• Abi Gwynn

International Orangutan Day, 19th August 2018

Today, the 19th August 2018, is International Orangutan Day! So let's take a moment to celebrate the existence of these beautiful cousins and find out why it is more important than ever to do your bit to help them against their plight to extinction.

If you didn't know already, I have a little obsession for orangutans (along with all other great apes really). They have been the subject of my undergraduate research project and will continue to be for my masters. My interest and passion for this species stems from the cruel threats they face, namely the loss of their forest home for palm oil plantations. This is an issue that we in the west are exasperating by buying convenience foods stuffed with palm oil, but it is our poor orange cousins who are suffering for it. This makes me extremely passionate for my research to contribute to the protection of the remaining orangutan populations.

But first, here are some quick fire facts about orangutans:

Orangutan ("Person of the Forest")

Species: Bornean orangutan, Sumatran orangutan, Tapanuli orangutan. Yes, there are actually 3 species of orangutan, and the most recent discovery, the Tapanuli orangutan, was only found in 2017! It is amazing scientists are still finding new species of great apes!

Range: Orangutans are found throughout the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The Tapanuli orangutan is an isolated population of only 800 individuals in the Batang Toru area of Sumatra.

Life History: Orangutans live for 30-40 years in the wild and are very slow-growing like humans. They have the longest birth interval of any mammal, only giving birth every 8 years as infants can be dependent on their mothers for this length of time to learn the necessary skills to survive on their own.

Lifestyle: Orangutans spend most of their time high in the trees of their tropical rainforest home. They have a varied diet, preferentially eating fruit, but will also consume leaves, bark, honey, eggs and insects in times of need.

Relation to humans: Humans and orangutans share 97% of the same DNA. Although they are not our closest ape relative (chimpanzees and bonobos are), we are strikingly similar.

Behaviour and Intelligence: Orangutans are extremely intelligent. They are able to imitate others (including humans) to learn new skills, mothers teach their offspring skills such as nest-building, they can innovate and use tools to solve complex problems, they have distinct cultural differences between different populations, use forest products to self-medicate and captive orangutans have learned to use sign-language, even to the point of deceiving their human caregivers!

This orangutan has learnt how to wash

All 3 species of orangutan are now classified as critically endangered. It is estimated there are only 60,000 individuals left in the wild. As I mentioned before, the greatest threat facing orangutans today is the destruction of their habitat to make way for palm oil plantations. But they also face the threat of deforestation by logging and mining, and hunting, forest fires and the pet trade have further contributed to their population decline.

**WARNING the following slideshow contains images some readers may find upsetting**

But this is the reality for orangutans...





Forests in Borneo and Sumatra are still being converted to palm oil plantations at unprecedented rates, all so we can enjoy our convenience foods such as biscuits, instant noodles, pizza and chocolate. You may be surprised to find out that palm oil is nearly certainly found in your soap, shampoo and lipstick too! But in cosmetics it is hidden using a scientific name Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

How You Can Help the Orangutan

You may be reading this and are now thinking "But how can I stop the deforestation of the rainforest for palm oil?" or "How can my actions make a difference?" Well, there's plenty you can do that will make a difference! Currently, the best action you can take to protect orangutans from palm oil plantations is not to boycott palm oil altogether, but to boycott unsustainable palm oil and support sustainable sources. This is because the oil palm is the most efficient oil-producing crop. So if palm oil was boycotted and thus replaced with another oil such as rapeseed or coconut, this would take up more land to produce the same amount of oil.

"How do I know the difference?" Sustainable palm oil is something to be proud of so producers tend to put this on their packaging! The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is the largest sustainable palm oil certifier and their logo should be present on packaging. If it says palm oil in the ingredient list and has no logo, then it is most likely unsustainable. However, you can check the company's policy on palm oil on their website if you are unsure.

You can also donate to projects working to protect and research orangutans. There are hundreds of people who dedicate their lives to orangutan survival such as the BOS Foundation, Orangutan Veterinary Aid, International Animal Rescue and many more. There are also many researchers trying to understand more about orangutans and how they deal with the adversities they are facing in order to better protect them in the future. My current project is to investigate how orangutans are being affected by forest fires in Borneo. Forest fires occurred on a catastrophic scale in 2015 and are happening again right now. I am working hard to raise enough money to carry out this research which will enable us to better understand how orangutans are coping with fires which are becoming ever more prevalent in SE Asia. If you are able to spare a couple of pounds or are feeling particularly generous today, I would greatly appreciate any donations. Follow the link to donate or find out more about the project on the 'Orangutan Research Project tab. https://exeter.hubbub.net/p/orangutansandfire/

So here's a list to sum up the things you can do to help orangutans on International Orangutan Day:

  • Check the ingredients on food and cosmetic items for palm oil. Avoid unsustainable options and support sustainable ones. It only takes a couple of seconds but you could be saving someone's life!

  • Donate to a orangutan conservation charity or research project such as my own! https://exeter.hubbub.net/p/orangutansandfire/

  • Spread the word with friends, family, work colleagues and neighbours!

  • Get tweeting, facebooking, #instagraming and 'whatever other social media platforms there are'-ing about orangutan conservation!

All of these actions you can take require very little time and not necessarily your money. But these actions will go a long way if many people get on board!

Let me know what you get up to for orangutan conservation by commenting on this blog! I'd love to hear from you!

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