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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 Willie Smits
Willie Smits

Willie Smits (born February 22, 1957, in Weurt, Gelderland, the Netherlands) is a trained forester, a microbiologist, conservationist, animal rights activist, wilderness engineer and social entrepreneur. He has lived in Borneo since 1985 and is an Indonesian citizen.

While working as a forest researcher in East Kalimantan, Indonesia in 1989, Smits encountered a baby orangutan in a cage in a market, and later returned to find it abandoned on a rubbish heap. This was a turning-point in his career: taking the orangutan home, he nurtured it back to health. He was soon given other orangutans to look after, and the work of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orangutans into the wild developed into what was to become the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. For over twenty years Smits has worked for the survival of this threatened species of ape, during which time his work has also broadened out into the related areas of sustainable farming, reforestation and remote monitoring of forests. He travels widely, raising awareness of the issues surrounding deforestation in Borneo and the plight of the orangutan, also showing how it has been possible on a relatively small scale to reverse the great damage that is being done to the orangutan and its environment. He became a senior advisor to the Ministry of Forests in Indonesia and has been knighted in the Netherlands.

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(Rainforest noises) In the summer of 2011, as a tourist, I visited the rainforests of Borneo for the very first time, and as you might imagine, it was the overwhelming sounds of the forest that struck me the most. There's this constant cacophony of noise. Some things actually do stick out. For example, this here is a big bird, a rhinoceros hornbill. This buzzing is a cicada. This is a family of gibbons. It's actually singing to each other over a great distance. The place where this was recorded was in fact a gibbon reserve, which is why you can hear so many of them, but in fact the most important noise that was coming out of the forest that time was one that I didn't notice, and in fact nobody there had actually noticed it. So, as I said, this was a gibbon reserve. They spend most of their time rehabilitating gibbons, but they also have to spend a lot of their time protecting their area from illegal logging that takes place on the side. And so if we take the sound of the forest and we actually turn down the gibbons, the insects, and the rest, in the background, the entire time, in recordings you heard, was the sound of a chainsaw at great distance. They had three full-time guards who were posted around this sanctuary whose job was in fact to guard against illegal logging, and one day, we went walking, again as tourists, out into the forest, and within five minutes' walk, we stumbled upon somebody who was just sawing a tree down, five minutes' walk, a few hundred meters from the ranger station. They hadn't been able to hear the chainsaws, because as you heard, the forest is very, very loud. It struck me as quite unacceptable that in this modern time, just a few hundred meters away from a ranger station in a sanctuary, that in fact nobody could hear it when someone who has a chainsaw gets fired up. It sounds impossible, but in fact, it was quite true. So how do we stop illegal logging? It's really tempting, as an engineer, always to come up with a high-tech, super-crazy high-tech solution, but in fact, you're in the rainforest. It has to be simple, it has to be scalable, and so what we also noticed while were there was that everything we needed was already there. We could build a system that would allow us to stop this using what's already there. Who was there? What was already in the forest? Well, we had people. We had this group there that was dedicated, three full-time guards, that was dedicated to go and stop it, but they just needed to know what was happening out in the forest. The real surprise, this is the big one, was that there was connectivity out in the forest. There was cell phone service way out in the middle of nowhere. We're talking hundreds of kilometers from the nearest road, there's certainly no electricity, but they had very good cell phone service, these people in the towns were on Facebook all the time, they're surfing the web on their phones, and this sort of got me thinking that in fact it would be possible to use the sounds of the forest, pick up the sounds of chainsaws programmatically, because people can't hear them, and send an alert. But you have to have a device to go up in the trees. So if we can use some device to listen to the sounds of the forest, connect to the cell phone network that's there, and send an alert to people on the ground, perhaps we could have a solution to this issue for them. But let's take a moment to talk about saving the rainforest, because it's something that we've definitely all heard about forever. People in my generation have heard about saving the rainforest since we were kids, and it seems that the message has never changed: We've got to save the rainforest, it's super urgent, this many football fields have been destroyed yesterday. and yet here we are today, about half of the rainforest remains, and we have potentially more urgent problems like climate change. But in fact, this is the little-known fact that I didn't realize at the time: Deforestation accounts for more