Red Ape: Saving the Orangutan

Last night I watched the incredible programme ‘Natural World 2018-2019 Episode 4 – Red Ape: Saving the Orangutan’ on BBC Two (link here – be warned, it is quite an upsetting watch). Conveniently enough, I had also just began to read ‘Reflections of Eden’ by BirutÄ— Galdikas. In Red Ape, we follow a team of medics from International Animal Rescue that have been fighting to save the critically endangered orangutans of Borneo for the last decade. The scenes are harrowing – apes stuck in snare traps, their limbs rotting aways as they wait to die, babies separated from their mothers, 70 kg adult males freefalling from the tops of trees that stand taller than the clouds. In the spirit of awareness, I will briefly outline orangutans as a species, and then cover the threats facing these awe-inspiring primates.

Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with us humans, with ‘orangutan’ originally meaning ‘human of the forest’. These animals are incredibly intelligent, forming complex relationships with others of their kind. The orangutan is the only extant great ape existing outside of Africa, and is unique in its tendency to spend most of their lives in the canopy. In actuality, the orangutan is the largest arboreal animal in the world, and is incredibly adapted for such a life in the rainforest. Only two million years ago, the orangutan was a common species found throughout Southeast Asia, covering an area greater than 1.5 million square kilometres. It has been estimated that the habitat of orangutans was roughly 25 million hectares back in 1973, and will diminish to less than 10 million hectares by 2025, constituting a loss of 62% in 50 years. As such, if deforestation continues to occur at this rate, it is likely that more than 86% of the orangutan population will disappear.

Following intensive logging of hardwood trees since the 1960s, many of the densely forested areas inhabited by this red ape have disappeared. In the mid 1990s, Indonesia ‘ran out’ of these hardwood tree species, and no longer had a steady source of income. As such, the country fell into an economic crisis, and desperately searched for new methods to rejuvenate their failing economy. Enter the palm oil industry. Palm oil is found in almost everything, from snack foods to bathing products, and its production is now the main driver of tropical deforestation in Indonesia. If the current unsustainable development of palm oil plantations continues as expected, the rainforests of Indonesia stands to further lose an area the size of whales by the end of this decade. As it stands, orangutans appear to have not much of a chance at survivial, however there are many inspiring individuals that are dedicating their lives to protecting these animals in their natural habitat and in captivity.

In addition to charities, NGOs, and driven individuals trying to solve this problem in the field, those of us at home can do our bit to help save orangutans. By attempting to cut out palm oil from our consumption, or even by ensuring that we buy from certified sustainable sources, we are reducing the demand for this product, and thus the need to deforest to meet this demand. However, I understand that this can be incredibly difficult, especially with it being in literally everything and labels being confusing and overcomplicated. It can also be beneficial to actively support companies in their attempts to cut out palm oil, for example Iceland UK have promised to ban palm oil in their own-brand products and Body Shop UK are committed to using only sustainable palm oil in their products. By choosing to shop at these outlets, particularly when supermarkets such as Iceland are incredibly affordable, you are doing your bit to protect not just orangutans, but all other species impacted by deforestation in Borneo.


When shopping, why not spend a little bit of time scanning for the presence of palm oil in the ingredients? And if palm oil is present, why not check if it is sustainably harvested? Some items may have the above logo presented proudly on their packaging, and many brands may provide information regarding their palm oil use on their websites. Taking just a few minutes out of your day to check if the palm oil in your biscuits is sustainably developed could literally save lives.

Most of this information came from the programme that I watched last night and Save the Orangutan and I really recommend visiting the latter if you want to learn more about the plight of the orangutan and what is being done to improve their situation.


International Macaque Week

It’s international macaque week and as an ode to our furry relatives, I have decided to do a little piece on macaques as a group and some modern day conundrums involving primate species.

Macaques are a group of Old World monkeys that fall into the subfamily Cercopithecinae, consisting of 23 species worldwide [1]. Despite being a principally frugivorous taxonomic group, their diet may consist of seeds, leaves, flowers, tree bark, some invertebrates, and occasionally small vertebrates. Macaques are one of the most widespread members of the primate order, second only to humans, ranging across Asia to North Africa and Southern Europe. Macaques have an incredibly intricate social structure and hierarchy, with all social groups being arranged around dominant, matriarchal females [2]. Numerous macaque species are used in animal testing, kept as pets despite nearly all captive rhesus macaques being carriers of the herpes simian B virus [3], and are persecuted by humans. As such, many macaque species are classified as threatened.

I am now going to discuss an issue that has been itching at me since I first heard about it a couple of months ago – the recent cloning of crab-eating macaques [4].

