Willie Smits, a Dutchman who became Indonesian but still feels like a WUR alumnus

For more than 30 years, Dr. ir. Willie Smits has been committed to the conservation of endangered primate species such as the orangutan. Read his story below, in which he says he envisions a future for Wageningen foresters.

I ended up in Wageningen by coincidence

"From my earliest memories, from the age of two, animals, from cows on the farm to the smallest moving chicks, were my great passion. During primary and secondary school, I spent as much time as possible in the forest observing birds. Therefore, it was obvious that I wanted to study veterinary medicine after secondary school. But during the open day at Utrecht University, unfortunately, just about everything went logistically wrong. In particular, the introduction by two bearded gentlemen was so passionless that, severely disappointed, I never wanted to see the city of Utrecht again. Meanwhile three classmates had chosen Wageningen, and because one of the fathers had bought a house in Wageningen with four rooms, I happened to end up in Wageningen. Initially, I got to know more of student life there than science. But after two years, I decided to follow my friend Sjes in the study of forestry, N-15, because I was told that study was not so tough. Right after a serious talk about my slow progress at the dean's office in the De Wereld building, I walked in, half stunned, to the very first lecture by Professor Roelof Oldeman, which was on the route to the dorm and started exactly at that time. While musing, I was struck by his insights into tree architecture and his stories about the jungle from Guyana. This was the moment I became animated by trees and forests. He was my inspiration and to this day he is my driving force here in the jungle of Indonesia.

To Indonesia

After my studies, I worked for the Department of Forest Cultivation, until a visit of a few weeks by Professor Sukiman from Indonesia completely changed my life. He was amazed by the growth of the merances in the greenhouse of Forest Cultivation. A week later, the Forestry Minister's advisor was at my doorstep, and ten days later I received an invitation to apply that in practice in Indonesia. Professor Oldeman gave permission for a year, and two weeks later I left for Jakarta with my family. I never returned to the Netherlands and even became an Indonesian.After the year on behalf of then the Wageningen Agricultural College, I became the team leader of the Tropical Forest-Kalimantan Project. With special permission, I was also appointed Personal Advisor to the Minister of Forestry and became responsible for reforestation and animal protection. During those years, I also trained 1,150 Indonesian foresters in meranti propagation methods and helped set up numerous nurseries, carbon projects, and many other conservation activities.

Passion for orangutans

During that period, I also started, with the help of the school children of Balikpapan, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, now the world's largestprimate conservation organisation. From the first moment I laid eyes onUce, my very first orangutan, I was determined to return her to the jungle. But she was not alone... The children of Balikpapan reported many other illegally kept orangutans and so the project grew.I started releasing the first orangutans in the Sungai Wain Forest, where no wild orangutans lived yet. The reintroduction method project, based on the work of Wageningen-based Dr. Herman Rijksen, succeeded and I am proud to say that to this day, the orangutan population released in 1992 is still healthy. There are now three generations of offspring, including several from Uce, who proudly showed me her babies whenever I happened to encounter her again in the jungle after so many years of freedom.


After Tropical Forest-Kalimantan, I became director of the Gibbon Foundation and started a huge number of conservation projects, including the Schmutzer primate centre in Jakarta, the Masarang Foundation and a whole series of animal rescue stations in Indonesia, from North Sumatra to Papua. For 15 years, and still today, I have been the Chief Science Officer and member of the board of directors of the Arsari Enviro Industri Company, which manages hundreds of thousands of hectares of tropical forest. For 10 years now, I have also been head of a small university in North Sulawesi, that is making good progress and giving many of the poorest in society a chance to study.

My studies at WUR

After graduating (WUR forestry 1982 and WUR PhD 1994), I made full use of what I learned in Wageningen from day one. The integration of the many different study subjects and the methodical approach to doing research proved especially useful in practice. It was not the factual knowledge I took away from Wageningen, but mainly thinking in interconnected systems. That helps me find interdisciplinary nature-based solutions for the jungle.

After graduating, I never applied for a job, but only took jobs I was asked for. I also sent many Indonesian master's and doctoral students to Wageningen and in that way I still have many contacts with people from Wageningen. I still feel like a Wageningen alumnus to this day.

I would recommend current students to integrate. I firmly believe that it is precisely combining different disciplines that gives the greatest added value and leads to applicable results in practice. Super-specialists risk ending up in ivory towers. Field experience abroad is important, especially for getting to know the locals. So much knowledge from generations is now in danger of disappearing but there is still much to be saved and learned from those centuries of accumulated experience.

There is a future here for Wageningers

When Queen Beatrix visited my projects during her state visit to Indonesia, she asked afterwards what she could do for me. I asked her to safeguard the important collection of the Rijksherbarium Leiden, because that institute in the Netherlands was in danger of being closed down. She succeeded. Now there are hardly any botanists left with real field knowledge, except for a few of my students. Young Dayaks (a member of a group of indigenous peoples inhabitingparts of Borneo) are now also more concerned with their TikTok than the jungle where they grew up. Old knowledge about medicinal plants and animals in the jungle will soon disappear. Hopefully, there are still some Wageningers who want to take up that job."

Impression of Smits' work

Watch the video The Custodian Principles to get an impression of the work of Smits. The text continues below the video.

- Unfortunately, your cookie settings do not allow videos to be displayed. - check your settings

Click on the topics below and read more about shelters for protected animal species, reforestation projects and Smits