In conversation: Ashley Leiman from the Orangutan Foundation

19 August 2023


To celebrate International Orangutan Day (19th August), we spoke to Ashley Leiman OBE, Founder and Director of the Orangutan Foundation.


Born Free supports the crucially important work of the Orangutan Foundation to conserve wild orangutans and their habitat in the forests of Borneo, by protecting orangutan habitat and rescuing and rehabilitating young orangutans orphaned by the illegal wildlife trade. You can support this critical work by adopting Timtom. To celebrate International Orangutan Day, we spoke to founder and director Ashley Leiman about the work of the Orangutan Foundation and the importance of their rehabilitation programme.


What is your background and why did you become an orangutan conservationist?

Actually, it wasn’t the orangutan that set me on this course, it was the forest itself. As quintessential forest apes, orangutans became the iconic species to champion the threatened habitat of tropical rainforests. My very first visit to a rainforest was in Malaysia. Being in the forest was a profound experience, a really primal feeling. Subsequently, I travelled to Indonesian Borneo and spent time studying orangutans, which led to the founding of Orangutan Foundation.

What is the importance of orangutans in the ecosystem?

Orangutans are known as “gardeners of the forest”. They are crucial to the ecosystem. By breaking branches, they open up the canopy to allow light to reach the forest floor, thereby promoting new growth. Orangutans are constantly on the move and, as fruit is their main food source, when they defecate, the seeds from the fruit are dispersed throughout the forest.

What are the main threats to orangutans and how have these threats impacted their population?

Habitat loss is the main threat to orangutans. Habitat loss can take many forms: logging (both legal and illegal), commercial agriculture (i.e., oil palm or acai plantations), mining and forest fires. This has meant that where orangutans were once found as far north as China, they are now only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The population of orangutans were once in the hundreds of thousands; today the populations stand around 14,000 in Sumatra and 57,000 in Borneo.

What actions are the Orangutan Foundation taking to address these threats?

The Orangutan Foundation focuses its work in two extensive conservation areas – Tangung Putting National Park and Lamandau Wildlife Reserve, both in Indonesian Borneo. The areas cover over 2,000km2 (half a million acres) of prime orangutan habitat supporting close to 5,000 orangutans. The Orangutan Foundation’s priority has always been habitat protection. This is achieved through a network of guard posts situated in strategic locations to prevent people entering protected areas and engaging in illegal activities, ensuring that crucial forest habitat remains standing forest, which not only supports the most biodiverse ecosystem but also plays a vital role in mitigating climate change.

“At the Orangutan Foundation, we run a soft release programme where orphaned orangutans are able to live in a natural forest environment whilst learning the skills required before being released back into the forest. This plays a vital role in conservation by preparing the orangutans for an independent life in the wild, and hopefully going on to reproduce and increase the wild orangutan population.”

What role does the Orangutan Foundation’s rehabilitation programme play in orangutan conservation?

Habitat loss results in orangutans being stranded in fragments of forest habitat or found in villages or in plantations. Sadly, mothers are often killed, resulting in orphaned orangutans, that require a rehabilitation programme if they are ever able to return to the wild. At the Orangutan Foundation, we run a soft release programme where orphaned orangutans are able to live in a natural forest environment whilst learning the skills required before being released back into the forest. This plays a vital role in conservation by preparing the orangutans for an independent life in the wild, and hopefully going on to reproduce and increase the wild orangutan population.

What does the rehabilitation process entail?

The first step in our soft release programme is to ensure that the orphaned orangutans can climb. This is not something that needs to be taught as it is instinctive and orangutans as young as nine months have shown they are able to cling to the branches and climb. Before an independent life however, they must be able to climb up to the canopy, forage and find their own food and lastly, build a nest each night to sleep in. This process can take up to seven years, which reflects the period of time that a young orangutan would develop and perfect its skills under the guidance of its mother in the wild.

What have been some of the Orangutan Foundation’s main successes?

We have had many successes over the last three decades, including:
•    Reintroducing 300 orangutans to the wild.
•    Recording 100 infants born to reintroduced orangutans, some of which are 3rd generation births.
•    Increasing the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve by over 80km2 (nearly 20,000 acres).
•    Protecting over 2,000km2 (half a million acres) of prime orangutan forest.

Can you tell us about a typical day for you as an orangutan conservationist?

There is no such thing as a typical day! Here in the London office, every day is different dealing with a variety of requests, enquiries and all the wonderful interactions with our supporters. When I’m in the field, I’m only a speed boat ride away from seeing all the wonderful work our team is doing there whether it’s meeting the guard post staff, helping to plant out seedlings or spending a day with our vets. Of course, none of this would be possible without the help of our committed supporters.

What is your hope for the future of the Orangutan Foundation?

The Orangutan Foundation has been working for 34 years in conservation and will endeavour to do so for the next 34 years! The hope for the future of orangutan conservation is seeing a generation of Indonesians involved in, concerned about and engaged in the protection of our environment.

What is your most memorable encounter with an orangutan?

All encounters with orangutans are humbling for me. I get an overwhelming feeling of awe when I see a huge male gracefully and silently moving through the forest. It’s fitting that they have been given the name “person of the forest” and I am struck each time by just how much like them we are.

Why are people and communities so important in conservation?

Our strapline – Orangutans, Forests and People – clearly expresses how important we think people are to conservation. They are the stakeholders in everything we do. All guard post staff are recruited from local villages, local people are employed to collect seed and local women’s groups make ecobags for the reforestation programme. The orangutan shares its forest home with people who rely on the forests for their livelihood and the priceless and essential ecological services it provides. The Orangutan Foundation works closely with local partners to support educational and livelihood projects, which promote sustainable forest use and greater local participation in forest management decisions.

If you have one piece of advice for budding conservationists, what would it be?

To remember that conservation is as much about people as it is about wildlife. Take a wider view on what is relevant in conservation today – it’s no longer just about field work and research but also about geography, politics and economics.

How can we, in our daily lives, help orangutans?

We are caretakers of this planet, and we should all be playing our part to protect it. By far the most important thing is planting more trees, everywhere, not just in Indonesia. Also be aware of what you are putting in your shopping basket – as far as possible buy products that are sustainably sourced and produced.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

By far my favourite thing is knowing that the Foundation is making difference. I see this every time I go to the field. Seeing the dedication and commitment of our wonderful team in Indonesia and the real difference that makes to our work on the ground. Also, the knowledge that the Foundation has inspired people both here and in Indonesia to pursue a future in conservation.

Is there anything you would like to say to BF supporters who support Timtom?

TimTom is a unique, playful, intelligent orangutan and it is amazing to know that there are people out there that are concerned with and want orangutans like TimTom to have a future. Thank you for your endless support.

By supporting Tim Tom, Born Free supporters are not only ensuring that Timtom is cared for whilst she learns the skills necessary for life in the wild but also that she is able to live safely in a protected habitat. You can adopt Timtom here.