photo: Brian Snelson via flick
Hopefully you already are aware of the plight of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra as logging and palm oil plantations continue to rapidly destroy their habitat. The rate of deforestation and habitat loss is so great that some scientists are predicting that the orangutan will be the first great ape to go extinct in modern times. Yale Environment 360 is running a piece on one interesting twist on efforts to help orangutans. There are now so many orphaned babies that there may not be enough remaining habitat to reintroduce them to the wild:
Half as Much Habitat Available Compared to 20 Years Ago
The figures for habitat loss are staggering. In the past 20 years suitable habitat for orangutan reintroduction has been cut by more than 50%, encompassing less than 27,000 square miles today. Perhaps even more startling is that in Sumatra (where about 6,500 orangutan remain in the wild) since 1975 about 90% of original forest cover has been chopped down.
Rhett Butler of Mongabay.com points out that there are currently more than 2,000 orangutans in various rehabilitation centers, but for every one of these at least six more have been killed or captured for the pet trade.
Pet Trade is Manageable, Palm Oil Plantations Not
Butler points out that, for all its faults, the pet trade's impact on orangutans was manageable. However, palm oil plantations' impact is not:
Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, says she started to see the shift about five years ago. Relegated to ever smaller fragments of forest, wild orangutans began to face starvation as their food sources were depleted, forcing them to venture into newly established oil palm plantations where they feed on the young shoots of palms, destroying the tree before it produces any oil seeds.
Viewing the wild orangutans as pests, plantation managers started paying $10 to $20 for each dead orangutan — a strong incentive for a migrant worker.
"Our rescue teams began to be informed of wandering wild orangutans in human settlements," said Desilets. "We have found orangutans beaten to death with wooden planks and iron bars, butchered by machetes, beaten unconscious and buried alive, and doused with petrol and set alight. Since 2004, more and more orangutans in our centers have been rescued from areas within or near oil palm plantations, and over 90 percent of the infants up to 3 years of age come from these areas."
For more on the problems facing efforts to rehabilitate and reintroduce orangutans orphaned by palm oil, read: With the Clearing of Forests, Baby Orangutans are Marooned
How to Help Orangutans
So what can someone living literally on the other side of the world do about this? Other than supporting organizations working with orangutans (such as Orangutan Outreach, the Centre For Orangutan Protection, or The Nature Conservancy... apologies for not including others; leave links in the comments, please) one thing that individuals can do is to pressure companies to only purchase sustainable palm oil, or find substitutes for palm oil altogether.
Orangutans, Palm Oil
Orangutan Caught Red-Handed Using Technology, Fishing with a Spear
Orangutan Population in Borneo National Park Declines 90% in Last Five Years
Sketchy Logging Practice Threatens the Only Orangutans Successfully Reintroduced into the Wild