The Future of Sustainable Orangutan Treks in a Post-COVID World
As the only primate that only can be found outside of Africa, the orangutan lures people from all over the world to see its uniqueness of being strikingly similar to human beings. The image of the orangutan was first uncovered in the 18th century by English explorer Daniel Beekman in his A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo. Ever since, people all over the world have been enchanted by tales of this ‘magical creature,’ including journeying to see them in the wild rather than in a zoo.
With a total of just 14,760 existing in the world, Sumatran orangutans are deemed critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is nothing short of a state of emergency—so it’s important for us to not only have a personal connection or experience with them, but to actively contribute to protecting them, as well.
Bukit Lawang & Sumatran orangutan viewing treks
Bukit Lawang is one of the only places in Sumatra that visitors are all but guaranteed to see Sumatran orangutans in their natural habitat, the Leuser Ecosystem. It’s a place with a long history.
In 1973, Bukit Lawang started being used for orangutans that were confiscated from illegal captivity and rehabilitated. In 1991, it became a Sumatran orangutan viewing centre. The orangutans living there to this day are the previously rehabilitated orangutans and their offspring.
Of course, Bukit Lawang has grown exponentially and is now one of the most famous tourist destinations in North Sumatra. From 2017 to 2019, the area welcomed about 15,000 visitors each year. And tourism has played a major role in supporting local people. From working in the hotels and restaurants to the over 300 people who work as guides, visitors who come to Bukit Lawang for the Sumatran orangutan viewing trek are essential for sustaining livelihoods.
But large numbers of tourists bring challenges for managing the sustainability and responsibility practices of orangutan viewing treks, too. Take, for example, the high season, which runs from July to September each year. The demand is so high that thousands of people will participate in the treks with no daily limit. This is mass tourism and can drive eco-exploitation, rather than eco-tourism, if we’re not careful.
We can also look at conservation practices during the treks. Unfortunately, with so many guides, not all of them have an equally strong understanding about the conservation of orangutans and the forest. Some put their focus on showing the exotic nature of the orangutan and a forest adventure rather than addressing the real issues, encouraging tourist contributions to orangutan conservation efforts, and sharing a message of change. This can lead to guides agreeing to any request to please the tourists, including exploiting and violating the privacy of the orangutans. It isn’t entirely because of a lack of training, as the government and some partner NGOs have conducted a series of training sessions, but they justify their wrongdoings by citing the need to please demanding guests.
Tourists as changemakers
It’s really important to understand that tourist awareness must be a target for change. Tourists need to be critical and demand changes to any irresponsible behavior and unethical practices. How? Simply by asking and practicing the established guidelines designed to protect both these amazing creatures and the tourists themselves.
The sad reality on the ground is that some guides don’t bother to explain the guidelines to tourists, and many tourists don’t bother to ask. Few people take any time to read the information board at the front gate entrance.
The COVID pandemic and future orangutan trek practices
The guidelines in place are there for a reason. With orangutans sharing 97% of their DNA with humans, they are vulnerable to disease transmission from humans—and vice versa. For this reason, everyone is supposed to maintain a safe distance of 7–10 meters in order to respect the space of wildlife and avoid possible incidents. This includes taking care that everything brought in is brought out. Even leftover food on the forest floor can be a problem, as bacteria or viruses can be on the food, which wildlife may then pick up. We must be mindful that anything we do during treks can have a significant impact or even be fatal for the wildlife.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, these guidelines must be taken even more seriously. During the high season, hundreds of visitors could be trekking at any given time. Reckless practices that sometimes happened pre-pandemic—like violating distance rules to get close access to orangutans or take selfies—are now an even more significant threat to the sustainability of the orangutan.
The pandemic is an alarm for wildlife trekking practices to change.
First, we must keep a greater distance. The guideline of 10 meters isn’t enough; 15–20 is likely ideal. We should also consider limiting the number of daily visitors, not only to avoid spreading COVID-19 to wildlife, but to protect other visitors as well. And we should consider health documents and health protocols for guides, visitors, and the officers in charge.
The serious threat to the orangutan is a reminder that the pandemic isn’t just about climate change, but about human change. It is time to be more mindful about our actions and the impact they have on the planet. It isn’t just other species being threatened, but also our own species in the end. It is time to maintain our space and stop eco-exploitation in the name of fun and leisure. It is time to again appreciate wildlife as it is—from afar, without interfering.
We can no longer avoid the fact that we are not the only species on Planet Earth. Everything we do has a significant impact.
Nayla Azmi is an Indigenous Batak storyteller and conservationist based in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. She has worked in the field for more than a decade and is passionate about conservation, decolonization, and the empowerment of women. Nayla lives with seven cats that she rescued from the street. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.