greenhouse gas than all of the world's planes, trains, cars, trucks and ships combined. It's the second highest contributor to climate change. Also, according to Interpol, as much as 90 percent of the logging that takes place in the rainforest is illegal logging, like the illegal logging that we saw. So if we can help people in the forest enforce the rules that are there, then in fact we could eat heavily into this 17 percent and potentially have a major impact in the short term. It might just be the cheapest, fastest way to fight climate change. And so here's the system that we imagine. It looks super high tech. The moment a sound of a chainsaw is heard in the forest, the device picks up the sound of the chainsaw, it sends an alert through the standard GSM network that's already there to a ranger in the field who can in fact show up in real time and stop the logging. It's no more about going out and finding a tree that's been cut. It's not about seeing a tree from a satellite in an area that's been clear cut, it's about real-time intervention. So I said it was the cheapest and fastest way to do it, but in fact, actually, as you saw, they weren't able to do it, so it may not be so cheap and fast. But if the devices in the trees were actually cell phones, it could be pretty cheap. Cell phones are thrown away by the hundreds of millions every year, hundreds of millions in the U.S. alone, not counting the rest of the world, which of course we should do, but in fact, cell phones are great. They're full of sensors. They can listen to the sounds of the forest. We do have to protect them. We have to put them in this box that you see here, and we do have to power them. Powering them is one of the greater engineering challenges that we had to deal with, because powering a cell phone under a tree canopy, any sort of solar power under a tree canopy, was an as-yet-unsolved problem, and that's this unique solar panel design that you see here, which in fact is built also from recycled byproducts of an industrial process. These are strips that are cut down. So this is me putting it all together in my parents' garage, actually. Thanks very much to them for allowing me to do that. As you can see, this is a device up in a tree. What you can see from here, perhaps, is that they are pretty well obscured up in the tree canopy at a distance. That's important, because although they are able to hear chainsaw noises up to a kilometer in the distance, allowing them to cover about three square kilometers, if someone were to take them, it would make the area unprotected. So does it actually work? Well, to test it, we took it back to Indonesia, not the same place, but another place, to another gibbon reserve that was threatened daily by illegal logging. On the very second day, it picked up illegal chainsaw noises. We were able to get a real-time alert. I got an email on my phone. Actually, we had just climbed the tree. Everyone had just gotten back down. All these guys are smoking cigarettes, and then I get an email, and they all quiet down, and in fact you can hear the chainsaw really, really faint in the background, but no one had noticed it until that moment. And so then we took off to actually stop these loggers. I was pretty nervous. This is the moment where we've actually arrived close to where the loggers are. This is the moment where you can see where I'm actually regretting perhaps the entire endeavor. I'm not really sure what's on the other side of this hill. That guy's much braver than I am. But he went, so I had to go, walking up, and in fact, he made it over the hill, and interrupted the loggers in the act. For them, it was such a surprise -- they had never, ever been interrupted before -- that it was such an impressive event for them, that we've heard from our partners they have not been back since. They were, in fact, great guys. They showed us how the entire operation works, and what they really convinced us on the spot was that if you can show up in real time and stop people, it's enough of a deterrent they won't come back. So -- Thank you. (Applause) Word of this spread, possibly because we told a lot of people, and in fact, then some really amazing stuff started to happen. People from around the world started to send us emails, phone calls. What we saw was that people throughout Asia, people throughout Africa, people throughout South America, they told us that they could use it too, and what's most important, what we'd found that we thought might be exceptional, in the forest there was pretty good cell phone service. That was not exceptional, we were told, and that particularly is on the periphery of the forests that are most under threat. And then something really amazing happened, which was that people started sending us their own old cell phones. So in fact what we have now is a system where we can use people on the ground, people who are already there, who can both improve and use the existing connectivity, and we're using old cell phones that are being sent to us by people from around the world that want their phones to be doing something else in their afterlife, so to speak. And if the rest of the device can be completely recycled, then we believe it's an entirely upcycled device. So again, this didn't come because of any sort of high-tech solution. It just came from using what's already there, and I'm thoroughly convinced that if it's not phones, that there's always going to be enough there that you can build similar solutions that can be very effective in new contexts. Thank you very much. (Applause)



