BOS ecolodge of Samboja Lestari

Masarang-reforestation-KalimantanYou see my morning view on this beautiful photo not long after waking up in the BOS ecolodge of Samboja Lestari. The chorus of so many bird songs mixed with cicadas carried the overtones. Then the long calls of several giant male orangutans welled up from the mist beneath, under which their islands lay waiting for the sun to lift the damp and warm their bodies for a new day. And… if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of streaming water somewhere down there in this lush valley in between thousands of trees.

Samboja Lestari proves that reforestation can be done

It is hard to believe that some 15 years ago, this valley was devoid of trees and wildlife. There was only silent yellow grass, all left after a series of human interventions in the original forest, followed by many recurrent fires that removed nutrients and biodiversity, resulting in those vast soundless biological deserts. We can help nature to recover its rightful place.

Orangutans live in the original rainforest again

Many of the orangutans that passed through this green oasis after rescues and rehabilitation now live in the original rainforest again and have gotten babies that will never know the suffering of their parents at the hands of humans. Since that crucial day in October 1989 when I first looked into the eyes of an orangutan baby on the market in Balikpapan, much has happened, and much was achieved. In 1991, with only the help of primary school children in Balikpapan, I started BOS for the first three years, now the world’s largest great ape rescue organization.

Sitting on the top-level terrace of the ecolodge, sipping my coffee, just like the morning mist, I let my thoughts drift back to events that took place these last three decades. How nature knows best and how it can reclaim the earth when we are willing to learn from her and apply her lessons. But also thinking about the answer to those deep long calls rising from the valley beneath…


The cheekpadders are calling there, the male giants with hormones streaming through their veins that not just physically change them in appearance, they want freedom. I imagine what is going on in their minds, how each of them has his personality. But many of them for sure are unhappy as most of us would be when confined in small spaces. And when approached by people, they often throw these temper tantrums and demonstrate their enormous power by throwing barrels or whatever can move or rattle in their cages. And they can be very dangerous. It takes extraordinary people to sit down with them and build up this friendship that can comfort them. Two dear friends of mine, Odom Kisar and Leo Hulsker, are such people.

An Orangutan does not forget

This morning I sat down with a big cheekpadded orangutan brought here by the Ministry of Forestry a few days ago after he wandered into the remote village of Lusan. Physically he looks in prime condition, and we do not know why he left the jungle unless the jungle left… He must be one of the hundreds of orangutans I released in the Meratus foothill forest more than 20 years ago. In a straight line, he was 86 kilometres from that point and looking at forest corridors, and he must have travelled more than 100 kilometres to show up here. He has a chip, but we have not yet found out who he is. His fingerprints will be sent to my retired Dutch policeman friend Jan Geerdink who set up the cooperation with the Dutch police to enter the fingerprints of our rescued orangutans in their advanced system.

After a few minutes, this beautiful male sat down on the other side of the bars and asked me to scratch his head and stroke his lips and cheek pads. He must still remember me from all these years ago, and I so much look forward to finding out who he is and remember his story. I know they remember, and probably much better than we do. So, on the one hand, this warm feeling of meeting a dear old friend gave me this euphoric sense of happiness that goes from your throat to your belly, but on the other hand, my thoughts soon went to the worrying question of why he was here behind bars again…

When I first started the Samboja Lestari project, it was to show that even from the worst possible situation, we can still repair things and always keep hope. But I realize how easy it is to be overwhelmed with this avalanche of seemingly never-ending lousy news and sometimes feel hopeless in this age of superfast connections. The trees and the processes of nature are back here, but another goal of this project was to provide a safe place for the so-called non-releasable orangutans. But this good intent has not come to a realization. And I am no longer confident that Samboja Lestari can be that place. I designed this haven to create “Life in Harmony”. But greed is always ready to pounce. Hence the title of this blog. Let me explain…

Samboja Lestari

Years ago, a coal mining boom started. And no longer could we expand our Samboja Lestari area because the money offered by wealthy local investors to local villagers to take out the high-quality coal underneath Samboja Lestari resulted in forming a blackened, devasted landscape around us. Then some bad persons tried to set up groups of local people to claim lots of the Samboja Lestari land to mine as well. 
This action resulted in the loss of a significant number of our planted trees. Then the new toll road from Balikpapan to Samarinda was constructed, passing by the border of our land and making it as property much more valuable. So more opportunistic people tried to grab a share and illegally claimed parts of our land. Again they burn fields to grow short-lived agricultural crops, and BOS Samboja Lestari staff the cycle of soil degradation started again. Now the area is even included in Indonesia’s future capital, worsening the pressure even more. I hope that with help and support for legal assistance, BOS can reclaim all that rightfully belongs to the orangutans and sun bears at Samboja Lestari.
(left: With our BOS Samboja Lestari staff witnessing one of the areas with encroachment)


A sanctuary for our ‘non-releasable orangutans

Under the present conditions, I fear it will no longer be possible to create a sufficient large enclosed area that can be safe to serve as a sanctuary. So where to go with our “non-releasable orangutans”, like those with chronic TBC, cut off arms, blind and those giants that are calling in the valley beneath? I never give up, and we are already working on a permanent safe forest home for them. But I will tell you more about that another time. The struggle goes on. There is so much to do, but for now, I just want to let this sunrise and the sounds of the reborn jungle recharge me for what is to come.

Willie Smits,

June 13th, 2021

Samboja Lestari Ecolodge, East Kalimantan, Indonesia