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POKOK - using anthropology to mitigate orangutan killing and human-orangutan conflict in Borneo

Current initiative


POKOK is an anthropology-conservation initiative (running from 2017-21) based at Brunel University London and supported by the Arcus Foundation. It aims to mitigate orangutan killing and improve human-orangutan coexistence in rural Borneo by using in-depth ethnographic research to explore the causes and contexts of orangutan killing (ranging from hunting to conflict to poaching). This knowledge will be used to formulate new and locally-appropriate methods for dealing with the problem and improving conservationists' long-term relations with local communities.



Research for this project is being carried out in West and Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, with rural communities who live in and around the forest habitats of the critically endangered Bornean Orangutan. These habitats are currently undergoing drastic transformations as a result of deforestation, large-scale commercial agriculture, and other forms of infrastructure growth and development, with significant implications for both humans and non-humans.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus

Products in trade

Live orangutans - often babies that are sold as pets or to zoos, wildlife centres and other tourist attractions in and beyond Southeast Asia.

Orangutan body parts - historically taken as trophies or for colonial collecting expeditions; sometimes traded for medicinal purposes.

Overview of the problem

The population of the Bornean Orangutan has undergone a precipitous decline in recent decades, and it is now listed as Critically Endangered. A key driver of their decline, which is relatively poorly understood and tackled, is killing, whether through conflict, poaching, or hunting. Through our work, we seek to build up an in-depth, nuanced understanding of the lives of some of the rural communities who live in and around orangutan habitat. These include indigenous Dayaks, Melayu, Chinese, and migrants from elsewhere in Indonesia. Our research focuses mainly on Dayak communities. It also seeks to understand their experiences and concerns in relation to other players, such as local and national government, ecotourism initiatives, and conservationists.

Part of our research (currently ongoing) is aimed at understanding local people's motivations for becoming involved in poaching networks, whether as sellers or as middlemen. Preliminary research suggests that the key drivers are human-wildlife conflict (leading to the death of adult female orangutans and the capture of their babies), local/regional demand for orangutans as pets, and regional demand for orangutans in zoos and other destinations. 

The anti-IWT initiative

POKOK aims to work with a range of orangutan conservation organisations and individuals in Borneo, as well as with the thinktank Borneo Futures, to formulate evidence-based strategies and initiatives for mitigating orangutan killing. Research for this project is currently ongoing, and expected to result in more concrete recommendations from c. late-2020.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT

Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Improving education and awareness

What works and why

Our main insight from ongoing fieldwork with rural communities in/near orangutan conservation areas is that it makes a huge difference having regular, relatively direct/un-bureaucratic contact with conservation organisations. Conservation outreach and programmes are much better received when there has been a consistent conservation presence in the area beforehand rather than a drop-in/drop-out approach. Regular conservation staff visits are critical in building trust/personal rapport, raising awareness of what conservation is (and isn’t) about, and reminding people of the risks of undertaking illegal activities.
One example of a successful interaction between NGO workers and villagers involved a farmer whose jackfruit tree had been raided by a wild orangutan earmarked for translocation. The villagers held the NGO responsible for the damage, but the NGO was unable to pay compensation for the actions of wild orangutans. The individual staff members eventually defused this tension by taking the time to explain conservation work (and the limits of their capacities) to the farmer and making a special effort to keep the orangutan away from his fruit trees and crops after that. This personal connection was vital in bringing the farmer onside and improving the reputation of the conservation NGO in the area, particularly by proving that it cared for people too, not just animals (a common perception in Borneo).

Regular and honest communication at the village and individual level remains an important challenge. Local distrust of and reluctance about conservation activity often results from a lack of communication. We’ve documented this in various cases where the rescue of a baby orangutan created friction between a village community and staff of conservation NGOs. We were involved with a rescue which took place in one of our fieldsites during fieldwork. Although the pet keeper and the village government were informed of and agreed to the rescue, the arrival of two jeeps with conservation staff and government officials was observed with anxiety and distrust by most villagers. Only after many individual conversations with villagers and a subsequent visit of NGO workers (jointly requested by us and the village’s religious leader) was the intervention accepted by the majority of villagers.

What doesn’t work and why

Part of our research involves looking at how and why certain orangutan conservation interventions fail. The main factors are: 1) lack of local enforcement: people in remote areas are aware of the legal status of orangutans but also know that they are unlikely to be caught if they harm them; 2) lack of interest in/care for orangutans, which are seen as an animal that can cause great damage to fruit trees, crops, etc. (unlike, say, gibbons); 3) lack of a constant conservation presence in the area; 4) the perceived inability/unwillingness of conservation NGOs to properly care for humans, especially when their capacity to respond is hindered by bureaucracy.

These all overlap with each other and need to be addressed in tandem. 3) and 4) are especially difficult to redress because of existing funding structures and models, which prioritise contained, easily measurable conservation projects with specific outputs and objectives. However, our research is revealing that it may be better to maintain a constant, low-key, but responsive conservation presence in local areas. Such a presence is vital in demonstrating conservationists’ commitment to the well-being of people as people, not just as tools in a wider project of saving orangutans (as they’re widely seen). Building this up, however, requires a shift in funding models and priorities, as well as more in-depth, on-the-ground research on local people’s requirements and interests, which may not always converge with those of conservationists.

To illustrate, a one-off awareness raising activity held three years ago in a remote village appears to have had very limited effect. Over the course of one evening an NGO’s education team gave out information about the work of orangutan rehabilitation, what to do in case of human-orangutan conflict, and the legal protection of wildlife. Three years later, few inhabitants remembered this visit and even fewer could accurately recall what the NGO did. Moreover, NGOs’ work is commonly conflated with the work of the government forestry service and national park management. The visit has not deterred local people from using violent methods to chase away orangutans. While the protected status of wildlife was accepted as a matter of fact, there was confusion about which species this includes. In the absence of enforcement and conservation presence, the protected status of wildlife didn’t have widespread impact on how people interacted with wildlife.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Insufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Lack of devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Unclear and intangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Organisers, donors and partners

Arcus Foundation - funder

Brunel University London - funder

Borneo Futures - main conservation partner

For further information contact ().