Is it too late to save Asia’s great ape?

17/02/2020 06:51

Written by Tamara Thiessen

Decades after the first orangutan rehabilitation centre was opened in Sarawak in 1961 by pioneering conservationist Barbara Harrison, this incredible creature is still in dire straits. This is more the case today than ever before. A terrible warning came in May 2019 via the United Nations’ so-called ‘extinction report’. Without a ‘transformative change’ in human behaviour, it said, orangutans (along with over a million other species) could be extinct within a few decades.

Orangutan Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre Borneo by Lifeontheside, DreamstimeSome 57,000 orangutans are estimated to be surviving in Borneo © Lifeontheside, Dreamstime

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List labels the species as ‘critically endangered’ and estimates their current population living in the wild to be about 105,000. While estimates for remaining orangutan populations vary wildly, a 2016 report from the Borneo Nature Foundation identifies about 57,350 surviving individuals in Borneo, ‘spread into 42 pockets of wild population’. As things stand, with deforestation continuing at alarming rates, the orangutan looks set to become the first great ape of modern times to be bullied, abused and pushed into extinction.

A ‘totally protected species’

In Sabah, the orangutan has been legally protected since 1958, and the 1997 Sabah Wildlife Conservation Act imposes fines of up to RM100,000 and five years in prison for the illegal killing or rearing of orangutans. The 1990s saw numerous campaigns and documentaries that brought the orangutan into the spotlight as it captured the hearts of the world. One famous case was that of the ‘Bangkok Six’ in 1990, when six orangutans were transported from Borneo to Bangkok in wooden crates (one of which was upside down for the whole trip), without food and water. Photos of the frightened, exhausted babies shocked and saddened readers worldwide.

Being a ‘totally protected species’ across Borneo has not put an end to the extreme dangers to the species’ survival. Their dependence on trees for food and shelter, slow breeding rate and need for large amounts of space makes orangutans extremely vulnerable to hunting and habitat loss. Females may not breed before they are 17, and with an inter-birth period of eight to nine years – the longest of any mammal – populations struggle to recover from losses. The fragmented nature of many small populations due to forestry and fires further sound their death knell.

Around 80% of total orangutan habitat in Borneo has been radically degraded or destroyed – and orangutans without rainforest are like fish without a sea. In some previously densely forested regions of Sabah and Sarawak given over to large plantations, the orangutan is still astoundingly considered a pest, and one that must be disposed of to save crops.

Illegal hunting 

The fact that hunting orangutans is illegal has not eliminated the practice. In 2015, Sabah Wildlife Department veterinarians worked around the clock to successfully save a severely injured 20-year-old orangutan found in a palm-oil plantation near Sandakan. Then, in March 2019, a Russian tourist was caught at Bali’s Denpasar Airport attempting to smuggle a drugged orangutan out of Indonesia in his suitcase to take home and keep as a pet. 

Orangutan Semenggoh Borneo R.M. Nunes, ShutterstockDespite being illegal, the hunting of orangutans is still an issue © R.M. Nunes, Shutterstock

Though incidents like this are increasingly sporadic, they do continue, and the illegal pet trade, along with illegal logging and conversion of the forest to plantations, are the major ongoing threats. The corruption and cruelty behind such incidents holds no regard for laws any more than it does for moral values.

Consequently, the outlook is dire. If, as a US study involving an international group of scientists claimed in 2018, 148,500 orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015 due to fires, deforestation, logging and palm-oil cultivation, how will the remaining 100,000 (including those in the wild, semi-wild or in reserves) endure? The study estimated a further 45,300 of these creatures will be lost by 2050 if these practices continue at their current pace. As Canadian psychologist and primatologist, Anne Russon, from York University, told CBC News: ‘Orangutans will become effectively extinct within the next couple of decades if we don’t stop our exploitation of their habitat, and the killings and trapping for sale in the illegal captive wildlife trade’.

What can we do to help?

At a political level, increasing foreign investment will allow Malaysia and Indonesia to rely less on their raw natural resources and manage them more efficiently. Introducing certification of ethically sourced (sustainable) palm oil and mandatory labelling of products on supermarket shelves will allow consumers to avoid palm oil produced from unsustainable sources. The Indonesian and Malaysian governments need to ensure that laws are fully enforced, and that all forests on which orangutans depend – reserves or otherwise – are protected.

On a personal people-power level, take positive action and stop buying products that are made with non-sustainably and unethically sourced palm oil (for your health and that of orangutans, rule out palm-oil food products all together). Palm-oil pseudonyms amount to a very long list. As well as the more obvious ‘palm fruit oil’, it masquerades behind seemingly innocent vegetable-oil and vegetable-fat labels, as well as complex scientific names such as sodium laureth sulfate and ethyl palmitate.

Orangutan Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre Borneo by BlueOrange, ShutterstockDeforestation to make way for palm-oil plantations has a significant impact on orangutans in Borneo © BlueOrange, Shutterstock

Refer to online resources like the WWF’s list to be fully informed. It’s estimated that around half of all packaged goods, ranging from cookies and pizza dough to detergent and lipstick, contain the substance. You don’t have to give up all these goods, as most are also produced in a sustainable way. Also look out for the labels RSPO and Green Palm for safe, sustainable palm-oil-based goods.

Supermarkets in the West have begun to eschew palm oil in their products. In 2014, Safeway became the latest US company to snub palm oil, and in 2018, British supermarket giant Iceland pledged to stop using palm oil in its in-house products, provoking the international palm-oil lobby to run a propaganda campaign in UK newspapers. However, BBC sleuths pointed out the continuing availability of certain Iceland own-brand palm-oil products in early 2019, despite the ‘saying no to palm oil’ slogan brandished on their website. The retailer responded, claiming there had been a few hiccups in the process of rolling out the correct palm oil-free labelling and old stock and product IDs remained. Nonetheless, its commitment to no palm oil remains
questionable, especially if, as the BBC claims, it continues to retail some 600 name-brand items containing the product.

Unfortunately, such moves to clean up palm-oil sales are not so visible overseas; in Indonesia in 2019, the industry was still busy, even pressuring some supermarkets to remove palm-oil-free products from their shelves. 

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