In 1994, Willie Smits received his doctorate in tropical forestry and soil science at the Wageningen University in The Netherlands, based upon his research in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia on the symbiosis between mycorrhizas and the roots of Dipterocarpaceae tropical rainforest trees.[1]

Wanariset Research Station

From 1985 Smits worked on the Wanariset Tropical Forest Research Station near Balikpapan in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan. In the early 1990s he was team leader of the Tropenbos Kalimantan Project Indonesia, an international partnership between the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Tropenbos Foundation.[2][3]

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

In 1991 Smits founded what was soon to become the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the world's largest organization for the protection of the endangered Bornean orangutans. Two years before, Smits had had his first encounter with an orangutan in the market. It was a life-changing event and Smits often retells the story:

"Somebody stuck a crate in my face at the market in Balikpapan. Looking out between the slats were the very, very sad eyes of a baby orangutan. I couldn’t forget them. That evening I went back after the market closed. Walking around in the dark, I heard a horrible gasping sound. The baby in its crate was on the garbage dump, dying. I picked her up." [4][5]

He nursed her back to health and named her Uce for the laboured sound she made while gasping for breath. A few weeks later he was given another sick orangutan to look after, which he named Dodoy.

With the help of thousands of schoolchildren in Balikpapan contributing small amounts of money, Smits was able to set up what became the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation to rehabilitate orphaned and misused orangutans and return them to a safe place in the wild. Wanariset became home to hundreds of confiscated orangutans, rescued from illegal animal smuggling, kept as pets or exploited in other ways.

The Dutch orangutan-scientist Herman Rijksen recalls Smits creating the facility: "In no time he set up the most fantastic oversized quarantine facility, better than any hospital in the whole area, because that's typical of Willie. He wants to do it very, very good."[6]

Smits quickly saw that protecting orangutans in their habitat not only benefits orangutans but also the environment, biological diversity, the poor in Borneo and all the world’s people. The activities of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation expanded from rescuing, rehabiliting and releasing orangutans to monitoring, conserving and rebuilding rainforest, along with the social engagement that made this sustainable. Smits also took on an increasing campaigning and advocacy role, to make the plight of the orangutan and its habitat more widely known, along with the message that something could - and was - being done.

Samboja Lestari

Main article: Samboja Lestari

In 2001, BOS started purchasing land near Wanariset (1°2′44″S 116°59′15″E / 1.04556°S 116.98750°E / -1.04556; 116.98750). The 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) area it acquired had been deforested by mechanical logging, drought and severe fires and was covered in alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica). The aim was to restore the rainforest and provide a safe haven for rehabilitated orangutans while at the same time providing a source of income for local people. The name Samboja Lestari roughly translates as the "everlasting conservation of Samboja".[7] Wilderness engineering in the form of reforestation and rehabilitation is the core of the project, with hundreds of indigenous species planted. By the middle of 2006 more than 740 different tree species had been planted.[8][9]

The Orangutan Reintroduction Project at Wanariset was moved to Samboja Lestari. "Forest Schools" were established, areas that provide natural, educational playgrounds for the orangutans in which to learn forest skills. Here the orangutans roam freely but under supervision and are returned to sleeping cages for the night. "Orangutan islands" were created where the orangutans and other wildlife that cannot return to the wild are nevertheless able to live in almost completely natural conditions.

