The Orangutan is one of our closest and most enigmatic relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA.
Their name is derived from the Malaysian words orang hutan, which means the person of the forest.
According to recent research, orangutans are the world’s most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities.
They have been documented to use tools like chimpanzees, but also have been found capable of other tasks beyond chimpanzees’ abilities such as using leaves to make rain hats and leak proof roofs over their sleeping nests.
But there are still many questions about their intelligence and social behaviour that will probably remain unanswered.
It is now clear that if their habitat continues to be destroyed at the current rate, they will be extinct in 5 to 8 years.
There are only an estimated 50,000 orangutans left in the wild, 90 % of them are in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia. Most live in small, scattered populations that cannot take the destruction on the forests much longer. Trees are being cut at a rate of 300 football fields every day. The majority of the cleared forest is being converted into huge oil palm plantations.
Palm oil is currently considered the most productive source of biodiesel fuel, and Indonesia and Malaysia account for 83 % of its global production.
A United Nations report has found that “illegal logging and fires have been overtaken as the primary cause of deforestation by a huge expansion of oil palm plantations, which are racing to meet the increasing demand from western food manufacturers and the European Union’s increased demand for biofuels.”
But several new studies show that the biodiesel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its supporters intended: it’s dramatically accelerating global warming instead of saving us from it.
The basic problem with most biofuels is very simple: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests that store enormous amounts of carbon. Indonesia has burned so much forest to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world’s top carbon emitters.
The studies which favored biofuels did not take into consideration whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if they assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots.
One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline.
But while the western world drives their cars fueled by biodiesel from palm oil, more than 5.000 orangutans die every year.
Dr. Galdikas, a pioneer in Orangutan conservation (the Jane Goodall of Orangutans but not as famous) runs a rehabilitation center with more than 300 animals orphaned when their mothers were killed by palm oil plantation workers.
In a recent article she explains that “Many come in very badly wounded, suffering from malnutrition, psychological and emotional and even physical trauma”. After years of being cared for in the center, they introduce them back to the wild, but she explains that “it is getting harder and harder to find good, safe forest in which to free them”.
Friends of the Earth state in their report “Oil for Ape” that “Destructive oil-palm plantations will continue to spread, and the forests of Borneo and Sumatra will continue to be destroyed, unless the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia recognize the customary land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities”.
The Indonesian government took the indigenous land and is now selling it to the Palm Oil corporations. They are both making more money than they could ever imagine.
Don’t be fooled by this fuel; biofuels are not clean energy. Not only do they contribute to carbon emissions by replacing forests, but also kill thousands of animals by destroying their habitat, and the Orangutans have very little time left.
Check out these videos and organizations to learn more about them and about what you can do:
UN : “The last stand of the Orangutan” (PDF)