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 Birutė 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.