Monday, March 25, 2013

Killing our cousins: The plight of the orangutan

A baby’s cries penetrate the air as the mob surges forward to continue its attack. The focus of attention is the baby’s mother, an adult orangutan, whose lifeless body the infant is desperately clutching.

Earlier, the mother orangutan had fought bravely to protect her infant while sustaining savage beatings with sticks and rocks, despite the tight ropes encircling her limbs. Finally, she was thrust head-down into a pool of water, to be wrenched out only after losing consciousness.

Now thrown into a makeshift pen, the mother slumps forward as her baby grasps her rust-coloured fur and cries out in panic.

Many local residents were incensed that the mother orangutan had entered the village to scavenge for fruit. But like increasing numbers of her fellow species, her ever-shrinking habitat had presented little other choice.

Shockingly this brutal event in Borneo, culminating in the courageous mother’s death, is not an isolated incident.

In the line of fire

Approximately 5,000 orangutans perish each year as a consequence of forest destruction, hunting, and the illegal pet trade. A mere decade could see one of our closest living relatives wiped off the face of the Earth.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, the expansion of the palm oil trade and prevalence of legal and illegal logging have eroded enormous forested areas, leaving orangutans residing within fragmented and shrinking pockets of vulnerable rainforest.

78% of forests inhabited by orangutans in Borneo are unprotected, with a large proportion made up of logging concessions or slated for conversion to palm oil and timber plantations. The insatiable economic interests of these industries and the livelihoods of wildlife such as the orangutan are intrinsically incompatible.

Escalating encroachment onto orangutan habitat is not only having a devastating impact on the species, but has seen an unprecedented level of violence perpetrated against individual orangutans.

The palm oil industry considers the endangered primates a hindrance to production, and some companies have employed ruthless measures to destroy them – even going to the extent of bankrolling their extermination.

Disturbingly, monetary incentives have been offered to bounty hunters to seek out and kill orangutans. Last year it was reported that a Malaysian company was paying their workers one million Indonesian rupiah ($100 AUD) per dead orangutan. Mass graves of orangutans have also been discovered on palm oil plantation sites.

Captured orangutans are often viciously attacked and tortured to death.

Uncontrolled burning is also regularly employed by palm oil companies to rapidly clear land, placing orangutans in the line of fire. Burning of forest has a comprehensively damaging effect on the species: it shrinks their habitat, destroys their food sources, and often kills them directly.

An encounter

Eleven years ago I travelled to Malaysian Borneo to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary to indulge my fascination with primates.

The Sepilok centre aims to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans, and provides supplementary feeding to recently released orangutans within the forested reserve. At Labuk Bay, the quirky looking proboscis monkeys living in the vicinity are given supplementary provisions to strengthen their community in the face of dwindling wild food options.

In Borneo, the reality on the ground was confronting.

Peering out of the window during car trips on the island, I’d often perceive a sudden change in landscape. The view would come to be dominated by derelict tracts of land; what our guide explained were palm oil concessions.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Killing our cousins: The plight of the orangutan