In a quick little, but important news item that caught my eye, it seems that 20,000 orangutans were killed/poached or removed from their natural habitats in Indonesia over the last 10 years, all illegally, without one prosecution. According to the article, fewer than 50,000 of the endangered animals remain (of the Bornean variety, only 7,300 of the Sumatran orangutans).
International trade in orangutans is forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and orangutans are protected in Indonesia, where it is illegal to kill, capture, transport or even injure one of the rare apes.
And yet, the killings continue. “The problem is, the law is never enforced, largely because the Ministry of Forestry has never shown any interest in serious wildlife or habitat protection,” says Sean Whyte, director of Nature Alert.
As to why so many orangutans have been killed, it basically boils down to one word: greed. It’s not the orangutans themselves that have commercial value. Rather, it’s the land that they live on, which is being burned down to make room for massive (and often illegal) palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods. Around 90 percent of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Processed foods? Well, that’s o.k., right? Not exactly. It doesn’t look like processed foods are healthy for you either, but that’s a different story.
What about the palm oil plantations? From the Scientific American article:
The palm oil plantations are “miles and miles long,” he says. To make matters worse, “it’s a monocrop that destroys the soil. When satellite imagery is taken of the region, you see scorched earth where the forests have been destroyed.”
Hardi Baktiantoro, director of the COP [Center for Orangutan Protection, puts that into context, with the following prepared statement: "The palm oil industry must be one of the worst, maybe even the worst, environmentally damaging industries in the world."
Granted, I'd like to see some numbers that support Baktiantoro's claim, but I suspect he is not far off. So, orangutans are destroyed to plant an environmentally damaging crop, largely to make foods that are likely not healthy for us. This doesn't sound like a winning situation to me. Granted, there are probably people whose livelihoods may depend on the plantations, but with work, environmentally safer work could be found or created.
In the meantime, how can you help? As the article suggests, check the ingredients on the food you buy and stay away from palm oil. Cadbury's has already promised to remove palm oil from their chocolate due to consumer pressure from Europe. We here in the U.S. can have certainly have an impact if we put our minds to it. The orangutans will thank you. That is, I'm sure they would if they could track you down and, well, speak.