In the Malay language, the name orangutan suitably translates to ‘man of the forest’ — orangutans do in fact share 96.4 percent of our genes. Native to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, these majestic, humble animals spend most of their time in trees, clinging to branches with their long, strong arms. Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, was once full with dense rainforest. As of 2017, 50 percent of Borneo’s original lowland rainforest is gone. Fire, logging, and the expansion of palm oil plantations are the main causes of this unfortunate decline. 

Dr. Jeffrey Wyatt is a veterinarian who researches and teaches in UR’s Department of Comparative Medicine. Dr. Wyatt also has a position at the city of Rochester’s beloved Seneca Park Zoo. In a recent webinar titled “One-Health Initiative in Borneo: Transforming Community Health and Saving Endangered Orangutans,” Dr. Wyatt gave a powerful presentation about his holistic work in Indonesian Borneo. He and the Health in Harmony team argued that saving the island’s rainforest requires involvement not just in the environment, but with its people and animals as well. In only ten years, the initiative has “reversed poverty, transformed public health, and saved the rainforest home of [some] of the world’s last orangutans.” The initiative’s success suggests that similar methods would transform other parts of the world, too. What exactly made the initiative such a triumph? 

Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesian Borneo covers more than 100,000 hectares of land. That is approximately the size of 100,000 rugby fields. The park is known for its rich biodiversity, with habitats ranging from mangrove forest to montane forest. It’s in this region of the world that Dr. Wyatt and the team practiced over 400 hours of “radical listening,” where they collected as much input as possible from community members. The team found that 99% of villagers revere the rainforest, and 100% of locals employed as loggers want to stop. People primarily wished for two things: access to affordable healthcare and alternative livelihoods. In 2007, the team opened a medical center in the region with a staff of local medical professionals.  

A fascinating new healthcare model was introduced. As an incentive, individuals seeking medical care receive a 70% discount if they come from a non-logging village. The penalty for those who are loggers is only to pay full price for care. The medical center takes more than just money, including even bags of manure, as payment. In addition, the team was focused on coming up with a plan to create alternative livelihoods for the locals. Using methods from the nearby island of Java, the locals began to learn to compost and raise crops without chemicals. Instead of slash and burn agriculture, they transitioned to reusing farmland. Loggers were taught to take care of cattle as an alternative lifestyle, and widows, who are often marginalized in these kinds of communities, were taught to herd and take care of goats. Did radical listening work? In short, yes, dramatically. 10,000 patients are seen every year at the medical center. An ambulance service is functioning to give medical care to remote, more rural parts. There was a significant decrease in symptoms and illnesses, such as fever and likely malaria, and cough and likely tuberculosis. The child mortality rate decreased. The region was starting to look healthier than Indonesia as a whole. Thanks to the widows, goat herd health got better in the span of just three years. In 10 years, 88% of households became non-logging. A new wildlife corridor was developed for orangutans, and a rare clouded leopard was spotted on one of their cameras. 52% of non-logging households are now merchants, beekeepers, and fishermen. In 2017, the team introduced a chainsaw buyback program. The amount of money that the locals received was equivalent to money earned for half a year of logging. In addition, they were eligible to get small business loans. One local opened up a coffee shop.

Dr. Wyatt explained that the takeaway here for approaching species and environmental preservation is to learn from the local communities about the greater problems causing environmental degradation. Supporting them is a key part of reducing the effects of climate change.

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