For the love of nature
Interview with Dr. Peter Pratje, projectleader of the Frankfurt Zoological Society
In the rainforests of Sumatra one wildlife and conservation biologist decided to fight for the survival of one of the most endangered species: the Sumatra-Orangutan.
The rising demand for bio fuel and palm oil products for the food industry has resulted in Indonesia's rain forests being cut down for monocultures. On Sumatra about 80% of the native forest is already destroyed, but thanks to people like Dr. Peter Pratje there is still hope for the last remaining paradises on earth.
A talk about endurance, passion and fulfilled childhood dreams.
Manuela & Carsten: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work here in Sumatra for the Frankfurt Zoological Society?
Peter Pratje: I started right after my studies to work professionally in conservation. I studied Biology in Hanover and moved to Munich to study wild animals, with an emphasis on applied conservation work in national parks. That was exactly what I wanted to do.
Afterwards I went to Borneo for 3 months and found a little project, where they wanted to release Orangutans, but the conditions were miserable. This was my first contact with local conservation work. After that, I tried to find out how these conditions could be improved. Through my network I heard about the project planned by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, to release Orangutans back into the wild, and applied for it. I got the job and in 1998 I came to Indonesia for the first time to prepare a feasibility study for this project.
M&C: What fascinates you most about the local work with animals?
PP: Well, of course the animals themselves. Animals that are rarely seen have a special charisma about them. It also fascinated me to be able to do something on a big scale. In developing countries the creative leeway is much bigger as there are still many unused and unexplored forests and areas that aren’t protected. In Germany spaces are very limited and some conservation areas are barely more than a big garden.
My motivation was to do something sustainable that gives meaning and goes beyond my personal life.
M&C: Sometimes life here isn’t very comfortable compared with everyday luxuries in Germany. Still you decided to live here. Why?
PP: The motivation that pushes me is to be able to make a difference. As a single person. Normally one stands helpless in front of the huge global problems and we think that it is only possible to change something with the governments and huge amounts of money. But actually you can make a big difference as a single person on a small scale! I started this project single handedly ten years ago and I am still the only foreigner here. In the meantime we have two Release Stations, own ranger patrols and a mobile education unit. The project is continuously growing.
With a clear vision and strong motivation everything is possible.
M&C: What are the problems you are facing here in the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park?
PP: It is not the National Park itself but the buffer zone around it. Indonesia still is a country with a fast growing population and space starts to become sparse. The country is heavily developing and large areas are being used for industrial plantations, mainly palm oil plantations. That is the main problem here on Sumatra, already 70-80% of the original forests have disappeared. The lowland rain forest, which is easily accessible, is very important for industrial purposes but also the home of the species we are trying to protect. The elephant, the tiger and the orangutan exclusively live in the lowland rain forest.
There is a massive conflict between the plans of the industry and the hopes of the environmentalists to save these charismatic species from extinction.
M&C: What are the consequences of the deforestation here?
PP: From the point of view of the endangered species it is the total loss of habitat. Species that are specialised for life in the lowland rain forest disappear and biodiversity is lost. The deforestation also has consequences for the local people. Water isn’t being filtered naturally, drinking water supplies get short and soil erosion starts.
Erosion and landslides destroy much infrastructure in Indonesia and people get killed every year.
Regarding the CO2 discussion the consequences are that air will not be purified, CO2 will not be stored in the forests and less oxygen will be produced.
Here on Sumatra we have about 5000 different trees, in Germany only 50 - just to make you see how diverse a thousand year old forest is. We will also lose all the plants that may contain tomorrow’s medical solutions.
M&C: If the effects on the local people are that obvious, how come no one protests against the destruction?
PP: The problem is that there is no social system here, no help for unemployed people. The people in rural areas still live from the hand to mouth. The forest represents for them unused land and they don’t see the consequences the deforestation has. They don’t think about clean water and the air of tomorrow, but try to solve the problems they face today. The easiest way for them is to go into the forest and cut some trees or to extend their fields by cutting trees. It is extremely easy here to just take land and cut trees, the probability of being caught and sued is very low as the whole judicial system is still very provisional.
M&C: What is the role the Indonesian government plays in the protection of the forest?
PP: 1998 the Soeharto Regime was brought to an end and now Indonesia is on its way to becoming a democracy. Now we are in the transition phase and many mechanisms that worked before are now dissolving. Before, the government in Jakarta decided and everybody had to follow - now decisions are made on a local scale and local politics doesn’t always follow national politics. Jakarta is far away and the enforcement of laws out here is really difficult.
President Susilo Bambang just said in a statement that 26% of CO2 emissions should be cut until 2020. That’s a pretty ambitious goal and the statement alone doesn’t do anything- to actually put things in practice you need an efficient structure and this is not as it should be.
