Image: Rob Webster/WWF
Orangutans, those beautiful, bed-building primates, have been in trouble for awhile now. As drone-equipped ecologists have found, orangutans in Sumatra and Borneo have seen their habitats disappear as humans replace forests with palm plantations. As Indonesia has pushed to develop more land for palm plantations, orangutan numbers have been estimated to decline by around 5,000 per year, which is a situation beyond dire. The Bornean orangutan is listed as endangered, and the Sumatran as critically endangered, and at this pace, both are pretty much toast. Writes the Huffington Post,
The main culprit in the catastrophe facing orangutans is palm oil, a widely used cheap additive found in everything from food products to biofuels. Indeed, estimates say palm oil is now in more than 50 percent of all consumer goods.
How is palm oil killing orangutans? Every year, an astonishing 2 million hectares of rainforest are cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, destroying the orangutans' only habitat. Adding to the already dire situation, managers of these plantations have also been caught illegally hunting and killing the critically endangered animals, which the industry views as pests.
As author/advocate Mikko Alanne notes, the palm oil industry has tried to introduce "sustainable" oil, which is grown on lands that don't impact orangutan habitats. But as is the case with Bolivia's attempt to boost agriculture while cutting back on deforestation, industrial agriculture often has an interest in converting forest land, especially with Indonesia booming economy. And as orangutans lose their habitat, interaction with humans (like this horrific instance of an orangutan accidentally being set on fire.)
What can we do about it? As is the case with wildlife trafficking and illegal logging, it's not always possible to rely on officials to make smart regulatory decision or enforce them. Read Alanne's piece for some good orangutan-specific advice on what to do, but suffice it to say that building awareness is key.