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The Last Stand of the Orangutan

Updated on March 15, 2016
GailLedford profile image

Gail is a 30 year old animal lover from Georgia who is passionate about wildlife and wild places.

Female Sumatran orangutan
Female Sumatran orangutan | Source
Adult Sumatran Male
Adult Sumatran Male | Source
Juvenile Borneon male. Male orangutans of both species generally do not start growing their cheekpads until they hit puberty which is at about 12-13 years of age.
Juvenile Borneon male. Male orangutans of both species generally do not start growing their cheekpads until they hit puberty which is at about 12-13 years of age. | Source

The Person of The Forest

It is heading towards nighttime in the Sumatran rainforest, hundreds of feet up in the trees. Suddenly, a small rustle is heard, a glimpse of reddish orange is scene. A it a person? It looks like a person. No, no human would be able to make the climb this high without some kind of help. In fact, it is not a person, but an orangutan, building a nest in a nearby tree and preparing to bed down for the night.

The orangutan's name comes from Malay and Bahasa Indonesian and means, "person of the forest". It is the only great ape that inhabits Asia (the other three species: gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos inhabit the continent of Africa), They are native to Indonesia and Malaysia and can only be found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. There are two different species of orangutans: the Sumatran orangutan from the island of Sumatra, and the Borneon orangutan, from the island of Borneo.

Quick Question: What's the difference between an ape and a monkey? The easiest way to distinguish between a monkey and an ape is to look for a tail. Apes do not have tails whereas monkeys do. Humans are apes too! In fact, we share over 90% of our DNA with them!

Males and Females: What is the difference?

Male and female orangutans look different from each other. Let's take a look at each of their stats:

Adult Males:

  • Average height standing up: About 4 1/2 feet. Their arms are longer than their legs. The span of a male orangutans arms can average up to about 8 feet from fingertip to fingertip.
  • Average weight: For adult males, it's about 200 -250+ lbs.

Adult Females:

  • Average height standing up: 3 1/2 feet.
  • Average weight: About half of the size of their male counterparts. They usually weigh in at about 100-150 lbs.

Their average lifespan in the wild is typically around 35-40 years but in captivity with good diet and exercise they have been known to live into their 50's.

Map of Malaysia (left) and Indonesia (right).

Borneon female with infant.
Borneon female with infant. | Source
Sumatran female with infant.
Sumatran female with infant. | Source

Motherly Love

Orangutan mothers and their offspring have the longest mother/baby relationship of any other animal on the planet besides humans, which means that orangutans have the second longest childhood next to humans. Orangutans need to know a great deal in order to be able to survive life in the rainforest, so their mothers have to invest a great deal of time in teaching them. Because orangutans are primarily solitary creatures, adult males prefer to live alone and have absolutely no involvement when it comes to parenting in the wild. The mother is the primary care provider and instrument of socialization. She teaches her young ones what food to eat, where the best places to find the food are, and even in what season. Because mothers have to put so much investment into their offspring, her children may stay with her for about 8-10 years. The males may leave their mothers when they are about 10 years old and head off on their own, but the females will often stay well into their teens, watching and maybe helping Mom raise the next infant so that they can learn the important maternal skills they will need to know in order to be good mothers to their own offspring. Because of this, a female orangutan may only give birth about every 6-7 years which leads to only about 4-5 infants in a lifetime. Because of this, orangutan population numbers are often slow to recover if there are any sort of disturbances in them.

Long Distance Calling: Orangutan Style

The most well known orangutan vocalization is called the long-call. Similar to a lion's roar, this type of vocalization is only performed by sexually mature males, lasts for about one to two minutes, and can carry for long distances if they are done in the right conditions. An adult male may potentially use this call to alert other males of his presence in the area as well as to advertise it to any potential females that might also be in the area who might be interested in mating. It has even been suggested that an adult male's cheekpads may serve as a sort of amplifier to help the male's long-call carry for even longer distances in much the same way a human person would cup their hands on either side of their mouths as they yelled. Adult males also have a large hollow air sac hanging from their throats called laryngeal chambers that may help the sound resonate. Further research has so far suggested that females may even arrange their ranging patterns depending on what direction they are hearing the long-calls from and can possibly distinguish between the long-calls of sexually mature males and non-sexually mature males.

