Deforestation, habitat loss, threatened species, extinctions. These words were alien to me as a seven-year-old, but something blurry happened in about 1995 that brought these things to my attention. I can’t remember now whether it was a news story or a charity letter that came through the post but by the time I was nine I was one of those kids writing to conservation charities to ask about helping the Orang-utans because I’d heard that they could be extinct within twenty years. The thought terrified me.
Thankfully, that rough prediction didn’t come to pass but the situation for these great apes is still worrying. In the nineties, the forests of Borneo and Sumatra were being cleared for hardwoods such as teak and mahogany, and rubber production. I remember being upset seeing furniture adverts on the telly for a table that I imagined to have once been an orang-utan’s home. Today the challenges have moved up a gear, with deforestation on a huge scale taking place to provide the world with Palm Oil. It’s found in products in nearly every home in the UK as well as being used in biofuels. And it’s destroying the last remaining refuges for one of our closest living relatives.
If you look to the planet’s natural history books, you’ll find that Orang-utans once covered an area as far north as southern China, reaching all the way south across most of South-East Asia. Today, they are confined to just two islands, that of Borneo and Sumatra. Within their range, there are now three recognised species, all of which are now classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. The most recently discovered of the three is the Tapanuli Orang-utan, found only in one area of Sumatra. On discovery, they were promptly given the Critically Endangered label, the last rung on the ladder before a species falls into extinction.
Orang-utans are a highly emotive subject. Working in wildlife rescue I often hear members of the public declaring “Orang-utans are my favourite”. Smaller primates such as the Marmosets and Tamarins get this sometimes, but nowhere near as often as their orange relatives. I challenge anybody to look into the eyes of an Orang-utan and not feel some kind of connection, even if the look you receive is simply scorn for blocking their view. Orang-utans are apes, just as are Humans, Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Bonobos. We have a lot in common, and a lot that’s not. Orang-utans live a semi-solitary lifestyle, relying on their own intelligence to get by in daily life, unlike the large troops seen in Chimpanzee society and in ourselves. They are entirely responsible for their own well-being. They are the independent ape. The bond between mother and young is similar to our own though, with mothers and babies staying together for longer than in any other primate species, apart from humans. There’s also something calming about an animal who spends a lot of their day sitting around munching on lunch, and who are rarely seen being loud and dramatic like the chimps that so often grace our nature documentaries. They haven’t had the same bad press that so, unfortunately, made Gorillas seem scary, thanks to inaccurate movie portrayals. King Kong got it completely wrong, but Gorillas were thought of as something very different from their gentle selves long after the film left the cinemas.
They haven’t however, completely escaped the media circus. Featuring any primate on the big screen does them no favours in the long run. Sitting one in the cab of a truck next to Clint Eastwood in ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ made many people think it was okay to exploit them in this way. ‘Oh well he looks like he’s enjoying it…and it’s a funny film…where’s the problem?’ Well, the problem persists to this day, the evidence being the retirees living out the rest of their lives in expensive to run rescue centres. The consequences of the myriad ways we humans have found to continue exploiting our primate relatives for entertainment are high, not only for the individuals involved but for their species, as the desire to keep them as pets increases and drives poaching from wild populations. “Because of the huge range of expressions in their faces, we can recognise ourselves in their faces. As such these primates are still being exploited on screen, as photographers’ props, in circuses, and horrendous tourist ‘attractions’ such as Orang-utan boxing rings, as well as videos of ‘baby monkey pets’ filtering around the world’s internet platforms.
These animals are used to challenges. They survive in tropical rainforests, in 95% humidity and they were doing pretty well for themselves until we started bulldozing their homes. They are one of the most intelligent primates on the planet, but it’s a bit much to expect them to stand up to our machinery. That said, a disturbing video took to the internet last year in which one tried to do just that. The video shows an area of forest being cleared and the man driving the bulldozer has done a pretty good job of flattening everything in view, apart from one tree with its trunk leaning under the pressure of the metal and one Orang-utan, who clings to the trunk, threatens the bulldozer. With one hand grasping the tree, it tries in vain to fend off the attacker. This is its home and everything it knows and relies upon is being destroyed in front of its eyes, and ours if we choose to see it.
