of income.
If I can’t visit the orangutans or book a tour with Orangutan Trekking Tours, how can I help?
There are three ways you can contribute to saving the forest and the beautiful orangutans of Borneo.
You can donate directly to a conservation charity or foundation, be aware of products that are produced with unsustainably farmed palm oil, and look forward to the future and keep Borneo – and Orangutan Trekking Tours – in your travel plans.
1. Donate directly to the teams on the ground
If you’d like to contribute to the protection of orangutans in Borneo, donate to the charities and organisations who are working on the ground.
The Orangutan Green Team
Orangutan Trekking Tours’ own Green Team are united by the goal of preserving the rainforest to protect wild orangutans. You can donate to their cause and help to keep their work going.
All donations will go directly to the Orangutan Green Team, with the money used to buy and restore rainforest land that would otherwise be sold to palm oil plantation companies.
Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) Australia was founded with the mission to continue the conservation efforts started by Dr Birute Mary Galdikas and Orangutan Foundation International, at the heart of the orangutans’ home in Kalimantan, Borneo. OFI supports the conservation and care of orangutans and their natural habitat, with all funds going directly to this cause.
2. Be informed about palm oil’s devastating effects
Palm oil plantations and deforestation are the leading causes of the dwindling population of Bornean orangutans in the wild.
By being aware of the production system of palm oil, and changing your purchasing behaviour to minimise or eliminate products that contain palm oil, you can help to reduce the impact. We’ve written an explainer piece about palm oil’s effect on orangutans – check it out here.
3. Don’t forget your travel plans – look to the future!
While we’re restricted in our movements now, this won’t last forever.
Borders will open again, and we’ll be free to travel to the furthest corners of the earth. In the meantime, you can create a wishlist of your travel plans for when restrictions ease – and don’t forget to include Borneo and Orangutan Trekking Tours!
We have a fantastic itinerary available for our visitors, and you can customise your trek to include some really special moments or experiences.