M&C: How does the consumer demand in western countries and China influence the destruction of forests here on Sumatra?
PP: It’s the palm oil products. The oils of the palm fruit can be used to make chocolate, drippings, paints or lubricants. There is a huge market for it. Indonesia is the world's biggest palm oil producer and the consideration of using palm oil based Bio fuels on a large scale is one of the major forces pushing the deforestation here.
The problem is that plantations are established on the cost of natural rain forests, that is what international environmentalists won’t tolerate. Our argument being that there are so many already destroyed forests or unused plains where these plantations could be set up. There is a big conflict between the hopes of the environmentalists and the efforts here to generate national income.
M&C: What has to be done to protect the National Park?
PP: The most important thing for now is to protect the forests around the national park. These forests are an ecological buffer where all the problems that we don’t want to have in the national park should be intercepted: illegal logging, the setting up of farmland and poaching.
We have to offer an economic compensation and create jobs for the local people, so that there is an alternative to logging. In the moment we are trying to involve the locals living in the buffer zone directly into the project and create alternative income for them.
M&C: Certain areas here are taken by companies as so called concessions. What does that mean?
PP: One problem is that all forests are used in some way, either as production space or as protected area and we have little hope that new forest regions will be designated protected areas, or that the existing protected areas will be extended. So we have to think about the existing alternatives for the standing forests to prevent them from being cut down and transformed into plantations. One legal instrument is the concession for reforestation, so called “Eco-System-Restauration”, where environmental NGOs can apply for management of these forests competing with the industry. Then the concessions can be reforested with the help of the local people, natural regeneration encouraged, and the area managed by an environmental NGO.
Right now this is the only realistic and legal instrument. We could win over the local population to reforest the areas around their houses, care for it and protect it.
M&C: What can people in the industrial nations do to help?
PP: They can change their consumer behaviour and just not buy products from companies that don’t produce in a responsible, sustainable way. By doing so, on a long run only companies can survive that produce sustainably. Obviously this is a method that takes a while to show effect and it could be years until things change.
What you can also do is to support projects that are working locally, organisations that are applying for concessions. You can become a sponsor for a year or a hectare, depending on your financial possibilities and support the reforestation for such an area.
M&C: What role do the governments of industrial nations play in the protection efforts here, what influence can they have?
PP: Obviously, the influence of the industrial nations is potentially very high. The German government for example should insist that the protection of the forests as promised by the politicians here is actually enforced and not only talked about. If the world’s climate is to be saved and the industrial nations are the ones that primarily pollute (especially when seen historically over the last century), then those have to be the nations where the support comes from. Development money has to become support for climate protection and invested in countries that still have large natural forests.
M&C: Is there any support you would wish for from the people at home?
PP: Naturally I hope for support for my local project here, so that the money we need will actually come in. That is the only hope for tigers, elephants and orangutans. If the money arrives, we have big hopes and possibilities to makes things happen in a short amount of time and protect big areas of forest, despite all the difficulties.
M&C: What does the work with and in nature mean to you?
PP: Whenever I need to recharge my batteries I go back to my roots, the release station I built here ten years ago. It is really special to spend some days there, for one because it is such a privilege to work with orangutans, a very special animal. On the other hand there is the quietness of the forest, to be able to take a walk in a native rain forest that is not damaged or impaired in any way is really special.
It is my childhood dream that has come true and that I can repeat all the time. Normally one can only hope that a dream repeats, I can just take my car and reach my dream, spend time in a Sumatran rain forest. That is really extraordinary. That is the dream of my life come true.
M&C: What was your most beautiful experience here?
PP: The first release of an orangutan, which was preceded by years of my work.
One key moment was when the first orangutan was born in wilderness and the mother came back a few days after giving birth so we could see her baby. That was really a symbol that our work is going on and orangutans are born from the population that we released here.
M&C: What gives you hope?
PP: As I said, the symbolism of animals being born, that’s a big reason for hope.
Another thing is the fact that the project runs exclusively with locals and isn’t just an imported project, where qualified people are brought in from abroad for a short period of time and then the whole project falls apart the day they leave again. We set and follow goals together with the locals here, that gives me hope. It is not just my idea that is short-lived but an initial spark that will keep growing and exist from within.
M&C: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
PP: My learning, is that as an individual you can make a big difference if you really want to. Your hands are not tied, you can work locally as I do or just support these people by donating.
Most important is the first step! It’s not that bigger goal, that’s always far away, it is important to just get up and start doing something.
The interview was conducted January 28th 2010 in Jambi, Sumatra.