Professor reaches out to endangered orangutans

For geography professor Henry Aruffo, world travel is not just personally informative – it’s enriching for the places he travels.

Aruffo said he tries to teach his students how to be an eco-tourist – to not simply visit a place and soak it in yourself, but actually help the area you’re visiting in return.

To that end, when Aruffo takes his trip next month to study volcanoes in Bali, he plans to make a stop in Borneo to help orphaned baby orangutans by bringing badly needed medical supplies and antibiotics. He said his work is far from over, however.

“Right now, the illegal loggers and gold miners are killing the mother orangutans for stew meat,” Aruffo said. “I guess the babies aren’t worth the skin.”

To help the orphaned babies, orangutan Foundation International set up a hospital in the rainforest near Borneo. The hospital nurses the endangered babies until they are ready to be released back into the wild.

“Orangutans are 96 or 97 percent human,” Aruffo said. “To think I’m part of the same human race that would skin and eat a mother Orangutan – that’s disgusting. I decided rather than talking about it in class like I’ve been doing for eight years, I might as well do something about it.”

Originally, Aruffo recognized the OFI’s need for supplies and antibiotics at the hospital. He planned to collect 40 lbs. of supplies and carry it with him. By networking with area suppliers, Aruffo has managed to collect hundreds of pounds of supplies.

“I travel light, having traveled 70 countries,” he said. “I called up the Orangutan Foundation and asked what they needed out there. I said I’ll see what I can scrounge up and fit in my duffel bag. Well, I’m getting close to thousands and thousands of dollars of stuff here. I’m going to be shipping hundreds of pounds of material, and I’ll be paying for it myself, because (OFI doesn’t) have much.”

The only problem with Aruffo’s visit is he’s missing a crucial medical supply – antibiotics. He said he hopes someone will come forward and donate extra or out-of-date antibiotics.

“I’m down to three weeks, you start scratching your neck saying ‘I don’t have any antibiotics,'” Aruffo said.

Gary Shapiro, Vice President for OFI, said he’s pleased when educators volunteer to help with the group’s efforts – which include nursing sick orangutans back to health and increasing awareness about the endangered species through publications and conferences.

“We do get a number of calls per year from educators around the country who find what we do interesting, so we encourage educators to come out on our tours and see what’s happening out there,” Shapiro said. “I guess he’s one of a few that are committed enough to not only visit for his own edification and his classroom work, but he’s also bringing medicine and supplies.”

This isn’t the first time Aruffo has worked on being an eco-tourist.

“When I went to Africa, I took all my old clothes there and used them as tips and such – they loved them,” he said. “When I went to Ecuador, I took toothbrushes and toothpaste, and gave it to teachers to give to children. I’ve always done it in small ways before. I’ve even packed dog food to feed stray dogs in Ecuador. If the people are hungry, you know the dogs are too.”

This commitment, he said, makes the travel experience more rewarding, not only for the travelers, but the destination.

“Ask ‘How can I enrich the area we’re going to?'” Aruffo said. “Rather than take pictures and look like ugly Americans, think ‘What can I buy for $100 and bring them?’ – things in the third world we take for granted. It’s just an idea I try to convey to my class.”

Though Aruffo is a USF professor, his trip is not sponsored by USF. He’s paying for it himself, but he said the experience he can bring to his classroom is well worth it.

“A typical professor is going to read a book and understand an area and talk about it,” he said.

“That’s good, but how do you describe the smell, the local food? It makes it more interesting for my class. They feel like they’ve been there.”

Anyone with information on a source of antibiotics for Aruffo’s trip can E-mail him at