How Can Planting a Tree Save an Orangutan?

How can planting a tree save an orangutan?

That is the same question we asked our friends at Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) when we heard about their Tree Planting Project—and the answer will amaze you. Below is a great explanation  from Barbara Bichler, director of School Projects for BOS in Germany:

Here are a bunch of native plants which are about to be planted as part of the re-planting of the forest to make a natural habitat for orangutans. Photo provided by BOS Germany

Located in the Indonesian part of central Borneo, Mawas is an area of 309,000 hectares—twice the size of greater London. More than 80% of it is covered by tropical peatland forest, which, built through thousands of years, is among the oldest forests in the world and serves as a massive carbon sink. Its value for biological balance is immense.

The Mawas region is home to approximately 3,000 wild orangutans—one of the largest populations in the world. The area is actually named after the primates, since Mawas literally means orangutan in the indigenous language.

Mother and baby living in their new home. Photo provided by BOS Germany

In order to create space for rice plantations, parts of this area were deforested and drained of water. Many trees were logged and irrigation canals built before it was realized that this area was not suitable for planting rice at all.

The result was devastating. The peatland became both drought-prone and flood-prone. The “One Million Hectare Rice Barn” ended up becoming a barn of problems.

You can learn more about the Mawas area here. (Note: The page is in German, but your browser will probably help you translate it!)

Orangutans enjoying their new homes after being released in the wild. Photo provided by BOS Germany

BOS Germany is working on a large-scale rain forest replantation project in order to re-establish Mawas’ lost nature.

The entire area is divided into five territories. One of them is Rantau Upak, an area of 1,000 hectares, which suffered a lot from drainage, illegal deforestation, and forest fires. To rebuild the forest, canals need to be blocked. This will allow the swamp to be rehydrated, enabling the forest to grow again. A hundred hectares of land are to be replanted, and four local villages have collected seeds and cultivated seedlings to be planted in the wet peat.

Replanting natural habitat in former rice paddies helps create habitat for orphaned orangutans. Photo provide by BOS Germany

Working with the local population is a key driver for the success of the project. BOS Germany purchases seedlings from local nurseries, where the local communities are involved in the entire process, from collecting the seeds to tending the seedlings and planting the new trees. The project thus provides sustainable income for a local community where building a livelihood is a challenge.

The trees planted are a mix of fruit trees and other local varieties to allow new, diverse forest to cover the area and in time provide a viable habitat for orangutans and the thousands of other species found in the Bornean rain forest. In December 2015, almost 3,500 trees were replanted. The goal is eventually to plant one million trees in the entire Mawas area and reforest more than 70,000 hectares of rain forest within the next few years. In this case, orangutans that are currently living in BOS sanctuaries in Borneo could be returned where they belong—to the wild!

Logo 300x225Help BOS Germany plant a tree!

For every 7 Euros (about $8.00) you donate, BOS Germany can plant a tree in Mawas. For more information go to (Note: This site is in German.)

Here are a few interview questions I had for Barbara about their work:

  • How long does it take from the time you plant the trees until they are big enough to support orangutans being released back in the area?
    The seedlings will need around 5-10 years to become a tree—the big advantage is that trees grow fast in the rain forests. The goal is to create an area for around 2,000 additional orangutans—there are already 3,000 living in Mawas.

  • What types of plants/trees are you planting and are you able to get the seeds for all the types you want to plant from local villages?
    We work together with local groups, mostly indigenous people, the Dayaks. The seeds come from local communities. The big advantage is that through our project they will have a regular income and can send their kids to school. We will mostly plant trees that will be natural supplies for the orangutans, so we choose mostly trees that bear fruit.

    Growing up without your parents can be very stressful. Photo taken by Noel @BOSF and provided by BOS Germany.
  • What is the orangutans’ favorite type of fruit?
    Orangutans love durian, which is a big spiky fruit that smells really, really nasty but tastes great—at least orangutans love them! Apart of this, they eat all types of fruit, like rambutan.
  • How many orangutans are ending up in sanctuaries each year?
    At the moment, we have around 800 orangutans at the two rescue stations in Indonesia. Depending on the circumstances, there are around 50-80 newcomers each year. Last year, when the forest fires were destroying a huge area, there were around 80 newcomers in only two months!
  • What is the number one way readers can get involved to help make your project a success?
    Every person can virtually plant a tree by buying one on our website:


  • What is the toughest part of your job?
    Last year, there were fires all over Borneo and they even came pretty close to one of our rescue centers. Knowing that many of these fires are slash-and-burn to get more and more land for planting palm oil trees makes us very sad. Many times orangutans are found injured in these burnt-down woods and they come to our rescue centers in very bad conditions. That’s really the toughest part.

    Lamar, an orphan orangutan, is wet because of the rain. Photo by Anna Marzec, provided by BOS Germany
  • What do you love most about your job?
    When you see these same orangutans some months later in very good health conditions! And, of course, the most touching moment is seeing—in films and on pictures—releases. Then you know for sure that planning tree-planting campaigns is worthwhile!
  • What do you think about our Orangutan Letter Writing Campaign and how can we get the campaign into more schools around the world?
    We love the campaign and fully support it: We put it on our website and on all our social media channels. Through our educational training material PaPa-laPapp we are in contact with many schools in Germany and inform them about your campaign. Together we can make it! Here is the link to our educational training material to our website:

As you can see, the folks at BOS Germany are doing a tremendous job fighting for the long-term survival of the orangutan. I hope you are inspired by their work and will consider showing your support by helping them plant more trees at the link above. Together, we can make a difference.

Stay tuned next week as we learn about the ‘Ray C. Anderson Memorial Highway.

Olivia Ries is our National Geographic Society Youth Empowerment writer. Together with her brother Carter, she hopes to inspire others to realize that “Anybody can make a difference… if they can, you can too.” Make sure to check out their website at and also ‘LIKE’ their FaceBook page as well 😉

4 thoughts on “How Can Planting a Tree Save an Orangutan?

  1. thanks

    On Wed, Apr 27, 2016 at 7:02 PM, Nat Geo Education Blog wrote:

    > onemoregeneration posted: “How can planting a tree save an orangutan? That > is the same question we asked our friends at Borneo Orangutan Survival > (BOS) when we heard about their Tree Planting Project—and the answer will > amaze you. Below is a great explanation from Barbara Bichl” >

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