Though we share 97 per cent of our DNA with the imperiled species, we are nowhere like them. Today, orangutans have only humans to blame for having just a decade left on this planet. Purva Variyar enumerates how the palm oil industry, man’s apathetic attitude towards Indonesia's rainforests and orangutans own biology is spelling doom for the Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.
Their last common ancestor existed about 14 million years ago. Then the phylogenetic tree arm split and they continued to evolve as two different species till one day, one of them threatened the other’s very existence on this planet. One learnt to occupy and thrive in its ecological niche, played by the rules of the jungles, co-existing and becoming one with ecosystem; and became an important contributor to the healthy functioning of its ecosystem. On the other hand, the ‘anti’-cousins were hardly able to strike a chord with nature and sustain. One is leaving a not-so-great legacy behind. The other, a truly great species, is on the brink of extinction. These are the two great apes - Orangutan and Man. Though we share 97% of our DNA with the imperiled species, we are nowhere like them. What a long way to this crossroads we have come. Today, orangutans have humans to blame for only a decade left on this planet.
UNDERSTANDING THE TRAGEDY
Let us understand how most of us are inadvertently playing a major role in the massacre of the orangutans. In two words – Palm oil.
Palm oil, you should know, has become increasingly pervasive in our lives through the thousands of manufactured consumer products that it is an ingredient of , most used on a daily basis by us such as food products, cosmetics, detergents, fuel, etc. You wouldn’t even realize that these products contained palm oil even if you checked the given list of ingredients, as most companies, use alias terms such as ‘vegetable oils and fats’ or complex chemical terms such as ‘steareth 2’ or ‘Glyceryl Stearate’ among several other scientific names, possibly to withhold the fact about the presence of the controversial palm oil. Giant conglomerates like Pepsico, Kelloggs and Unilever to name a few are guilty of exacerbating the produce and demand of palm oil by using them in their products. More recently, Greenpeace came out with the disturbing news about HSBC bank funding some of the most destructive palm oil companies with millions of dollars leading to massive destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests, the last refuge of the orangutans. There is a staggering surge in the demand for these products in just the past few years. In 2012 alone, around 50 million metric tonnes of palm oil was produced globally. Today, palm oil is the most popular choice as vegetable oil. More so from the producers’ point of view – the very cheap process of converting raw product to a refined one and also the fact that this plant presents one of the highest yields among oil-source plants. But there is a catch. Oil palms, native to West Africa and South America, need tropical climate and plenty of water to grow. And the vast, virgin rainforests of Borneo, Sumatra, Papua New Guinea, Kenya provide a perfect clime for growing oil palms. The palm oil conglomerates the world over, took to this highly profiting exercise of clearing thousands and thousands of hectares of these biodiversity rich forests to make space for the palm oil monocultures. And once that started, there was no stopping them. Today, palm oil brings about 11% or even more of Indonesia’s total export earnings. But at what cost? At the cost of about 307,000 sq km of Indonesia’s forests which is more than the total land area of the United Kingdom! In just a little more than two decades Indonesia has lost millions of acres of forests.
You must know that the islands of Borneo and Sumatra comprise the most biodiverse ecosystems known as peatlands. Peats are nothing but decaying vegetation that pile up over thousands of years, creating a water-saturated and oxygen-deprived thick mixture as a result of accumulated vegetation. Highly rich in CO2, these unique peatland ecosystems are highly valuable carbon sinks. When peatlands and carbon-rich forests are slashed and burnt (most widely adopted method for clearing forests quickly and on a large scale) to clear the areas for palm oil plantations, copious amount of sequestered carbon is released into the atmosphere, and is one of the major contributors to global warming. As recently as 2015, the indiscriminate burning of forests by the plantation workers, led to one of the world’s worst environmental disasters of this century, when the delayed rains failed to extinguish the massive fires leading to over a 100,000 forest fires raging through Indonesia over the span of 2-3 months. Thousands of acres of forests were lost to these fires, millions of tons of CO2 was added to the atmosphere and critical wildlife habitats were lost.
But, unfortunately, deforestation for palm oil, despite being the biggest contributing factor to the decimation of orangutans and several other endemic species on the islands, isn’t the only one. Apart from palm oil plantations, the forest is mercilessly logged and converted into monoculture plantations for paper and pulp on a massive scale too. Illegal wildlife trade is also hugely responsible. Baby orangutans are captured and illegally traded as pets in a thriving black market. The more I dug into the details of this pet trade, the chillier the details got. Mother orangutans are fiercely protective of their infants, and when people try to snatch their young ones from them, they naturally resist to the point that the only way is to kill them in order to acquire the babies. Statistics gruesomely suggest that four to five orangutans have to die for one baby to be acquired for the market. Killing of orangutans is also rampant either for food, as agricultural pests or simply for their body parts or young ones that can be sold for money.
World renowned expert on orangutans, a scientist, anthropologist and conservationist Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas explains, "Orangutans are semi-solitary, long-lived, slowly reproducing great apes who can probably live up to 60 - 70 years in the wild. The clearing of forests in Borneo and Sumatra for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations is pushing wild orangutan populations towards extinction. Global climate change is exacerbating the situation for the worse as forest fruiting cycles on which frugivorous wild orangutan populations depend for their survival become more unpredictable and even less frequent.”