At his 2009 TED talk Smits stated there had been a substantial increase in cloud cover and 30% more rainfall due to the reforestation at Samboja Lestari.[5] Debate on the content of the TED Talk has been ongoing.[10]

To finance the nature reserve, BOS created a system of "land-purchasing", a "Create Rainforest" initiative where people symbolically adopt square metres of rainforest.[11] Donors are able to view and follow the progress of the purchase with their donation in the project area with Google Earth satellite images from 2002 and 2007 with additional information overlaid.[12]

Masarang Foundation

Smits is one of the founders of, and the chairman of the Masarang Foundation,[13] which raises money and awareness to restore habitat forests around the world and to empower local people. In 2007, Masarang opened a palm sugar factory that uses thermal energy to turn the juice tapped daily from sugar palms (Arenga pinnata) into sugar or ethanol, returning cash and power to the community in the attempt to move toward a better future for the people, forest, and native orangutans, while saving 200,000 trees per year from being cut down as fuel wood.[14]

 Tapping the sugar palm
Tapping the sugar palm

In 1980, when Smits proposed to his wife, Syennie Watoelangkow (of royal blood) in Tomohon, North Sulawesi, he was surprised by the dowry: six sugar palms. At that time, a mature sugar palm that was ready to sap cost about as much as a chicken. Nevertheless, the people of Tomohon wanted sugar palms ("pohon aren") instead of gold as the dowry. "I wondered why it was that cheap," Smits says. Later he learnt the answer, calling the sugar palm a "magic tree".[15][16] He says of the sugar palm. "From the roots to the leaves, every bit is beneficial for people. Those who eat palm sugar will live longer than those who use cane sugar." During his years of research in North Sulawesi and other places in Indonesia where sugar palms grow, he has learned that people are not making the most of the tree and its properties.

In North Sulawesi's capital, Manado, people sap the trees only to make their traditional alcoholic drink. People in other places sap the trees to make palm sugar or cut them down for sago. But the tree offers more. For one, nira, the white sap obtained, can be processed into ethanol. "My research shows no tree can produce alternative fuel as well as palm trees," Smits said. "Sugar palms can also help the environment. They are effective in preventing landslides, even on really steep land." The high-quality fibres from sugar palms are also widely used; Smits exports them to Europe, where they are among the materials used in the bodies of luxury cars.

Smits has opened a palm sugar factory in Tomohon, managed by his brother Theo Smits, which uses as fuel leftovers from the state energy company Pertamina’s geothermal gas production. Everyday, about 6,200 farmers produce nira for the factory, which is managed by the Masarang Foundation. The sugar is sold locally and exported to Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore and Europe, where it is known as Masarang Arenga Palm Sugar. He states his "productive, environmentally friendly factory" could become a model for other places in the country. "There are no less than eight provinces that have abundant sugar palms but they have not done much with them," he says. He believes that if Indonesia made the most of its sugar palms, then in two years there would be no need to import sugar any more. For this purpose, he designed, prototyped and patented the so-called Village Hub.[17]

According to Smits' talks for Qi Global[18] and TED,[5] both Samboja Lestari and the Masarang foundation have evolved on the principles of People, Planet, Profit. Smits has demonstrated how community capacity-building and community empowerment can promote economic development while conserving the natural environment.

Orangutan confiscations

With a team of BOS staff and forestry officers, Smits confiscates orangutans kept illegally as pets.[19] When an orangutan is confiscated from a home the family is given medicines to fight the parasites they may have contracted from the orangutan. (Smits himself recalls three days in hospital on chemotherapy to fight the lungworms and other parasites that threatened his life.)

Confiscations are inevitably confrontational at times, and there have been numerous death threats made against Smits.[20]

Primate Centre at Jakarta Zoo

 The Schmutzer Primate Centre, Jakarta
The Schmutzer Primate Centre, Jakarta

Smits designed the Schmutzer Primate Centre at the Ragunan Zoo which opened in 2002 [21] so that the orangutans have freedom and privacy in a habitat with a variety of forest trees and plants, a waterfall and water with turtles and fish, and small animals like porcupines and deer mice.[22] Thick dark glass allows visitors to see the orangutans while being invisible to them.

Smits initially had no interest in zoos, but now sees it as a sanctuary for sick, injured and blind confiscated orangutans (the healthy ones are taken to Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation rehabilitation centres for eventual release into the wild).

Other work

Smits has continued to be involved in the study of the mycorrhizal fungi that improve the uptake of water and nutrients from the soil by the meranti tree. By using this fungus he has achieved faster growth of young seedlings. He is beside his current work for the orangutans at Wanariset, the chairman of the Gibbon Foundation[citation needed] and consultant for the Indonesian Orangutan Survival Program.

