Biology

Read all about Willie Smits' 20-year tale of hope

Posted by: Matthew Trost

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Willie Smits works at the complicated intersection of humankind, the animal world and our green planet. In his early work as a forester in Indonesia, he came to a deep understanding of that triple relationship, as he watched the growing population of Sulawesi move into (or burn for fuel) forests that are home to the orangutan. These intelligent animals were being killed for food, traded as pets or simply failing to thrive as their forest home degraded.

Smits believes that to rebuild orangutan populations, we must first rebuild their forest habitat — which means helping local people find options other than the short-term fix of harvesting forests to survive.

After you watch Willie Smits’ talk, visit the sites below and explore coverage of his 20-year tale of hope.

Scientific American: Regrowing Borneo’s Rainforest — Tree by Tree
It is a gutsy experiment that has drawn criticism from both scientists and conservationists. For Smits, a veteran of political controversy who has often been at odds with other orangutan rescue projects, the controversy is familiar. He ignores it.

National Geographic: Orangutans Edging Closer to Brink of Extinction
Then when the fires came, they had no water, no food left; it was completely dark for months in a row. The orangutans came out of the forests toward the rivers and became victims of the people there who didn’t like to see their very few last crops being raided by those wild animals.

Ode Magazine: Willie Smits: Hanging around with orangutan
He lost his heart to the orangutans after finding one in a garbage dump. He took care of the primate and later rescued others from bars, nightclubs and tourist attractions, where they were used for entertainment. When Smits felt they were ready to return to their natural habitat, he ran into another problem: There wasn’t enough forest for the apes …

TIME for Kids: The Orangutan Man of Indonesia
“We have taken over the role of the mother orangutan, who usually teaches the baby what it can eat.”

Orangutan.net: Rainforest Seeds Revive Lost Paradise
From this ruined landscape a fresh forest has been grown, teeming with insects, birds and animals, and cooled by the return of moist clouds and rain. It is a feat that has been hailed by scientists and offers hope for disappearing and ruined rainforests around the world.

Ethan Zuckerman’s TED2009 liveblogging: Willie Smits is saving Borneo, one orangutan at a time
When Smits tells us that his project protects a thousand orangutans, the audience erupts into applause … which makes him extremely angry. “No, no! Don’t you understand? I care for more orangutans than all the zoos in the world because we’re so bad at protecting them in the wild.”

And learn more about how you can get involved through these websites:

Masarang Foundation — Willie Smits’ Indonesian-based foundation

Orangutan Outreach — US-based orangutan conservation organization. Through this site, you can support Willie’s work to save the forest, and even adopt an orangutan.