Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.

He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.

In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.

Source: wiki commons.

I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.

My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:

First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.

Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.

Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.

As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”

Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”

All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”

I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.

The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.

Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”

As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”

By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”

Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.

One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.

Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).

Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?

This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”

So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

Orangutans and the Great Ape Conservation Fund

Earlier this month, I wrote about Sandra, an orangutan at the Buenos Aires Zoo and a landmark ruling on animal rights. I am following up with more information about the natural history of orangutans and additional positive stories of the environment from which they directly benefit.

Orangutans can live 60 years or more. Their diet includes eggs, insects, leaves, wood, bark, stems, seeds, grains, nuts, fruit and flowers. All wild orangutans live in tropical rainforests, spending almost all of their time in the trees, where they build nests in which to sleep. Bornean orangutans live on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. Sumatran orangutans live on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, restricted entirely to its northern tip due to deforestation.

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

The Sumatran orangutan is almost exclusively arboreal. Females virtually never travel on the ground and adult males do so only rarely. By contrast, Bornean orangutans (especially adult males) will often descend to the ground. Both species depend on high-quality primary forests but Bornean orangutans appear better able to tolerate habitat disturbance.

Orangutans are seriously threatened by logging (both legal and illegal), wholesale conversion of forest to agricultural land and oil palm plantations, and habitat fragmentation created by the formation of logging roads. Orangutans are also illegally hunted and captured for the international pet trade but, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, this appears to be more a symptom of habitat conversion, as orangutans are killed as pests when they raid fruit crops at the forest edge.

Be of good heart. Orangutans have many champions. Here is one example.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Great Ape Conservation Act and since then Wildlife Without Borders, through the Great Ape Conservation Fund has helped in protecting the orangutan population on the island of Sumatra. This is done by increasing law enforcement to combat poaching and mitigating human-orangutan conflict.  Wildlife Without Borders is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation that works with partners worldwide to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, and maintain the integrity of ecological processes beyond our borders, for present and future generations.

In 2011, with a Congressional appropriation of $2.2 million and additional funding through the USAID/CARPE program, the Great Ape Conservation Fund awarded 51 grants totaling $3,869,265, which was matched by an additional $4,538,640 from partner organizations. The funds are used to support conservation efforts for several ape species throughout Africa and Asia and also to provide support to families of park rangers who gave their lives protecting apes. Funding also supports prevention and prosecution of poaching and other wildlife crimes.

In 2013, the USFWS awarded 30 new projects and two amendments to existing projects from the Great Ape Conservation Fund totaling totaled $2,081,120, which was matched by $3,161,108 in additional leveraged funds. Field projects in 17 range countries in Africa and Asia were awarded grants. Following is a description of some of the grants used specifically towards conservation of orangutans and orangutan habitat.

  • Reintroduction and monitoring orangutans in Kehje Sewen Forest, East Kalimantan.
  • Long-term home range patterns and the effect of habitat disturbance on Sumatran orangutans.
  • Reintroduction project for rehabilitant orangutans in West Kalimantan.
  • Protection of endangered ape populations in Sabangau, Central Kalimantan: An integrated conservation-research program in collaboration with local communities.
  • Bornean orangutan and forest habitat conservation through customary forests.
  • Increased environmental awareness and human-orangutan conflict mitigation.
  • Conservation of orangutans and critical habitats in Sabah.
  • Conservation of orangutans in the Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape (outside existing protected areas) in Sarawak.

Many other organizations are helping to protect habitat, which is the single most effective way to prevent extinction of orangutans, as this National Geographic video explains:

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/embedded/orangutan_kalimantan/src/

How can you be a champion for orangutans too?

It’s easy! Avoid use of products with palm oil or use only products with palm oil that was obtained from RSPO certified sustainable sources. You can find out how simple it is to do this by reading my other piece about orangutans, How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol.

