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Monday, January 26, 2015

Why Clinton's visit was a setback fororang-utan conservation

Reprinted from: Why Clinton's visit was a setback for orang-utan conservation
By: Dr Graham L Banes
Published in Red Ape, the newsletter of the Orangutan Foundation UK (

It is evident that President Clinton cares deeply about the conservation and protection of great apes. In 2000, he enacted the Great Ape Conservation Act, authorizing $5 million annually to protect these endangered species. His Clinton Foundation — and related Clinton Climate Initiative — has also dedicated vast resources to the orang-utan in particular, working closely with communities, non-profits and the Indonesian government to protect critical forests and habitat. In light of these endeavours, recent photos of President Clinton in Borneo, holding an orphaned orang-utan in a rehabilitation centre, were especially disappointing — and a discouraging step backward for orang-utan conservation.

Rehabilitation centres exist to care for displaced orang-utans, orphaned or driven out of the forest by human intervention. Guidelines issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) require that such centres are closed to all but essential personnel: in any reputable centre, tourism is explicitly prohibited. Those staff that come into close contact with orang-utans are required to undergo comprehensive and regular health checks, comprising faecal bacteriology and parasitology screens, plus tests for tuberculosis and HIV. All visitors – irrespective of their proximity to the apes – are required to undergo a two-week quarantine period to avoid transmission of disease.

That President Clinton was pictured with an orang-utan in his arms just hours after arriving in Indonesian Borneo, and following an extensive South-East Asia tour, is surely not his fault. Indeed, he might have been horrified by the flurry of criticism that followed publication of the photos online. Nonetheless, his team could have done a little research: in 1997, contact between a sickly Julia Roberts and an infant orang-utan was thought to have led to the infant's death; the incident is documented in Spalding's book, "A Dark Place in the Jungle." Guidelines and recommendations from the IUCN are available freely online, and reputable primatologists would have advised Clinton's team on how best to handle such a visit, if only their opinion had been sought. Other celebrities are more careful in their endeavours: a similarly high-profile visitor, having solicited the guidance of a consortium of experts, avoided rehabilitation centres altogether when visiting Indonesian Borneo earlier this year.

Though disease is perhaps the most critical issue, President Clinton's handling of an infant orang-utan hampers wider conservation efforts. In Indonesia, keeping orang-utans as pets has been illegal since 1997 — yet scientists estimate 2% of the wild population might be annually lost to the pet trade. When Clinton — a US president— is pictured smiling with an orphan, one cannot help but contemplate the effect this may have on demand. The effects of over-habituation are also well documented: displaced orang-utans that confuse strangers with caregivers make poor candidates for reintroduction. In the nearby Tanjung Puting National Park – which Clinton also visited – a reintroduced orang-utan was found with a machete wound in his back in 2012; he was thought to have tried to steal food from nearby miners.

President Clinton’s continuing efforts to protect the orang-utan will undoubtedly lengthen their existence. However, any such efforts must be conducted in accordance with international guidelines, with the endorsement of experts, and in co-operation with reputable rehabilitation centres. While I applaud President Clinton’s investment in Indonesian orang-utans, I implore him to consider a ‘hands-off’ approach in the future. A man of his influence can achieve much more, if he is careful to do so responsibly.
**To all: I'm posting this here because Graham makes some good points that I thought should be read by people who may not receive the Red Ape newsletter. The takeaway point is to think and consider the impact and appearance of one's actions.  I met Graham some years back while he was still a PhD Student and visiting in Canada. Graham is currently at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.