“Years later, animals still recognize me”

He saved countless monkeys from the hands of illegal traders, and now conservationist Willie Smits has started his life’s project: restoring nature in Sulawesi while providing a good income for the residents.

Rob Potter

With orangutans you can make friends for life. It doesn’t mean that you recognize them easily if you encounter them again in the woods after many years. “But they get to know you,” swears Willie Smits, 65, a Dutch forester who, as an Indonesian citizen, has been committed to nature in Indonesia for more than forty years.

“I’ve already seen many poignant examples of this,” Smits says, during a fleeting visit to the Netherlands. “I was walking once in a forest in East Kalimantan when a male orangutan excitedly came down from the trees and approached me. He literally hugged me and made some ‘Oh’ sounds. Then he sat with his back towards me for a nice massage of the shoulders.


By then, it was already clear to me that orangutans were in one of our shelters, but which one of them? I always try to pluck my hair, for DNA, or take a fingerprint, because as orangutans get older, they also get bigger cheek plates and you can’t really recognize them by their faces.”

“Sometimes this is very emotional,” Smits says. “I remember years ago sitting in a meeting in our shelter in East Kalimantan, when the official Swaji came to me. He shouted “Pa Willie, Pa Willie, Oetje is back!” “Come!” I immediately jumped in the car and headed to the launch area. After two hours of walking in the woods After some initial exchanges of sounds, she went down to the trunk of the car and hugged me. Then she took her free-born baby and pressed him in my face.”

my eyes crying

“I still remember well that three years ago, in May 1992, we released Oetje, after she went through a long rehabilitation process at our reception center,” continues Smets. “She was one of a group of nine orangutans we released that day in the forest protected area, but she just sat in the release cage with her arms around her.

Half an hour later I came out of the observation hut and took it from my hand. I helped her descend the stairs of the cage high. We sat on the forest floor together. With a pocket knife I cut out the palm leaf to distract and reassure her. Now, after all those years, Oetje has led me to exactly the same palm. She pulled out a paper with her teeth and handed it to me. I can assure you tears with the tube.”

gasping for breath

Oetje was the first orangutan Smits had ever met, although that wasn’t ideal in 1980, he recalls. As a Wageningen forester, he was in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, to research the laborious cultivation of Meranti trees.

“One day a vendor in the market paid a cage with the face of a young orangutan. If I wanted to buy it. The saddest creature was more dead than alive. Then I returned in the night to that market, where I found the poor little heap still alive, panting. Breathtaking on a pile of vegetable waste, lying away like rotten goodness. When I carried it, the merchant woke up from under his stall. He wanted to see the money, of course, but I just ran away. My orangutan conservation business began with Oetje.”


In the years that followed, Smits established several reception centers; For orangutans as well as other monkeys and protected animals that were kept illegally as pets. This led to a love-hate relationship with the Indonesian government.

On the one hand, I gradually became a respected advisor to the government. I also had the law on my side when I confiscated illegally kept animals. On the other hand, she has also encountered many prestigious personalities with illegal pets. One I can still remember as if it was yesterday.”

“When I entered his house and took his young orangutan, he hit me in the chest with his pistol until I bled. He threatened to kill me. In the end, I asked him very coldly if he knew the difference between the penalty for keeping an illegal pet or the penalty for murder. Then you really shaken for a while. And all the threatening phone calls you receive in the following days don’t make you feel cold.”

death threats

It keeps a dry overview of all the death threats that Smits has received in the more than forty years he has been active as a conservationist. I now have 1158. Plus 134 hate articles in the papers. People also tried to strangle me and poison me and a bullet flew once 30 cm above my head. The guard dogs in my house were smashed into skulls.”

Meanwhile, the first Smits sanctuary in East Kalimantan has grown into the largest primate rehabilitation organization in the world, with 431 employees and an annual budget of $7 million. Along with its other centers in Central and West Kalimantan, more than a thousand orangutans have been rescued and returned to the wild.

However, this is a somewhat cynical activity, says Smits. “At the same time, while we are restoring the animals, large tracts of forest are still being cut down to make way for oil palm plantations, which then produce sustainable biofuels for Western cars. Monkeys illegally kept as pets are a byproduct of deforestation. “.

‘magnum opus’

From 2001, Smits also shifted his field of activity to Sulawesi. At the northern end of the island, he bought degraded land and recreated the forests there. His foundation has also planted millions of new trees elsewhere in North Sulawesi. “I see this as my greatest,” Smits says half-jokingly. “Before I retire to write books, I want to make it clear that it is possible to restore nature while also making a good living for the locals.

Little by little, we replant the purchased site with plants and trees that provide food and money as well. In the forests of the sugar palm, up to twenty people can earn a good income on every ten hectares. Compare that to oil palm plantations where they only generate one job per ten hectares, which also leads to worse results.”

Think ahead

The effects of the “food forest” on the slopes of Mount Masarang are already clearly visible, right down to the reefs off the Temboan coast. Because of less soil erosion and run-off with suffocating nutrients, coral stays in better shape. “This is also a revenue model,” Smits emphasizes. “With ecotourism, we also hope to introduce Western lenders to this way of doing business.”

“Ultimately, it all goes back to my first experience as a young forester,” says Smits. “When I came to Kalimantan as a student in Wageningen in 1980, I often went to the forest with traditional Kenya Dayaks. It is unbelievable how much knowledge these people have.” I have learned that miranti can only be grown with the right soil fungi.”

“Now the collaboration with the traditional cultures of the Sulawesi jungle is still central. The Dayak and many other tribes have a tradition of thinking of several generations to come. At a wedding, for example, they plant ten good wood trees to ensure that when the children marry from that marriage, they will be They have wood to build a house. This is a natural way of thinking about the future that a Westerner can still absorb. And nature itself knows best.”

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