Several other vocalizations include the kiss-squeak which is a short, and very sharp, sound that is used by both males and females as a way of displaying annoyance at a number of things including human observers, other orangutans, and predators. There is also a soft hooting sound that is made by the infants that they use to possibly express either annoyance or pleasure as well as what's called the rolling-call which both males and females use as a sort of intimidation tactic that consists of mostly low, gutteral noises.

Living The High Life: Life in the Treetops

Orangutans are built for life in the trees. In fact, they are the heaviest tree-dwelling mammal on the planet. Walking on the ground can be somewhat awkward for them and puts them at a great disadvantage so they rarely come down there. Many predators dwell on the ground (and that includes humans) as well. Basically, everything they need is up in the trees so there's no reason for them to come down to the ground. If you visit a zoo and see orangutans there, it is possible that you will see them on the ground. However, orangutans that live in zoos have no predators after them and therefore have nothing to worry about (and they know it). In fact, they are the heaviest tree-dwelling mammal on the planet.

Don't Palm Them Off: Palm Oil and The Orangutans' Last Stand

The hair care products in your bathroom, the peanut butter you spread on your kids' sandwiches, the dog biscuit you just gave your dog for, "being such a good boy". They all have one thing in common: they're putting orangutans in danger. But why? They all contain palm oil.

What is palm oil?

  • Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that is harvested from the fruit of the African oil palm.
  • African oil palms originated in West Africa, but grows extremely well wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. The majority of the world's palm oil is grown in Sumatra and Borneo, however it has been expanding more and more into Africa and South America.
  • Palm oil plantations are NOT part of the rainforest. They are an introduced agricultural crop.
  • Palm oil is found in many products. When you look for it on product labels you may see the name palm oil, but it may also be listed under other names such as palm kernal oil or palmitate. In fact, there are about fifty different names for palm oil that could be found in product labels.

Palm oil is the most widely produced vegetable oil. In addition to being used in food in cosmetic products, it is also being used as a fuel alternative. Millions of acres of rainforest are cut down every year to make room for more palm oil plantations. After logging rainforest habitat, palm oil companies use uncontrolled burning to clear the land or peat swamp. Peat swamps hold HUGE amounts of Carbon underneath them and once they are gone, the carbon is released into the atmosphere, poisoning our planet. Instead of using already cleared land, companies prefer to go in and cut down healthy rainforest. They gain added profits from the timber and they can ignore regulations that plantations who are trying to be sustainable have to abide by. Estimates show, that if this practice of unstainability continues, Orangutans as well as many other species that share their home, could go extinct in as little as 20-30 years.

So why don't we just boycott it? Because palm oil is an extremely productive crop and the countries that produce it rely heavily on it as part of their economy. Without it, many people would be out of jobs. Also, there will always be a demand for an edible oil. If we do away with palm oil, another kind of oil will just take its place. Not to mention that palm oil has many name derivatives which makes it hard for people to find out whether there is actually palm oil in the products they are purchasing to begin with.

It's Not Just a Wildlife Problem....It's a People Problem Too.

The establishment of palm oil plantations is often touted as a way to bring more development and employment to the poor, rural regions of Borneo and Sumatra. Unfortunately, the reality is that the industry often has devastating effects. The governments' interests all to often lead them to allow corporations to come in and take land from indigenous peoples for their own financial benefit. The industry has also often been linked to several human rights violations such as child labor in the remote areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. Children are forced to carry large loads of the fruit, weed fields, and work for hours picking up the fruit up off of the plantation floor. Heat exhaustion, cuts, bruises, and more are commonplace due to the poor working conditions and the children are often given little to no pay for their efforts.

With the companies coming in and clearing more and more land to make room for plantations, local people often find themselves with no other choice but to become plantation workers. There are often poor working conditions, and the people working the plantations barely make enough to feed their families. Instead of being able to sustain themselves, indigenous communities become dependent on the palm oil industry's success for their income, leaving communities incredibly vulnerable to the world price of palm oil which they have no control over.

