In Borneo, PoCo councillor finds local link

Tri-Cities Now
January 31, 2014 09:57 AM

PoCo Coun. Brad West and his wife Ulla travelled to Borneo to learn about orangutans.

They say that one of the secrets of a successful, happy marriage is compromise.  As a newlywed, I kept this in mind as my wife and I began to brainstorm where we’d spend our honeymoon.

My criteria was pretty standard stuff: sun, beach and drinks by the pool, but my better half had another idea. She was looking for something a bit more adventurous. Our compromise ended up being three weeks in Southeast Asia, spending two weeks in Bali and nearly a week on the island of Borneo. While the beaches of Bali were truly beautiful, it was our time in Borneo that will stay with us for a lifetime.

Borneo is the third-largest island in the world, and is divided between Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Home to a tropical rainforest that is 130 million years old, Borneo is also one of only two places in the world to find orangutans, the reddish-brown great ape. It was in search of this endangered species that we set out to Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of Borneo.

From the minute our small plane touched down at the airport in Pangkalan Bun, it was obvious that we were in a very different part of the world. That became very apparent when we caught locals snapping photos of us, while we were snapping ones of the orangutans and wildlife around us. The humidity is beyond anything I had experienced; the air feels heavy and wet and engulfs your clothes in mere minutes.

We soon boarded our modified fishing boat — and I use the word “boat” charitably — which would serve as our home for the next several days. As it chugged slowly down the river into Tanjung Puting National Park, our senses were overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of the jungle.  

Sleeping on the deck of a boat and under a mosquito net means there is no escaping the early rise of the bustling life around us. Nature’s wake-up call came at five o’clock each morning, as we prepared for full days of trekking through the thick brush.  Much of our time was spent exploring around Camp Leakey, a rehabilitative home for rescued orangutans named after famed archeologist Louis Leakey. It was here that we came to learn of the Tri-Cities connection to this amazing place halfway around the world.  

Camp Leakey was founded by Dr. Birute Galdikas in 1971 to conduct field studies of orangutans and, over the years, has become a centre for rehabilitation and the rallying point for advocacy work to conserve the rainforest. Galdikas splits her time between Borneo and the Tri-Cities, where she serves as a professor at nearby SFU. Imagine our surprise when local villagers asked us where we were from and our standard traveller answer of “Vancouver” brought a confused look. Trying again, we explained we were from Canada. But where in Canada? A place called Port Coquitlam we explained.

Smiles erupted. They didn’t know Vancouver, but knew Coquitlam — just part of Dr. Galdikas’ contribution to the locals. It truly is a small world, I thought to myself.
As you interact with the local orangutan population, you can’t help but establish an emotional connection with this amazing species. Every time we locked eyes with a baby orangutan or a mother keeping careful watch, we understood our similarities. No wonder — research has found we share 97 per cent of our DNA with them.

Orangutans are among the most intelligent primates. They use a variety of sophisticated tools, construct elaborate sleeping nests each night, have complex emotional relationships with one another and have even exhibited linguistic and communicative skills.

Unfortunately, and despite its status as a protected park, their natural habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, as is the number of orangutans. Poaching and the illegal pet trade are depleting the population, with mother orangutans being killed so infants can be sold as pets. But beyond all other challenges, the conversion of tropical forest to palm oil plantations has been responsible for the majority of orangutan deaths and destruction of their habitat, with 65 per cent of Tanjung Puting National Park having been lost.

Demand for palm oil is being driven by North America, where it is used in processed foods. It’s high in saturated fatty acids and has been identified by the World Health Organization as increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and a host of other diseases. Despite this, the demand for it continues unabated. We came home committed to carefully examining ingredients before we buy at the grocery store and avoiding products that contain palm oil.

As we prepared to leave the island, our guide told me that Borneo had served as the site for a season of Survivor. After enduring the swarms of carnivorous insects, snakes, crocodiles, tarantulas and fire ants for four nights, my long-standing ambition to make it on the show has waned a bit, but not our commitment to do our part to ensure the revitalization of the amazing orangutan.

Brad West is a Port Coquitlam city councillor.


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