“Biologically viable wild orangutan populations are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Soon those populations will be gone and what will be left are a few lone aged individuals wandering the diminishing forests of Borneo and Sumatra, wondering where the other members of their species have gone. Eventually these long-lived individuals will die or be killed and orangutan species in the wild will die with them," predicts Dr. Galdikas.
As the human population continues to exponentially rise in Indonesia and Malaysia, more and more forest land is usurped to convert it to agricultural lands or simply for human settlements. This is causing increased human-wildlife conflict. Orangutans often are the victims of these conflicts.
But that isn’t the only problem. It is the flawed human attitudes as well. The ever-greedy industrialists, rampant corruption in Indonesia and Malaysia, government apathy, mismanagement of natural resources are all spelling doom for the flora and fauna of these, one of the most biodiversity-rich islands in the world.
ORANGUTANS AND REPRODUCTIVE RATE
About a thousand orangutans are believed to be killed each year. This is, by virtue of several indicators, an understatement. As per the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), over 1,500 orangutans were beaten to death in 2006 alone, by the workers on the palm oil, paper, pulp and rubber plantations, where originally stood their wild habitat.
Just last year in 2016, Bornean orangutans joined the ranks of their cousins Sumatran orangutans when they were declared Critically Endangered by the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. So dire is the situation that experts give orangutans only ten more years before they go extinct if the destructive human activities continue unabated.
Once upon a time, these great apes of Asia had a much wider range across Southeast Asia, north till Southern China and down south till the Javan island of Indonesia and had numbered well over 200,000 only a century ago. Today, they are restricted to pockets in the Sumatra and Borneo islands. Sumatran orangutan population suffered a more severe and a quicker blow, reason being they are more sensitive to human disturbances. They were declared critically endangered in 2008 with their numbers having dwindled by 60 per cent to a mere 6,000 individuals. Inevitably, the Bornean orangutans too are catching up. They have lost of 55 percent of their habitat in the last two decades, and their numbers have fallen by more than 50 per cent in just the last 60 years. The Bornean orangutans are now largely restricted to the Kalimantan region of the Bornean island in Indonesia.
It is important to understand why the orangutan populations are so severely affected and unable to recover. There is an important biological factor at play here. Their reproductive rate.Orangutans have an average life spans of 50 years in the wild. The females only sexually mature around the time they are 10-15 years old. And after that, they reproduce only once every 4-5 years. And this time gap could be extended to even 10 in several females. Also, they birth only one progeny at a time, at the most two in rarer case of twins.
So on doing the math, we get, 10-15 years taken to attain sexual maturity + 5-10 years of birthing intervals + 1 to 2 progeny born at a time to a female = very low reproductive rate.
Thus, the slow-breeding orangutans are not able to keep up with the rapid decline rates of their populations. They require a lot of time to recover. And we just aren’t giving them that kind of time.
Photo: Eric Kilby/Public Domain.
WHY THE ECOSYSTEM NEEDS ORANGUTANS
Everything is connected in nature. And intricately so. Just as orangutans need trees to survive, the trees, especially fruit-bearing ones need orangutans to disperse their seeds far and wide by either the process of consumption and defecation in which the seeds pass through their digestive tracts, or by means of manually dropping or throwing away the seeds. This is crucial in maintaining forest ecology and regeneration. More than half of an orangutan’s diet includes fruits, and remainder is made up of leaves, shoots, barks, small vertebrates and insects. They are then rightly called the ‘gardeners of the forests’. By breaking off branches, twigs and leaves every night to build sleeping nests, they let sunlight seep through, deeper into the forest, helping ground and understory vegetation to thrive.
They play a very significant role from conservation point of view as well. To save orangutans, we need to save their habitats, thereby conserving other animals the species shares its forest with namely – tigers, elephants and rhinos and all other creatures great and small. But, they are struggling to survive. At the precipice of extinction, the conservation and protection measures to save the orangutans and their habitats will have to be heightened. Otherwise, the way we are carrying on with our business-as-usual, the hopes of saving Asia’s only great ape are dismal and extinction inevitable. And extinction is forever. Orangutans are bleeding. Their forests are bleeding. I bled too, writing this.
KNOW THE SPECIES
* Orangutans are Asia’s only species of great apes.
* There are two species of orangutans – Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii). The two species are believed to have phylogenetically split about 400,000 years ago, but, have been separated geographically for about 8,000 years owing to the rise in sea levels and resulting isolation of islands.
* The two species differ from each other slightly in appearance as well as behavior. Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair and narrower face structure. Also, they are known to have tighter social bonds than the Borneans.
* Adult male orangutans are of two different types – flanged and unflanged. The flanged males sport larger and more distinctive cheek pads known as flanges. They also have a prominent throat sac which helps them generate more powerful vocalizations. They also have a distinctive dark hair on the back. Unflanged males can transform into flanged individuals. We still don’t know the exact reasons for this.
Author: Purva Variyar.
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