04/06/2014 08:45 BST | Updated 03/08/2014 06:59 BST

Tourism Could Save Borneo's Threatened Orangutans, But Cuddling Them Wont

Borneo. Just the name conjures up images of remote river expeditions through steamy rainforest in search of the most famous of its inhabitants, the orangutan. And despite opening up to tourism significantly in recent years, vast tracts of this island (particularly the Indonesian state of Kalimantan) are still a lost world in tourism terms.


Sadly though, in logging and palm oil terms Borneo's jungles are not only not a lost world, they are a veritable highway of destruction. Over 50% of the islands forests have been lost in the last three decades to logging concessions and palm oil plantations. While a growth in sustainable tourism is beginning to bring real economic incentives to the protection of Borneo's jungle, and could be integral to its long-term existence, the current rate of deforestation is threatening the very survival of one of Borneo's biggest tourism draws, the charismatic Orangutan.

Cute, but not for cuddling

Any visitor to Borneo, who travels past the swathes of palm oil plantations once covered in virgin forest, will be hard-pressed not to be moved by the plight of these intelligent creatures, so close to humans their name means "people of the forest". And with an ever-increasing number of displaced orangutans arriving in a growing number of rescue and rehabilitation centres the opportunity for tourists to help conservation efforts in a practical way is very real.

We've all seen the documentaries; rescue centre workers carrying a cute, fluffy baby orangutan around on their back, feeding them from a bottle, nappy in place. It's a romantic, heart-melting view of serious conservation work. But it's also misleading for short term volunteers. Our genetic similarity (orangutans share 96% of our DNA) means close contact with these awe-inspiring creatures, without a long period of quarantine, can be life-threatening; a simple common cold can kill a baby orangutan quickly, and spread rapidly throughout a group. Orangutans which grow accustomed to humans are also the ones which are likely to stray back into palm oil plantations and human presence when released - at best ending back up in a centre, at worst being killed. So not only is the wrong volunteer project worthless to conservation efforts, philanthropic travellers may actually cause more harm to an already vulnerable species.

Getting it right in Borneo

The number of rehabilitation centres is increasing, and with well-chosen, well-researched volunteer projects travellers can make a positive impact to the on-going work. Cleaning, constructing and repairing enclosures, building climbing frames and maintaining paths are all worthwhile tasks for short term volunteers and opportunities are widespread. Although the Malaysian state of Sabah offers the most well managed volunteer opportunities, the majority of Borneo's orangutans are found in Kalimantan, where infrastructure and awareness of orangutan conservation is more lacking. So don't discount the Indonesian side of the island - a visit here can make a huge impact on conservation efforts, both in rehabilitation centres and in community-led initiatives.

We must remember, though, in our desire to help, that supporting rehabilitation centres is in reality like sticking a plaster over a gaping wound. In an ideal world they wouldn't exist at all. Much less glamorous, much less romantic, yes, but to really contribute to the long-term survival of Borneo's orangutans (and all the other wildlife which depend on its isolated forests) look for projects or initiatives that tackle the root causes of deforestation. Research and support reforestation projects, or even better, community tourism initiatives allowing local people to make a living from the forest in its natural state. These community tourism initiatives are critical, not only do they give untouched forest an alternative economic value, one to fight against the big bucks in logging and palm oil, but they also empower the forests' indigenous guardians, giving them a louder, stronger voice. For members of the Dayak tribe in Batang Ai, Sarawak, establishing themselves as a money-making tourism centre has allowed them to resist government eviction threats. And it's a win-win situation. For us as tourists the stays in Dayak longhouses and guided river trips and jungle treks offer a much more memorable and rewarding insight into the day to day life and wildlife of this unique environment.

So yes, they're cute, but don't visit Borneo to cuddle its orangutans. Instead visit to bolster tourism's fight against deforestation, visit to empower indigenous communities to drive forward conservation initiatives, and in doing so you will be blown away by the sheer scale of the wildlife and wonder of this lost jungle world.

For more information on responsible wildlife watching, volunteering and travel in Borneo read's 2 minute guides to Borneo - and Orangutan Watching -