I’ve worked in rescue centres that work tirelessly to rehabilitate these forest refugees. At one centre, 56 young Orang-utans were waiting for re-release into an area of forest which was, at the time, reasonably protected. They were nearly all there as victims of the pet trade. It’s illegal to keep Orang-utans as pets on Borneo and Sumatra, but that doesn’t stop it from happening. Clearing forests to make way for plantations opens up new routes into previously hard to access jungle and poachers can make a little money from an Orang-utan baby as they’re cute and intelligent, and desperate for a cuddle. They’re clingy to their new owner at first because they have lost their mother and in the wild, Orang-utans spend 7-9 years with their mother before they even start to become independent. For every baby in the pet trade, there’s almost certainly a mother who has been shot. I know of no peaceful way to encourage a mother to give up her young to a poacher.
In addition, there are problems when Orang-utans are seen as pests. They can damage crops, and are strong and destructive when they want to be. Some people take it upon themselves to ‘control’ these pests, who come into plantations that have appeared in place of their old foraging grounds. The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project recently treated an Orang-utan who came in with 74 air rifle pellets lodged in her body. The attack resulted in her blindness and the loss of her baby.
Where does Palm Oil come into this? Well, the sad truth of the matter is that deforestation has been happening in the Orang-utan’s home range for longer than Palm Oil has been popular. There is currently a huge demand for the product as the industry meets consumer demands. Palm Oil produces five tonnes of oil per hectare, which is a large yield compared to rapeseed and sunflower oil, which both come in at under one tonne per hectare. It is the most productive oil crop, and one favoured by the industry for that reason.
There are several schools of thought on what the best action to take is. One is to boycott or ban the product completely, thereby halting deforestation for Palm. The other is to move towards ‘sustainable Palm Oil’ which seeks to reduce the impact on primary forests. In an idealistic world, it would clearly be best to just stop, and leave the forest alone. Sadly though, in reality, the demand for oil worldwide means that a ban would result in big businesses replacing it with an alternative crop. Looking at the figures for yields of our current Vegetable Oil production, it would have to be a less-productive crop. It would use more land to produce the same amount of oil that Palm does, and it would happen in the most productive areas on Earth. You guessed it, the areas that can support our tropical rainforests. However, there are also criticisms of ‘sustainable’ Palm Oil. It is still grown in the tropics, on land that was once forest, and there are important questions being asked of just how sustainable it is. Could it, in fact, be worse? Can we sustainably keep up with such a high demand for oil?
Sometimes it is easy to feel lost in this sea of confusing and distressing news stories with conservationists and activists finding themselves wrapped up and arguing amongst themselves whilst we fight the biggest battle of our life on Earth. As consumers, we can do our bit. And a lot of people all doing ‘a bit’ often snowballs into a lot more being achieved. We can reduce the number of products we buy that include Palm Oil, but it would take a worldwide lifestyle shift to halt the industry completely. One approach is to contact companies when you choose to stop buying their products and tell them why. After all, how would their sales department know that they’ve taken a hit because of their ingredients rather than a poor advertising campaign?
Shopping locally is also a good move. Many processed products incur thousands of air miles and a carbon footprint that would make a steam train blush, in addition to Palm Oil. Refocussing our shopping choices to support local products is helpful environmentally friendly in many ways. Soy production and cattle rearing are still the primary drivers of deforestation in large parts of South America, where Palm Oil is still a relatively young industry. By buying local produce where we can and reducing our consumption of ‘stuff’ in general, we have less chance of impacting these already vulnerable biodiversity hotspots.
The crux of the matter is that human beings must live more sustainable lifestyles to be able to sustain life on our planet. The Orang-utan is a flagship species for a far bigger problem. The jury is still out on this hugely complex debate, whilst people are working hard on both sides of the issue, both to destroy the rainforests and to protect them. What is clear is that more needs to be done, urgently, to protect our forests. The loss of the Orang-utan would be devastating not only for these curious and intelligent apes but for every one of us who values our natural world.
Rachel has spent a year living in Borneo and a writer with a background in conservation biology and animal care. Her blog can be found at www.rachelhensonwriting.com