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 like Doritos) 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 kind and intelligent. In fact, they’re so smart, they’ve developed their own kind of ‘sign’ language naturally, and 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.
Now For Some Good News!
Recently, there’s been some great news about helping these beautiful animals – there’s finally a way to tell if the ingredients in food and beauty products is hurting orangutans or not, thanks to the Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme (POFCAP). So far, this has been launched in both Australia and the UK, with a further 14 nations with pending applications. The program is working hard to ensure consumers will be visually aware as to whether or not a product contains palm oil. As with ‘vegan’ labels, there will be a certification trademark on a product’s packaging, giving conscious consumers the peace of mind knowing there’s no palm oil inside.
And there’s more good news, too – any funds donated to POFCAP will be placed back into future projects with the aim of making the world a better place for both our rainforests and its animals.
You can help save endangered orangutans, too by firstly, ensuring that nothing you buy – be it soap, snacks or sodas – contains palm oil. Then, visit www.orangutan.org and pledging your support – every little bit helps.
Images by www.orangutan.org and Wikicommons