Big Ritchie looks up from his pile of bananas, unperturbed by the flock of tourists taking his photo. Sprawled around him, mother orangutans* and their fluffy orange babies groom affectionately, chase each other, hang upside down, or wander off and vanish into the nearby forest canopy.
Fewer than 2,000 orangutans are left living in the wild in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, with nearly all truly wild ones confined to a remote site on the Indonesian border. It’s why thousands of tourists and local Sarawak people come to places like this – the popular Semenggoh Nature Reserve – to see orangutans semi-wild in a reserve or captive in a rehabilitation centre.
Our new research has found that some 40% of the tourists to Semenggoh said they had come to Sarawak primarily to see orangutans. We also discovered something more surprising: that international tourists visiting Semenggoh said they would be happy not to see these wild orangutans, just so long as the orangutans were being conserved.
This finding – published in the latest edition of the journal Conservation & Society – is significant for global conservation efforts, because it suggests that the wildlife experience can be separated from the wild life. And that could benefit both tourists and animals still living in the wild.
Not totally wild
Our study found that the visitors to Semenggoh who came to Sarawak for orangutans contribute between US$13 million-US$23 million a year to the local economy.
Importantly, the tourists said they would be willing to contribute at least as much again to orangutan conservation. However, they said that they would like to see that money used not to support apes at tourist attractions, but instead go to help the remaining truly wild orangutans in and around remote Batang Ai National Park, the last wild population in all of Sarawak.
If tourists want to see orangutans in the wild, they face a 24 hour trip by bus, canoe and on foot into leechy, rainy jungle – all for a slim chance of glimpsing a terrified orange blur, fleeing through the treetops.
So the upside of visiting a place like Semenggoh is that people get to see animals that still look and behave as if they are wild, but without the long trip and discomfort. After snapping their photos, tourists return to their buses for the 20 minute ride to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak.
As for the truly wild orangutans, they would happily never see another human. They are bothered enough by poachers, so any scent or sight of people causes distress.
Their relatives in Semenngoh, however, appeared to be as amused by the humans as the humans are by them. They do not have to come out to take to the proffered food, because they can usually find enough in the surrounding forest, but many come anyway.
Interestingly, both wild and semi-captive populations can benefit from each other. Fewer people would visit Semenggoh, or even come to Sarawak, were the last wild orangutans to be lost from the state. Menwhie the state could get much more assistance for managing the national park were they to ask for contributions from visitors to Semmenggoh.
Tourism, but not at all costs
This story has several ramifications.
Wildlife tourism has become important to many economies around the world. But the experience has often come at a cost to the wildlife itself, or to the environment that supports it.
Our Sarawak research suggests that most tourists are happy not to frighten the geese that lay the golden tourist dollars – the genuinely wild populations – as long as they can go home having had some experience that is close to the real thing.
This is also good news for zoos. Some expect that, as a last resort, zoos can keep populations of wild animals should they disappear in the wild.
However, this is never likely. Even if zoos could house a few of each species, which they can’t, zoos can never retain the genetic variability of a wild population.
But a few individuals of charismatic umbrella species may be all that zoos need, if they can attract enough tourist dollars for cash-strapped governments to support both the zoos and the conservation of those in the unseen wild.
In Australia, even common species can be hard to see, let alone the rare ones that require conservation care.
While some members of the public support conservation of such animals on principle, or based on their virtual experience of places that only wildlife and David Attenborough inhabit, the burgeoning wildlife tourism industry suggests a craving for personal experience.
Some places do that brilliantly. The Phillip Island penguins in southern Australia have brought wild penguins to the public for decades, fostering conservation of the penguins across their range. In 2012 this one attraction contributed A$150 million to the Victorian economy.
But how do you take a busload of tourists down the burrow of a bilby so they can personally experience the wiffly pink nose of Australia’s Easter icon? The answer is you don’t: you link the experience of captive colonies in nocturnal houses to conservation of the bilby and its habitat in the wild.
The important thing is for the different players to work together: conservation managers, zoos and the tourist industry to search for sweet spots where everybody benefits, including the wildlife.
Such approaches won’t work universally. But increasingly conservationists are finding that many threatened species do need to turn a dollar to justify their protection and existence.
Orangutans in Sarawak have put up their hairy hands to show that they can do that, and help support local people through increased tourism.
Around the world, threatened species conservation needs to learn more from orangutans and little penguins, so that more of them find a way into the hearts – and wallets – of a more sympathetic public.
* Editor’s note: “Orangutan” (also often written as orang-utan or orang utan) is derived from Malay and Indonesian words: “orang” meaning person, and “utan” from “hutan”, meaning forest. So orangutans are the people of the forest.