Optimism is a choice luxury in the world of conservation biology; after all, the statistics read like obituaries. With tropical deforestation at an excess of thirteen million hectares per year, it is by no means an exaggeration to say that we have become a near-unsustainable burden to our humble, little blue planet. The phrase, “Save the Rainforest” might come as an exasperating reminder to us reluctant Fairtrade-buyers, evoking the notion of a tatty, unkempt Greenpeace activist taking to London’s streets in pain-spattered protest, but the rapid loss of nature’s jewels is a very clear and present danger, and in no way to be taken lightly. Aside from the tonnes of greenhouse gases that are being unleashed with every square kilometre of woodland cut or burned down, the ever-expanding behemoth of today’s timber industry is also encroaching upon the wildlife that has for millennia lived and thrived in these forests. Like funeral parlours during a mortality surge, conservation biologists are faced with increasing demands to preserve what we, mankind, are unwittingly eradicating by hour and by day.
I give you one beloved example: the orangutan. It stands apart from us by a mere 3% of DNA and yet, our circumstances couldn’t be any more different. Striking in its coat of red-brown hair and solitary inclination, the orangutan appears to be a bit of an oddity amongst the four great apes of the primate order. Unlike all the other hominids, it hails exclusively from Asia; remains strictly tree-living and is in fact the biggest mammal of this disposition; and also appears to be bit of a loner, coexisting in groups of no larger than five, with males and females meeting mostly for the business of procreation. Nevertheless, like the chimpanzee and the gorilla, the orangutan has exhibited incredible depths of intelligence. It is capable of learning sign language at the level of a three year old child and has been observed creating “tools” for the purpose of collecting nutrition — commonly by sharpening tree-branch-ends with its teeth and using these to poke into insect nests or even make a valiant attempt at fishing! Sadly, since the day of gun-toting, 19th century animal collectors such as Alfred Wallace, this remarkable member of the hominid family has been facing a dramatic decline in numbers.
Biologists purport that circa 12, 500 years ago, the orangutan could be spotted across most of North-East Asia, with populations spanning from the bottom of the Himalaya mountain range to the satellite islands of Indo-Malaysia thousands of miles across. Fast forward to the present, and what might have been swathes of biodiversity has now shrunken to two small subspecies: the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), confined to the Island of Sumatra, and the endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), inhabiting the Island of Borneo. How this dichotomy of two wild island populations came about is any evolutionist’s guess, but what is important to note is the fact that in 2004, only 54, 000 Bornean orangutans were accounted for next to a dismal 6, 500 Sumatran orangutans. Though these are only estimates, it is very evident that the Sumatran orangutan is disappearing fast; and if not for the good work of organisations such as the Orangutan Foundation and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), it might already have neared extinction.
Logging plays a large part in bringing about these devastating population numbers. Orangutans are dependent on the Dipterocarp tree species which make up much of their peat-swamp habitat and provide many of the fruits this dedicated fruit-lover feeds on. Unfortunately, Dipterocarp trees are also a large source of plywood and resins, thus invaluably crucial to the global timber trade. In tremendous masses, illegal loggers and wood manufactures are running rampant in these peat-swamp forests and robbing the orangutan not only of its home, but also food resources. And as if to further escalate the problem, what little land they do leave behind is continuously being torn down and burnt to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the lifeblood of the western world’s food and cosmetics industry and Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s major source of revenue. Because it is sold at obscenely cheap prices in comparison to other oils, the usage of palm oil for both culinary and cosmetic purposes has become globally widespread. Alas, these bargain palm oil prices come not only at the cost of underpaid Indo-Malaysian workers, but also the reckless slash-and-burn conversion of inestimable rainforests into palm oil plantations. How telling an indication it is that Indonesia, proud owner of 6 million hectares of said plantations, was in the Guinness Book of World Records 2008, declared to have “the fastest rate of deforestation”. Nothing too be proud of, I’d say, but then again, Indonesia is just another link in a chain of industrial exploitation and almost as much a victim as the orangutan.
Nevertheless, subtract the Machiavellian corporate mogul from the equation and you are still left with the substantial threat of hunting. It might sound like cannibalism to us, in light of our close evolutionary relationship, but there are indeed tribes in Africa and Asia were the consumption of primate meat is commonday. These “bushmeat” hunters bear considerable pressures on the existence of the orangutan and are continuously shearing away on its population. Glimpses of the orangutan near the homes of hunter tribes are rare and evolutionists speculate that certain orangutan subspecies might probably have been hunted to extinction. If not preyed upon by huntsmen, infant orangutans are also subject to the illegal pet trade, which puts them into the care of untrained and unsafe hands. Oftentimes, to get a hold of a baby orangutan, pet-traders resort to killing the mother — statistics say that about five orangutans are killed for every single infant put up on the market. Now, consider the fact that thousands of orangutan infants are being confiscated from criminal buyers and sellers every year….
The orangutan is a beautiful animal with a very broad capacity for near-human level of perception; why it has been pitted against such a wide assortment of ecological troubles, we will probably never know. What we do know is the fact every one of us bears responsibility for these troubles, in one way or another. Now, as conservationists scramble to save one of our closest relatives from extinction, the reality of it all sinks in. Our lifestyles are doing a lot of damage. Our fellow primate is soon to follow into the footsteps of the Dodo, if we don’t begin to take action soon. We can’t, under any circumstances, allow that to happen. I say, it is time for us to put our heads together and come up with a solution.