In 2006 Smits launched TV 5 Dimensi, commonly referred to as TV5D, a North Sulawesi local television channel, based in Tomohon. His wife's family in North Sulawesi manages a beach about ten kilometers long, where sea turtles grow and visitors may see coral. Smits also rescues tropical birds from the illegal pet trade.

An increasing amount of Smits' activity has been in disseminating information, outreach, education, and public awareness-raising, his talks for Qi Global[18] and TED,[5] being examples of this.


Smits received the first non-Indonesian Satya Lencana Pembangunan Award (1998). He has the equivalent of a knighthood from the Netherlands for his conservation work.[23]

Smits was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009. Ashoka Fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who we recognize to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.[25]


Thinkers of the Jungle - The Orangutan Report: Pictures, Facts, Background[26] gives an account of the life, behaviour and fate of orangutans. Alongside a wealth of information about this endangered species based on the latest research, authors Willie Smits and Gerd Schuster outline the threat to the orangutan's survival: economical and political interests, exploitation of nature and human ignorance and greed.

The book is illustrated by more than 350 photographs taken by war photographer Jay Ullal.[27]

In August 2007 the publisher Herbert Ullmann set off via Singapore and Jakarta for Balikpapan in Borneo. There he visited two orangutan rehabilitation centres run by Dr. Willie Smits. He was impressed both by the orangutans themselves and by Smits' work in rescuing and rehabilitating them: "There are books that can be published, and books that have to be published."


Smits and his work appeared in a number of documentaries, including:



  1. ^ Smits WTM, 1994, Dipterocarpaceae: mycorrhizae and regeneration. Thesis. Tropenbos Series No. 9. Backhuys Publishers. Lead.
  2. ^ Tropenbos International , a Netherlands-based NGO working to improve tropical forest management.
  3. ^ Katharine Farris (2005). "Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation". Retrieved 28 March 2010. : " Djamaludin Suryohadikusumo is the former Minister of Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia and is on the board of directors for BOS. While Minister of Forestry, Suryohadikusumo and Dr. Smits created many of the laws that are still in place today."
  4. ^ Nancy Simmons. "No Way to Treat an Orangutan: Willie Smits in Wildlife Conservation Society Magazine". Retrieved 28 March 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d February 2009 TED talk, "Willie Smits restores a rainforest". Retrieved 28 March 2010. 
  6. ^ Thompson 2010, p186
  7. ^ "BOS Australia website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  8. ^ "Samboja Lodge website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  9. ^ Jowit, Juliette (4 May 2008). "Rainforest seeds revive lost paradise". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 April 2010. 
  10. ^ "Willie Smits TED Talk challenged and responded". 2009-07-25. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  11. ^ "Create Rainforest website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  12. ^ "''"Google Earth Hero: BOS, Borneo rain forest"'' on YouTube". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  13. ^ "Masarang Foundation website". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  14. ^ "Smits's profile on TED". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  15. ^ Tarko Sudiarno (2009). "Visions of sugar palms dance in his head". taken from Jakarta Post. Retrieved 3 April 2010. 
  16. ^ [1] Archived January 24, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ "Village Hub: nature conservation through sugar palms on Vimeo". 2013-04-22. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  18. ^ a b "Willie Smits' presentation at Qi Global 2009". Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  19. ^ Thompson 2010, p191
  20. ^ Thompson 2010, p193
  21. ^ The page on the Primate Centre on the Jakarta Zoo Website
  22. ^ Thompson 2010, p196
  23. ^
  24. ^ Ode Magazine: "Willie Smits: Hanging around with orangutans"
  25. ^ "Ashoka Fellowship profile of Willie Smits". 2009. Retrieved 3 April 2010. 
  26. ^ Schuster, Smits and Ullal 2008
  27. ^ Labonita Ghosh (February 29, 2008). "Jay Ullal and his life on the planet of the apes". DNA India. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  28. ^ "BBC One - Panorama, Dying for a Biscuit". 2010-03-01. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 


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