 

 

How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol

This nearly mature male orang utan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at http://worldwildlife.org/photos/sumatran-orangutan--3 © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

This nearly mature male orangutan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at http://worldwildlife.org/photos/sumatran-orangutan–3
© Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

In my work as a nurse coach, I often explain to my patients the finer nuances of blood cholesterol laboratory results and how changes in nutrition can improve their numbers.  One type of cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), is otherwise known as “the bad cholesterol” because it is the type of cholesterol most responsible for causing blocked arteries.  Blocked arteries increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.  Eating foods that are high in saturated fats, such as palm oil, significantly increases these risks because doing so raises LDL levels in the blood.  I liken it to pouring grease down the kitchen sink.  Eventually, the pipes are going to become clogged unless some action is taken to break up and eliminate the ever mounting accumulation of sticky goo.

Given this well established wisdom regarding palm oil’s negative effects on health, a logical expectation would be for a decreasing demand for palm oil.  Instead, demand has increased significantly.  From 2005-2012, the United States Department of Agriculture reported production and importation of palm oil had doubled.  In 2012, importation of palm oil to the U.S. was 2.7 billion pounds.  This is approximately 380 million gallons.  To give you perspective, that is 500 Olympic sized pools or more volume than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico by BP Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

In addition to being a food additive, palm oil is used in personal care products (shampoo, lipstick), detergents, and has increasing use as biofuel.  By 2006, palm oil represented 65 percent of oil traded internationally.  Consumption of palm oil is expected to double again by 2020.

Why are we using so much palm oil?  Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperature and one of the world’s most versatile raw materials.  Oil palms are highly efficient oil producers, with each fruit containing about 50% oil. Palm oil is obtained from both the fruit flesh and kernel of the oil palm tree.  Oil palms can grow 66 feet tall with leaves up to 15 feet long. They bear clusters of fruit all year long, with each fully matured cluster weighing up to 110 pounds. This efficiency leads to land requirements that are ten times less than other oil-producing crops.

Historically, palm oil production has come at a great price to the environment, with a particularly negative impact on orangutan habitat. In 1900, there were around 315,000 orangutans. Today, fewer than 50,000 exist in the wild.  Scientists say the palm oil industry is the biggest threat to orangutans, with the potential for orangutans to be extinct in the wild within 12 years.  But there is more to the story.  I like to believe this is an emerging positive story of the environment.

There is growing movement towards sustainable palm oil production.  Certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) and palm kernel oil (CSPKO) is produced by palm oil plantations which have been independently audited and found to comply with the globally agreed environmental standards devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO was founded in 2003 and is the world’s leading initiative on sustainable palm oil. The principal objective of RSPO is “to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through cooperation within the supply chain and open dialogue between its stakeholders.” Forty percent of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO.  Members and participants include oil palm growers, manufacturers and retailers of palm oil products, environmental non-governmental organizations, and social non-governmental organizations.  For a list of members and other details, you may visit http://www.rspo.org/.  The following brief video summarizes the history and development of sustainable palm oil production and the RSPO.

Of course, the single most effective way to prevent the extinction of orangutans is to protect their habitat through decreased demand for palm oil products.  For humans, that would include decreased consumption of food-like products that elevate LDL.  There are several smart phone applications developed by zoos to help you determine which products are RSPO certified and/or palm oil free.  The app developed by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Android) provides a searchable list by product brand name and advises if the manufacturer utilizes RSPO certified palm oil providers.  The El Paso Zoo (Android) app utilizes a bar code scanner function to check items which are in their database and only advises if the product has palm oil, regardless of source certification.  Here is the link to the El Paso Zoo iPhone app version.  The El Paso Zoo app is the better choice if you wish to avoid palm oil entirely.

There is room for everyone on this planet.  We do not have to choose between anything except how to be smarter and more humane in the equitable development and distribution of resources.  A world with more orangutans AND healthier human hearts is one example of an ideal outcome and what this nurse coach considers to be a win-win scenario.

For more information about orangutans, please visit the factsheet provided by the World Wildlife Fund http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/orangutan_factsheet2006.pdf