These days, it’s difficult to pick up a newspaper or turn on the television or Internet and not find a headline story in the news about extreme weather. It seems high temperatures, heavy rains, drought conditions, and wildfires are wrecking havoc on communities throughout the world.
But what the average person considers to be extreme weather is actually the norm in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) where, for more than four decades, Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and associates of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) have been working year-round in tropical rainforest conditions to carry out OFI’s important mission.
OFI’s field-based research and conservation work is deeply integrated into the natural environment and is therefore always affected by weather. Borneo’s tropical seasonality moves between the sometimes devastating extremes of the wet and dry seasons and is a constant challenge to our work. For half of the year, the tropical heat combines with torrential downpours and visibly thick humidity. During the other half, scorching sun and a cloudless sky team up to create searing temperatures. These oppressive working conditions can tax even the most hardy of souls.
Currently, it is the ‘dry season’ in Borneo. At its peak, this means forest fires. These fires are typically caused by area residents attempting to illegally claim and clear disputed land as their own to use for commercial agricultural or plantation purposes. Much of this land includes the traditional hunting and fishing grounds of the indigenous Dayak people—many of whom work for OFI. As they carry out their tasks within the forests of our region, our staff are often confronted with the painful reality that their native ‘homeland’ is rapidly disappearing.
These land-claiming-and-clearing fires often burn out of control endangering OFI’s field camps, orangutan feeding stations, release sites, and protected forests. The exhausting task of extinguishing fires, especially when they threaten our facilities and projects, often falls squarely on the shoulders of OFI’s staff. Our seasoned workers are accustomed to tough conditions and are experienced firefighters, so even when local authorities do show up, our crew is almost always first on the scene, bearing the brunt of the difficult fight. Hot fires, coupled with oppressive summer heat and humidity, creates unimaginable working conditions for our brave workforce.
Urgent fire-fighting missions have a ripple effect on our operations as well. They draw key staff away from our Care Center. On a moment’s notice, many staff members must switch gears from their normal daily chores of feeding, cleaning and caring for our 330 orphaned orangutans, to hauling water, dragging hoses, and digging fire-suppressing trenches. This means the rest of OFI’s staff—mostly women who stay behind—must do ‘double-duty’ at the Care Center. Hungry orangutans can’t wait for their next meal.
In the neighboring island of Sumatra, the only place other than Borneo where wild orangutans live, the forests and peatlands have been smoldering with intense fires all summer long. The smoke is so think it was blackening the skies over Singapore. Fortunately, the dry season in Kalimantan this year has been unusually wet, so fewer fires than normal have been burning out of control. Changing weather patterns, however, means an unexpected dry snap could be just around the corner.
During the wet season, a different set of obstacles challenges our work. Tropical downpours in Borneo can quickly transform a dirt road into a flowing river. These rainstorms, which often occur daily for up to five months, threaten to flood our camps, wash away our structures, and hinder movement across the landscape. Many of OFI’s orangutan release camps and guard posts are situated in or on the edges of swamps and rivers. To avoid inundation during the rainy season we build them on stilts. This is a challenging construction endeavor requiring ongoing maintenance, but is well worth the extra effort as it provides added protection to our essential infrastructure. Weather clearly drives both form and function in Borneo.
Frequently, our forest bridges and walkways need repairs as well. This requires our staff to travel many kilometres on foot to reach remote jungle camps carrying extremely heavy ironwood and working with rudimentary tools in difficult conditions. Moreover, in the rainy season, most of the dirt roads we rely on to access several of our land-based camps become so rutted and muddy that only our single all-wheel-drive vehicle can make the difficult daily journey to deliver essential food and supplies to the camp staff who depend on them.
It’s also tough going within our 200-acre ‘enrichment forest’ surrounding our Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine, where wet season flooding transforms swampy sections into waist-deep pools of tea-colored water and hinders the ability of our caregivers to follow and keep track of baby orangutans who venture out into the forest canopy for their daily ‘forest school’ excursions. Slogging through this watery environment year after year prompted OFI to create its boardwalk-building program in 2009. Today, nearly 1.5 miles of boardwalk—built by our Summer Construction Volunteer Teams—span the swampy sections of our ‘enrichment forest,’ allowing our caregivers to more easily keep a watchful eye on our rehabilitating orangutans regardless of the weather or season.
For orangutans, seasonal changes in Borneo’s weather are the unique heritage upon which their species has evolved over millennia. For we humans, it’s a constant struggle. We must continuously invent clever ways to cope and adapt to the challenges presented by the orangutans’ tropical rainforest environment. Wet or dry, hot or cold, it’s our job to help keep orangutans safe in any weather.