Earlier this year, I went in search of the the Bornean and Sumatran Orang-utan in their natural habitat. Both attempts were a success. But with Asia’s orange-haired great apes labelled as ‘critically endangered’, the chances are we won’t be able to visit them for much longer. So why are we losing them and what can be done to prevent it? Follow me on my adventure through the Sumatran jungle to find out…
Deep in the rainforest, there is a distant rustle in the trees. A shiver runs down my spine – something tells me that was more than just the breeze. Suddenly, bounding through the canopy comes a flash of orange. The rustling is getting louder and the branches above us part. And there, right in front of us is a wild Orang-utan.
“He is a boy,” whispers our guide, an experienced ranger at Gunung Leuser National Park. We all watch as this hairy, long-limbed creature swings on one arm from a branch, taking in our small group, one by one. His eyes are a marble brown, his padded cheeks full, and his 70kg form hangs with ease – his large muscles holding his weight. He looks curious. His eyes flit from one human to another as if to say, ‘Hello, welcome to my home. Please come in and meet some of my friends’.
Not satisfied at being above us in the trees, our new pal lets go of the branch he’s hanging from and drops. Within a split second, he is hanging on to a new, lower branch.
Now he is eye level with each of us and just a few metres away, the two rangers accompanying us take a step closer to him – a barrier between him and us.
‘He won’t come to you but he is curious,’ our guide informs us.
The reality of the situation
As we quietly watch our new friend in awe, it crosses my mind how lucky I am to be having this experience. Just a few days before, while researching these glorious animals, I learned only an estimated 69,600 orang-utans live in the wild– approximately 55,000 in Borneo and just 14,600 on the island of Sumatra.
“If this trend continues, it won’t be long before we won’t be able to see
these creatures in the wild at all. They will be extinct.”
A century ago, numbers were estimated at 230,000 orang-utans.
[Update: A report by the journal, Current Biology, estimates 100,000 Bornean orang-utans have been slaughtered since 1999.]
Orang-utans ‘critically endangered’
The major reason for the decline in Orang-utan numbers is loss of habitat. On both Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, acres of rainforest are being cleared for agricultural use – and in particular, for oil palm growth. In fact, a whopping 17.7 million hectares of forest has been destroyed in Borneo in the last 40 years – an area about the size of the state of Florida in the US.
I saw a portion of this clearance in Sumatra with my own eyes as we left Gunung Leuser National Park, as a few minutes down the road, was a palm plantation. Thousands of palms had been planted and grown specifically to manufacture palm oil. Local workers extract oil from the fruit kernel. This oil is, in turn, processed and used in the making of everyday household products – such as shampoo and chocolate – and exported across the world.
Of course there are other reasons for deforestation. Logging – or the cutting down of trees for timber or pulp – is a massive industry here. Local governments are continually building new roads to combat the numbers of vehicles. Ever-expanding towns and cities need to spread somewhere – and Indonesia’s growing populations find security in agricultural work.
There are protected forests. Many supported by organisations like WWF. Or charities such as the World Land Trust, who recently joined forces with SpringWatch presenter Steve Backshall and his Olympic Rowing champion wife, Helen Glover, to raise money to buy a portion of the Bornean Kinabatangan rainforest.
Other big factors include poaching and the inevitable human-animal conflict. Orang-utans are often shot by farmers or drowned in rivers when they are thought to be been feeding on crops. They are seen as a pest. Education is still very much needed here. The illegal pet industry is unfortunately still rife too. But these figures are much less than the numbers recorded of animals killed due to habitat-loss.
The value of palm oil
The thing is, the palm oil industry provides employment in some of regions poorest rural communities, and it does yield up to nine times more oil per hectare than the closest alternative, In other words, if we switched our resource from palm oil, land clearance would still take place. In fact, we would encourage larger, less-fruitful oil plantations. So there is no easy solution.
The only real way to move forward is for everyone concerned – from the Indonesian working communities to us, the consumer – to invest in sustainable palm oil manufacturers and distributors.
So what can we do about it?
I look back up at the amazing creature hanging before my eyes and make a silent promise to read product labels and look for the ‘Roundtable on Sustainably Palm Oil‘ or ‘RSPO’ stamp before I buy. This label gives assurance that areas of high conservation value have been preserved, that palm oil plantation managers are implementing best practice, and that the local communities are being looked after too. The regulations are actually impressively strict and works with the surrounding villagers.
Suddenly, those extra few minutes it takes to seek out ‘RSPO’-certified chocolate or shampoo in the supermarket aisles seem insignificant. We could make a difference, if enough of us do this.
As if he can read my mind, the orang-utan looks me directly in the eye for a moment. Then turns and swings back up into the canopy of the trees. In seconds he has gone, back into his wild and wonderful jungle habitat. A few minutes later, we hear another distant rustle in the trees and our guide tell us the rangers have found a female and baby a little further on.
I don’t want orang-utans to be seen only in history books and photographs. I want to come back here one day with my Godsons, Sam and Ollie, and watch as they discover Asia’s great apes, the Orang-utan, with the same awe and wonder that I have.
With that thought firmly in mind, and a hope that maybe we can save a species from extinction by making a few lifestyle changes, we go in search of the mother and baby…
Visit palmoilscorecard.panda.org to check out how your most-used brands and companies perform on the sustainable palm oil front.
Find out more about WWF’s work with orang-utans and how you can help.
[A shorter version of this piece was originally written for WWF UK blog site]