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Saving endangered orangutans is a mission for NMSU student

In what used to be one of the more remote areas of the world, humans have encroached with near devastating effects.

A baby orangutan clings to its mother.
An orangutan and her baby on an Orangutan Foundation International bridge. (Photo by Zachary Brecheisen)

New Mexico State University student Zachary Brecheisen has seen this first hand during two visits to the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, where commercialized farming, illegal logging and intentionally set fires have claimed large swaths of rainforest, threatening one of the world's most diverse biosystems.

What took Brecheisen, 22, to Borneo was a desire to help one of those threatened life forms, the orangutans, which are losing their feeding grounds as the rainforest disappears. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it's projected that the rainforests in Borneo will be almost gone by 2020 unless serious action is taken.

"Orangutans are very specific animals. They only eat ripe fruits and the trees that produce this fruit and the fruits themselves are often just a long ways apart," Brecheisen said. "They need a lot of area in order to find enough fruit to feed themselves. So when people start chopping down and fragmenting all of these different areas it makes it really hard for the orangutans to find enough food to support themselves or their offspring."

This past summer, Brecheisen, who is working on bachelor's degrees in conservation ecology, biology and anthropology, as well as a supplemental major in sustainable development, spent six weeks in Indonesian Borneo volunteering with the nonprofit Orangutan Foundation International.

A $5,000 NMSU Honors College Scholarship for International Research funded this second visit to the island. During his first trip, Brecheisen focused solely on efforts by OFI's volunteer program to save Borneo's dwindling orangutan population. On his most recent trip, the Los Lunas High School graduate still was working to help the orangutans, but he also was observing the wider effects deforestation are having on the global economy.

The main culprit in Borneo's deforestation is the palm oil industry. Palm oil is used globally in a vast array of products such as chocolate, ice cream, potato chips and detergent.

"My area of interest for the Honors thesis is looking at the impacts of globalization and the (palm oil) commodity market and how it is affecting this area," Brecheisen said. "They chop down all the rainforest so they can install these palm oil plantations.
I was interested in seeing how the world's demand for what seems like a harmless ingredient is really devastating orangutan ecology."

As the WWF points out, the irony of palm oil is that while it is a clean biofuel, its manufacture is destroying critical ecosystems in Borneo and Sumatra.

Along with razing the orangutans, and native Borneans', habitats, employees on palm oil plantations often kill orangutans that wander onto the plantations in search of food. Some adult orangutans are killed for bush meat, but baby orangutans are often captured and sold on the black market. In the process of capturing the babies, their mothers are killed.

"As the orangutans run out of normal forest to live in, they're more and more often forced onto these plantations or into other areas that are frequented by humans," Brecheisen said. "We are forcing ourselves into their areas."

OFI, which is buying as much rainforest in Borneo as it can, finds and saves these kidnapped orangutans and re-introduces them into the wild. That's where Brecheisen's work comes in. Orangutans travel from tree to tree. In order to monitor the animals being re-habituated into the wild, OFI volunteers and workers must traverse peat bogs and other areas that are easily swamped by rain. To make the monitoring easier, above ground, wooden walkways are constructed.

"What these bridges are built out of is ironwood. It's extremely dense and really heavy. So you have to carry the wood from one place to another and then chop and hammer on it and then move those pieces around through swampy jungle and stuff," Brecheisen said. "Just working with and moving some of the stuff on dry ground is difficult because it's extremely heavy.

"It was very demanding work, but it also was very rewarding. You get to see the benefit of seeing the use of your work right away when the OFI caretakers take the orphans out each day to rehabilitate them using the walkways."

Besides battling the jungle, bugs, 80 percent humidity and cultural differences, Brecheisen also dealt with homesickness. The NMSU senior describes his Borneo experience as "very intense." He planned his stay in Borneo so he would arrive with one group of volunteers and leave with a second group.

"As the first group was leaving, there was a part of me that was wondering, 'Why did I want to stay so long?' But after we got back into (work) again it was a lot of fun," he said. "There are a million bugs that bite and sting you and it's hot and humid, but it was really great. Staying that long would definitely not be for everyone."

Then, Brecheisen isn't just anyone. The energetic, articulate young man with the shock of curly blond hair won over the scholarship selection committee at the Honors College with his ambition and enthusiasm.

"Zachary is devoted to preserving endangered species and has dedicated his talents and education to this crucial work. To prepare himself for a career in the challenging field of environmental conservation, he has undertaken a rare quadruple major ... with additional minors in creative writing and renewable energy technology," said Tracey Miller-Tomlinson, the former director of the Office of National Scholarships and International Education at the Honors College.
The Honors College has given out the scholarship since 2005. It is awarded to a Crimson Scholar in his or her sophomore or junior year who has a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.5.

"We think the Honors College Scholarship is one of our signature opportunities for students. It challenges students to develop an original, creative research project that will take them to an international location," said William Eamon, dean of the Honors College. "Students who have won the scholarship have gone to Europe, England, Latin America, and Indonesia, and have used it as a stepping-stone to competing for other scholarships. Honors College Scholars have won Fulbright, Goldwater, Ford Foundation and many other prestigious scholarships. It provides a great experience and an outstanding way to build a resume."

Only one Honors College scholarship is awarded each year, making it highly competitive.

"(Brecheisen) impressed the selection committee not only with his knowledge and passion about orangutan re-habituation, but also with his thoughtfulness about the delicate balance between the interests of human beings and local ecology in developing countries," Miller-Tomlinson added.

In his scholarship application, Brecheisen admitted that what he witnessed during his first trip to Borneo made him "so upset by people's apparent animosity toward the earth that it took me some time to realize that most people are just trying to provide for their families."

As a result, Brecheisen wants to dedicate his life's work to helping developing communities in Latin America learn agricultural sustainability practices so people can provide for their families and communities and still protect the planet.

"When you are trying to do conservation work you can't look at conservation only from the perspective of say a wildlife biologist," he said. "You have to consider people and politics. No matter how much you would like to ignore all of those things, you have to include people in it as well, which is hard to get around sometimes."

For more information on the NMSU Honors College Scholarship for International Research, visit honors.nmsu.edu.