In July the Bornean orangutan was placed on the critically endangered list, where it joins its only other direct relative, the Sumatran orangutan. This isn’t because of disease, climate change, predation, or reproductive failure, this 100% due to humans.
Bornean orangutans live in the lush rainforests of Indonesia, lush rainforests that, due to mass felling to be replaced by commercial palm oil plantations, have been reduced by a quarter just since 1994. To put this into perspective, that’s an area of forest equal in size to the entirety of Germany – 76 million acres.
If you’re wondering why Indonesia would be so desperate to strip away its own unique resources, just to grow vegetable oil, it’s because palm oil is a highly lucrative industry. And why is that? Because palm oil is in everything.
From biscuits to bread, to pizza to crisps, palm oil has wriggled its way into almost every conceivable part of the processed-food food chain. And the world is increasingly addicted to processed food. Not only that but palm oil is used in the manufacture of toothpaste, shampoo, and even biodiesel. As we said, it is in everything.
But is palm oil really all that cheap, if it costs the planet so much in biodiversity? It doesn’t seem logical from an ecological perspective, which is why some wonder if we need to readjust how we cost the economics of everything from food to resource production.
There certainly has been a drive to push producers to source their palm oil from more responsible sources, with major supermarkets in the UK such as Iceland signing a pledge to commit themselves to remove unsustainable palm oil from their own label products.
But major brands such as Johnson & Johnson, Pepsico, and Colgate-Palmolive have already been accused of not doing enough to check whether their palm oil was the result of deforestation, with Greenpeace squarely pointing the finger at them for breaches earlier this year.
But this seems to have made little impact in Indonesia, where still more rainforest is being turned over to palm oil cultivation. Equally, just as the Brazilian rainforests are burning now, the more-or-less natural occurrence of forest fires in the Indonesian rainforests has been extremely convenient for those looking to turn that land over to palm oil production.
“The fires produce quite a good excuse,” says Alan Knight, of International Animal Rescue, “All of a sudden this area they wanted to produce palm oil on, it’s useful for nothing, so they end up planting palm oil on it,”
That burning, some accidental but some unquestionably deliberate, last year took up an area of rainforest equivalent in size to the British counties of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, and half of Devon. That’s well over half of the south coast of the United Kingdom, and all of it set ablaze in a period of just three months.
Knight’s charity takes in orangutans who have fled from this blaze, looks after them, and then returns them to the wild. But he is increasingly pessimistic about the sustainability of this operation.
“If the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild,” Knight explained, stressing how little time was left, “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”
And it’s the loss of habitat that is central to this threat.
“What keeps me awake at night is whether there is going to be a forest for use to release them into,” Knight says, regretfully.
What makes the plight of the orangutan all the more fraught, is that they are a slow breeding species, taking years to raise their vulnerable young and being able to give birth only once every eight years, with a gestation period of 10 months.
Simultaneously their disappearing habitat is pushing them into contact with other species, and even humans, forcing them to compete outside of their natural habitat. Not to mention the fact that clashes with humans can see orangutans chased off, threatened, and even deliberately attacked and killed.
So, in a way, the announcement by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last month, that the Bornean orangutan had joined its Sumatran cousin on the endangered list, should come as no surprise. But, if not a surprise, the hope is that this will act as a wake-up call.
The bald fact that, according to the IUCN’s Red List of endangered species, there has been a 60% decrease in the Bornean orangutan population between 1950 and 2010, and a projected further 22% fall by 2025, should make it clear that time is running out.
The orangutan truly is unique, one of just four great apes, alongside gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, and the only one of the four from Asia.
Equally, orangutans, although not our closest relative of the four great apes, may be unique in providing evidence of the origins of spoken language, specific captive individuals showing a capacity for mimicking rhythms and pitches of human speech, and apparently able to choose and use these changes on demand.
So to see such an incredible creature, one so close to humanity in the evolutionary tree, this close to going extinct in the wild, is nothing less than a tragedy. And a tragedy that is all too avoidable.
In a world where rainforest is needed more than ever, and biodiversity is disappearing by the second, do we really need more palm oil, just to make our biscuits, shampoos, and pizza bases only that little bit cheaper to produce?
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