In the dense rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, high in the pendulous canopy of Nyatoh trees, strangler figs, and massive Ironwood so large they grow thick flying buttresses to help anchor them to the spot, live the “people of the forest,” the Malaysian term for orangutans. There are only two species of orangutan: one that lives on the island of Sumatra, and the other on the Island of Borneo, both of which are critically endangered. While the arm span of an adult orangutan is likely longer than you are tall (up to seven feet – an adaptation that makes them well suited to a life in the canopy), they are in other regards not so different from us. They make leafy homes in the treetops, meticulously care for their young, and even use large leaves to keep themselves dry while it rains. They’re also highly intelligent, and in the past have been taught to use sign language.

But, as is all too common with other large species of mammals, orangutans are in danger of going extinct due to human activity.

Looking into the emotional eyes of this young orangutan, it is difficult to comprehend how we could knowingly cause the destruction of such a human-like creature. 

12104997_1059785480747423_1625104713_n   The orangutan in the image above is named Chocolate, and the photo was taken just minutes before he was finally set free after three years in rehab. Chocolate was the victim of illegal species trading. The locals who participate in these activities will single out vulnerable orangutan mothers with their young in the forest canopy, cut down the neighboring trees so they can’t escape, knock the mother to the ground, still tightly clutching her child, beat her unconscious and steal the baby. Afterward, they sell them for, at most, a few thousand dollars.  But Chocolate was lucky, because members of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservative Program (SOCP) were tipped off to his whereabouts by an undercover wildlife investigation team and quickly brought in local authorities to peaceably retrieve him.

Palm Oil and Orangutans

But Chocolate’s good news may be short-lived. The team that originally found him were in the area to investigate the illegal deforestation of natural areas for the conversion to palm oil plantations, one of the greatest threats to the survival of orangutans. Between 1980 and 2009, the amount of tropical land that had been converted for the production of this staple jumped from 3.83 million acres to over 30 million, a landmass approximately the size of Mississippi. This practice has several negative corollaries, the first and most obvious being that a large amount of diversity is being destroyed and replaced with monocultures. But clearing the land also contributes to global climate change. Often, plantations are built right on top of ancient peat swamp forests. This peat stores an enormous amount of carbon, but when the swamps are drained and cleared, the peat starts to decay, releasing the carbon it’s stored for thousands of years back into the atmosphere. As large swaths of rainforests disappear in Borneo and Sumatra, so too do the homes of the Orangutans who once lived in them. Organizations like SOCP must sometimes go out and forcibly relocate orangutan individuals who would otherwise be killed as their forests were cut down, and their dwindling habitat, in turn, forces them to venture out into plantations and other populated areas, looking for food, where they are shot. According to a recent study, up to 750 to 1,790 orangutans are killed each year in a single region of Borneo.

A Brighter Future

But not all is yet lost. In some places, environmentalists are even helping turn the tide. In Sumatra, activists sued a palm oil plantation for clearing land illegally, and though it took them nine years, they won their case in court, vowing to return the land to the community and to let the stricken forest grow back.

Due to the outcry over the negative impacts of palm oil plantations, many countries and companies, such as Nestle, Johnson & Johnson, and Unilever, have joined an organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that makes sure the oil producers are obeying the laws and protecting endangered species. There is some question over the efficacy of these programs, but as consumers, we can choose to avoid palm oil altogether. If you’re looking to excise from your meals and hygiene products altogether, One Green Planet has a great list of alternative products you can use instead.

Together we can stop the destruction caused by palm oil and give the orangutan a fighting chance. Looking into Chocolate’s eyes, it is clear that we owe them at much, at least.

 Image source: Paul Hilton/Instagram