The national population consists of about 242 million people and 30-40 million of those identify as indigenous people which makes up about 1/6 of the entire Indonesian population. 27% of the population that depends on the forest for their livelihood are directly effected by the impacts of the palm oil industry. Oftentimes the corporations come in and the people have no say in the land sales and therefore have no idea that their land has been sold off. More often than not the only notification they get is when the loggers come in and begin clearing the forest.

There have been some documented cases of people benefiting from the palm oil industry in Indonesia, but these cases are far less common. This can lead to problems with local villages who sold their land to the industry. This is the case with many small scale farmers, but more often than not it is a case when village leaders sell of the lands of their entire village to receive a monetary compensation. This leads to villagers having their land sold off with nothing to say for the deal.


A Long Way to Go

The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 as a response to all of the negative attention that the palm oil industry was receiving. It was created by producers, civil society, governments, and buyers to address these impacts. It is supposed to consist of comprehensive production standards and certification system to prevent them. It is made up of 558 members with 1/3 of these members representing those from consumer goods manufacturing but only 17% of them representing producers of the oil.

The Good News: The RSPO is currently the best sustainability and social impact standard that exists right now around the palm oil industry. Also,stakeholders that have implemented RSPO standards have found it to be very beneficial in the long run. Lastly, because the RSPO is multi-stakeholder it is involved in every aspect of the production from the growers through to retailers and buyers, and then on to civil society and NGOs at the end of the line.

The Bad News: One of the standard's main criticisms, is that it still allows for the planting of palm oil on peatlands and cleared secondary forests. This is of great concern because peatlands play in storing the world's carbon which is an ecosystem good that is completely lost following the destruction of peatlands. In the peatlands, huge amounts of carbon are stored underground. When the peatlands are cleared and destroyed, this allows for those huge amounts to be released into the atmosphere, which can be poisonous for both people and wildlife. In addition, the standard is often regarded as being weak and a result of the multi-stakeholder dynamic of the organization. Many varying views and opinions must be considered before any decisions are made by the RSPO, which has meant that there has been very little change in the last 10 years. This drastically slows down the pace of any potential progress that could be made because the RSPO runs by consensus which means that the bar has to be set fairly low in order for everyone to come together and agree on something. While this process continues on slowly as the more and more rainforests are being cut down at alarmingly increasing speeds, it is vital for this process to be based around multi-stakeholder consensus decision to allow everyone to agree on a single vision.

Some people say that the RSPO is nothing but a greenwashing scheme. Greenwashing is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's aims and policies are environmentally friendly when they are actually not. This is an example of how a business manages to greenwash something:

1.) They start off by acknowledging the problem so that those that are educated cannot accuse them of not knowing.

2.) Then they take the smallest thing they have done to fix the issue and try to turn it into a big deal as if they have fixed the entire problem by doing this one thing.

3.) Then, they try to give themselves an even better image by putting some kind of feel good story out there about things they are supposedly doing to help their local communities and by the time the person asking is done reading, they have almost forgotten why they tried to contact the business in the first place.

In order for a product to truly be considered eco-friendly or sustainable their needs to be actual trace-ability which means that they can actually show and count exactly how many ways their products are good. If a company tries to buy into sustainable palm oil for only one of their products, but not in others, and then try to make the entire product range look good, that is essentially greenwashing and greenwashing is unacceptable. Companies who use palm oil in their products, along with those that are responsible for the destroying of the rainforests to make room for the plantations and causing numerous problems for both the people that live there and our entire planet need to be held accountable for their actions

In conclusion, we have a long way to go, but that is not to say that it cannot be done. If everyone became more aware of the ingredients that are going into their products and were to educate themselves about the irresponsible practices that go into producing those ingredients we would be in a much better place. Sustainable production can be done! In fact it IS being done, but the practice needs to become more widespread than what is now if it is going to have any sort of impact. The orangutans and the other species of wildlife that share their home cannot stand up for themselves and so it is up to us to stand up for them, and the indigenous people who live there alongside them CAN stand, but they cannot stand up alone.

Stand up for the wildlife, stand with the people....make a stand for the entire planet. Because if we don't, there won't be anything left to stand for.


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