KALIMANTAN PROVINCE, Indonesia -- Three men in a canoe drew near swiftly from behind and overtook another canoe carrying a local environmentalist, Bastarin, on a river deep in the wilds of the Borneo rain forest.
Bastarin, out to stop illegal logging and protect the orangutans that live in Gunung Palung National Park, pulled harder on his oar to keep up with the men. He was sure they were illegal loggers, but they disappeared from view.
An orangutan awaits transfer to a rehab center in Borneo.
(Ellen Nakashima - The Washington Post)
Not long afterward, they reappeared, rowing quickly back downriver, smiling smugly as they passed by. "They've told their friends," Bastarin said, swearing under his breath.
Bastarin, 34, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, is a member of an unlikely squad of local farmers and former loggers who are working to preserve one of the last refuges of the world's fast-disappearing orangutans.
Illegal logging is the greatest threat to the survival of the orangutans, whose native habitats are the Indian Ocean islands of Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia, and Borneo, about 400 miles to the east, which is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Forest fires, poaching and the conversion of jungle land into palm oil plantations are also contributing to their demise.
Orangutans live in trees and depend on forest cover, swinging from branch to branch, and they thrive on insects and fruits that grow in the woodlands. In their feeding cycle, the great apes, in turn, disperse the seeds that regenerate the trees.
Today, there are no more than 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, about half the number that existed 10 years ago, according to scientists studying them.
Intense, athletic, wearing a blue baseball cap and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the sober face of an orangutan, Bastarin steered the canoe expertly beneath low-hanging palm fronds and away from mangrove trees jutting from the fern-frocked riverbank. Crickets screeched. A dragonfly flitted past.
Bastarin belongs to the Orangutan Protection and Monitoring Unit formed in April 2003 by the British-based conservation group Fauna & Flora International. The 12-man team works with rangers at the Gunung Palung park. They are supported by $45,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a Japanese environmental foundation.
"Combating the illegal logger is just like paddling against the current," huffed Bastarin as his oar sliced the river, stirring up coffee-colored ripples of water.
Eventually, upriver, Bastarin spied a blue tarp amid the swamp trees.
Bastarin and Sutejo, the park ranger who was with him, both unarmed, approached the camp, a Tinkertoy structure of planks and logs covered by blue plastic. They found seven men and a 14-year-old boy.
The loggers had stopped working because their chainsaw had given out. Khalifa, 28, sat shirtless on a wood platform, smoking a cigarette and cleaning the saw's spark plug.
He said they had cut 20 trees in three days and showed a reporter some of the timber.