By Arwa Lodhi
The word ‘orangutan‘ means ‘man of the forest’ in Malay, and with good reason: these red-haired fellows are completely human-like in their behaviour. Compassionate, funny, shy and tranquil, they are currently critically endangered due to rampant illegal logging and land reclamation for estates in their native Indonesia.
Their decline has been caused primarily by human activity, especially the conversion of forest to palm oil plantations and timber estates, which is putting the very existence of the orangutan under threat. Palm oil is mainly to blame. This is the cheap and versatile oil that’s used in everything from cookies and soap to fast foods and sodas. Some of the worst offenders for buying large quantities of palm oil include Starbucks (who use it in their muffins), Frito Lay (who use it in Pepsi products and chips) and Lever Brothers detergents.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace are calling on consumers to check the labels of any snacks they buy, and to boycott companies like those mentioned above until they agree to phase out their use of palm oil. Adding to the pressure on the orangutan, mining, clearing forest for property development, and road construction, and large-scale fires are also serious problems that may cause these wonderful creatures to become extinct.
Additionally, and perhaps most tragically, the illegal animal trade has been a factor in the decline of wild orangutan populations: mothers are killed so babies can be taken to zoos and sometimes captured to be trained for despicable ‘ape boxing’ matches, a popular novelty in South East Asia. They are also occasionally hunted and even eaten by some of the indigenous peoples of Borneo as well as migrant loggers and plantation workers who have no qualms about consuming primates.
At one time, the world’s wild orangutan populations likely included upward of hundreds of thousands, but during the past decade, populations have decreased by about 50% in the wild. Currently, the IUNC has classified the Bornean orangutan as Endangered, and the Sumatran orangutan as Critically Endangered.
Without drastic intervention, orangutans may soon be extinct. It would be a terrible tragedy if these gentle giants disappeared from the earth–they are surprisingly gentle and intelligent. In fact, they have developed their own kind of ‘sign’ language naturally, but some apes kept in captivity for research have been taught over 140 ‘human’ words and string these together to be quite communicative, indicating complex emotions such as curiosity, mistrust and even gratitude.
You can help save endangered orangutans by visiting www.orangutan.org and pledging your support.
Images by www.orangutan.org and Wikicommons