Images of two crab-eating macaque infants (Macaca fascicularis) cloned using somatic cell nuclear transfer

Recently, similarly to Dolly the sheep 22 years ago, two crab-eating macaque infants were cloned using foetal fibroblasts (cells found in connective tissue) derived from an aborted female crab-eating macaque. Adjacent to the attempt at cloning with foetal fibroblasts, somatic cell nuclear transfer, whereby a viable embryo is created using a body cell and an egg cell, was attempted using adult monkey cumulus cells (cells that surround immature egg cells (oocytes)). However, whereas the former method  produced what the researchers describe as ‘healthy’ clones, the latter method was unable to do so, with infants dying hours after birth due to apparent respiratory failure.

The apparent reasoning behind this cloning is that these monkeys will be used for the investigation of human diseases, drug screening, and the development of other therapeutics. The researchers involved have stated that these clones will allow for the isolation of gene effects, with animals being genetically identical except for the particular genes that have been switched on/off/mutated.

You can read an article on the research here, and the full journal is available from here.

Now it’s time for my unsolicited opinion. I am by no means an expert in the field of genetics, and in no way do I claim to have a better understanding of the ethical issues encompassing these findings than those who conducted the research. However, it is my firm belief that creating life for such a purpose is incredibly cruel. Despite the fact that these creatures were created in a lab, they are tangible, living beings with their own minds and personalities. I have always had a problem with animal testing, especially when it is unwarranted and in the pursuit of vanity. In this case, I do not believe that the proposed testing would be conducted with such an end in mind. However, it is my opinion that purposely altering a living creature’s genetic code for insight into the mechanisms at play in certain diseases is appalling. If someone put forward the idea to conduct such research on humans, particularly human infants, the world would be in uproar. Some would claim you were playing God; others would call it torture.

I think it is so incredibly important that we all assess what price we are willing to pay for knowledge, and whether such an understanding of genetic diseases is worth the suffering that could potentially arise from such an undertaking. All life is precious. No one creature is more worthy of a comfortable existence than another. I sincerely hope that at some point in my life I will be blessed enough to see the end of animal testing, but I very much doubt it.

Sunda pig-tailed macaque on liana
Sunda pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) on liana


[1] Primate Info Net. (2012). Primate Factsheets: Macaque (Macaca). [online] Available at: http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/links/macaca [Accessed 3 May 2018].

[2] Fleagle, J. (1988). Primate adaptation & evolution. San Diego: Academic Press, p.123.

[3] Ostrowski, S. (1998). B-virus from Pet Macaque Monkeys: An Emerging Threat in the United States?. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 4(1), pp.117-121.

[4] Liu, Z., Cai, Y., Wang, Y., Nie, Y., Zhang, C., Xu, Y., Zhang, X., Lu, Y., Wang, Z., Poo, M. and Sun, Q. (2018). Cloning of Macaque Monkeys by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. Cell, 172(4), pp.881-887.e7.


University Studies

Aspiring Primatologist

As a child, I was fascinated with all living things. However, nothing captured my interest more than our closest evolutionary relatives – primates. I would often find myself thinking how amazing it would be to see them in the wild, to watch them for hours, to learn about and from them. I would constantly dream about them and wish with all my might that I could just see one in nature, not locked away in a cage on display.

At the time, I thought that science was a thing for boys. All the nature programmes I devoted hours of my life to watching were either narrated or presented by men – David Attenborough, Steve Irwin, Chris Packham, Steve Backshall, Gordon Buchanan, and countless others I can’t name. It wasn’t until I could read that I realised that women could be scientists too – Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas, even Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie. The older I became, the more I studied and read, the more I realised that if I so desired, I too could become a scientist; I too could study animals the way that my childhood heroes had.

Despite my immeasurable desire to see a primate in its natural habitat, I spent 22 years of my life confined to Britain, only seeing the creatures that enamoured me so in captivity or on film. When, during my studies as a Zoology student at University of Liverpool, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Uganda as part of a Tropical Field Course module, I saved what little money I had and boarded a plane for the very first time to Africa – the home continent of primates. The first wild non-human primate I set eyes on was a vervet monkey, and I was completely mystified. Seeing such an animal able to move as freely as myself, not restricted by bars, was awe-inspiring. Soon after, I spotted black-and-white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabeys, olive baboons, and eventually our closest relatives – chimpanzees. When I first set my eyes on a wild chimpanzee my glasses fogged up, tears stung my eyes and I realised I had forgotten to breathe. Completely mesmerised, I neglected to take photographs, not wanting to miss a second of their visible activity. Only after I had seen them on a couple more excursions into the Kibale National Park rainforest did I try to capture them on camera. It was at this point that I decided that no matter what obstacles presented themself, I was going to study primate behaviour.

This year I will finish my third and final year at University of Liverpool, after which I intend to study a MSc in Primate Behaviour and Conservation at Liverpool John Moores University. I am so excited to start this new chapter in my life, studying under world leading experts in the field and learning how to pave my own way into this incredibly competitive area of research. I’m ready to work hard and learn some amazing things.

The featured image for this post is a red colobus monkey that I photographed on 11/04/2017 in Kibale National Park, Uganda.