Orangutans and the Problem with Palm Oil

Have you ever seen an orangutan before (and not in a zoo)? Not just ordinary monkeys, orangutans share almost 97% of their DNA with people. The only places in the world where you can find wild orangutans are in Sumatra, Indonesia and Borneo, which is an island shared by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Both Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are listed as “critically endangered.” In the past 10 years, wild orangutan populations have decreased by more than 50% in the wild – and this number is expected to sadly keep rising.

Perhaps you’ve seen this tragic video of an orangutan trying to fight off a bulldozer which is destroying its habitat?

After watching this video, I had a strong desire to learn more about the orangutan’s plight and visit Borneo this summer. So, I visited Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Borneo. This is an amazing sanctuary that works with orphaned orangutans and prepares them for release into the wild when they can fend on their own.

Although visitors can’t see the babies (all orangutans are immensely susceptible to human diseases, especially the babies!) visitors can watch the “toddlers” practice tree climbing through a glass enclosure. A young orangutan is given a “buddy” who is slightly older to pair up with to learn how to find food, climb trees, and generally learn how to survive.

Some were unable or unaware of how to collect food, so the staff, wearing masks and gloves, held their hands and walked with them (like children!) and assisted them during feeding time. It was so cute to watch the orangutans grab their food and sit in the shade and chow down. Their mannerisms and movements are so similar to our own.

On the feeding platform in the middle of the rainforest, twice a day, the staff put out fruits and veggies. This platform attracts macaques, squirrels, and if you’re lucky – an orangutan! This platform was put in place to support the orangutans that were recently released into the wild and may have difficultly fending for themselves. The staff says that there’s no guarantee of seeing an orangutan during the feeding times. In fact, they say it’s a good thing if visitors don’t see any because it means the orangutans have become fully independent and are able to fend for themselves in the wild. I saw 2 orangutans when I visited. You could see the trees moving before you saw them – and when they did glide down, it was mesmerizing to watch them climb from rope to branch.

The macaques were quite vicious however, and one orangutan was unable to grab any food for awhile. The staff says that this is quite normal and good training for orangutans on how to protect themselves in the wild.

This centre obviously cares for orangutans. Before you visit the feeding platform, you can watch a video that explains how the charity was founded and showcases all the great work that they do. The video highlighted how the sanctuary shows the creatures “tough love” by helping them only when absolutely necessary, and encouraging them to become independent. I remember the video highlighting a particular young orangutan that hated the rain and was having a hissy fit because it was left outside while it was raining! Staff watched as it paced back and worth, clearly annoyed, but they knew this was necessary for its growth and survival.

The thing that we should all be focusing on is WHY are orangutans so critically endangered? Although logging/timber, hunting, and rubber plantations all play a role, the big perpetrator is PALM OIL.

As you may already know, palm oil is in almost everything, such as cosmetics, toiletries, and food products. In fact, the demand for palm oil has increased massively in the past 25 years, with humans consuming more than 6 times the amount of palm oil than we did in the past.

Palm oil has vitamins and antioxidant properties, but is high in saturated fat. Companies like Earth Balance use sustainable palm oil in their products, but most companies do not. Unsustainable palm oil can lead to species extinction (not just orangutans!), pollution, and loss of habitat and ecosystems. In Borneo and Sumatra, large chunks of the rainforest are currently being cut down at an alarming rate to grow this monocrop. Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree and is used on almost half the items in our supermarkets. In the world today, the surface area of palm oil plantations could cover the entire country of Brazil. Palm oil can also be listed as dozens of other names, the most popular being palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil, palminate, or sodium laureth sulphate. Even ingredients listed as vegetable fat and vegetable oil can contain palm oil.

So what’s the solution?

It’s not so easy. Palm oil production creates thousands of jobs in poor countries. Palm oil itself is more plentiful than oil procured from other sources, such as soy or sunflower. If we all boycotted palm oil tomorrow, we would just replace it with another monocrop, which would cause even more devastation and require even more land.

The best thing to do is reduce the amount of palm oil we consume, and buy products made from sustainable palm oil. Look for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label on products.

RSPO

When you go on holiday, spend your tourist dollars and engage in ecotourism in one of many of Borneo’s orangutan sanctuaries. Educate yourself on the plight of these beautiful creatures. You can even become a sponsor and “adopt” one.

As a teacher, it’s incredibly difficult for me to find affordable vegan candy for my students in Hong Kong. Most of the candy without dairy or eggs contains palm oil. In the past, I bought these “vegan” products without blinking an eye. Now, I’ll make the extra effort to buy candy that doesn’t impact these wonderful creatures. The image of the orangutan in the video fighting the bulldozer and protecting the last tree in its habitat is still etched in my mind.

To find out more about orangutans and how you can help, visit the following:

Orangutan Foundation International

https://orangutan.org

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

https://rspo.org

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

https://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/sepilok-orangutan-rehabilitation-centre

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