In 2017 we were lucky enough to be able to fulfill one of my bucket list experiences: visiting the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, Malaysian Borneo. I had seen documentaries about the centre as a child, and had always dreamed of visiting. It ended up being even more amazing than I could ever have expected, and you can read about our magical trip filled with orangutans here.
But since visiting Borneo, and having the privilege of seeing orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and so many more beautiful creatures of the rain forest in their natural, wild habitat, I have wanted to do more. Here is what I have found out about helping these amazing creatures and the people that care for them.
Orangutans? Like, monkeys?
Orangutans are not in fact monkeys, but part of the great apes, just like us. The word ‘orangutan’ means ‘person of the forest’, and there are 2 types: Bornean and Sumatran. These semi-solitary creatures are the largest tree dwelling mammals, and they, like humans, have a gestation period of 9 months. However, they only give birth every 8 or so years, which makes their plight even more dire.
The main threats to orangutans are human population pressure, forest fires, mining, deforestation, and poaching or illegal trafficking. It is believed that around 50 000 orangutans on Borneo and Sumatra have died due to palm oil deforestation alone. Currently the Bornean Orangutan is endangered, whilst the Sumatran Orangutan is critically endangered, with only around 7500 animals left in the wild.
What’s the Problem with Palm Oil?
Palm oil is an insanely popular ingredient. In fact, without realising it, you are probably consuming multiple products containing palm oil each and every single day. Big brands such as Cadbury, Heinz, Kellogs, Knorr, Lipton, McDonalds, and Nutella all use palm oil in their products. This is a tiny example, however, and if you google palm oil you will find endless examples of the hundreds of products that contain the substance.
The problem is that palm oil plantations are situated on land that used to be precious rain forest, areas that are home to the greatest biodiversity on the planet. The main method of clearing rain forest? Slash and burn. Cheap. Quick. Devastating. It is estimated that 3.5 million hectares of rain forest have been lost in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea alone.
Why should I care about the rainforest?
Why should you care about any part of our planet? It’s estimated that the rain forest is home to between 3 and 50 million species. Tropical rain forests cover less than 2 percent of the planet, and yet they are home to more than 50 percent of the animals and plants on earth. With massive tracts of land being deforested, greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere grow, adding to our climate change woes.
If those statistics don’t do it for you, and if you don’t particularly care about animal rights, well this industry is hurting people too. Often, palm oil manufacturers claim that the industry is providing jobs for indigenous people in the area that have previously lived in poverty. This is propaganda.
Sure, palm oil plantations need workers. But who is in charge of palm oil farming and production? Massive corporations. These are not companies that are supporting local people. These are companies that are benefiting directly from the exploitation of indigenous people.
The Penan people of Sarawak, for example, are facing the potential of losing their land because the government does not recognize indigenous claims, instead declaring the land ‘mostly under-utilized and without titles’. This land is sold off to palm oil corporations, leaving the government richer and the people homeless.
Child labour is also rife, and with the disappearance of the land that locals have relied on, many are forced to work in deplorable conditions on plantations that have little regard for safety or fair remuneration. You can read more about the plight of local people at Say No To Palm Oil, and Survival International.
I’m not a conservationist, what can I do?
Actually there is a ton you can do, and you don’t even have to quit your job and chain yourself to a tree to get it done.
Firstly, you can fight with your wallet. Seriously, hit the big corporations where it hurts: their profits. Choose to be palm oil free. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of products with palm oil here. You can also check the ingredients label of your food and cosmetics before you buy.
But beware! Palm oil isn’t always labeled as such. You might be looking for words such as ‘octyl palmitate’, or ‘palmytil alcohol’, or any ingredient name that has ‘palm’ in it. It may not always be clear, so be aware and get thee to google when in doubt!
There is also a movement towards sustainable palm oil. This is farmed in an ethical and responsible manner, both socially and environmentally. You’re going to want to look for the RSPO logo, shown below for these products. You can also look for the Green Palm logo, which designates that buying the product donates to a fund that supports farmers in transitioning to a more sustainable farming method. Go forth and snack with pride!
Supporting Orangutan Rehabilitation
Another amazing thing you can do is to donate to one of the many orangutan rehabilitation centres across Borneo. Each of these organisations is doing it’s utmost, not only to support orangutans, but also to be a support for local workers too.
As we had visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, we decided to donate to them through their orangutan adoption option.
This is Archie. I adopted him through Sepilok for a year. My money will go towards making sure Archie is healthy and happy, and supported in learning how to be a wild orangutan.
The adoption package is just too sweet, and includes photos of your baby, a finger puppet, carrier bag, your baby’s life story, and a CD with footage of them playing and learning. After 6 months you also receive an update on how they are doing. You can also choose to be more environmentally friendly and receive either or both packs by email.
It costs around $50 plus postage to adopt for a whole year, and I must say it is one of the coolest ways I have ever spent my money. Knowing that I could give up what’s essentially one coffee a month to make a real difference to a baby orangutan and an amazing organisation makes me really happy. You can click through to the Orangutan Appeal UK website that handles donations to Sepilok here.
Seeing orangutans in the wild was the closest thing to a spiritual experience I’ve ever had. There is something about their silent, calm presence that is utterly beautiful. The rain forest itself is an intense and busy place, with a ton of noise and humidity. In the middle of all of that are orangutans, people of the forest, ideally disturbed by nothing but the rain. Watching one settling beneath a large leaf to stay dry was like watching a human child waiting for a storm to pass so that play time could resume.
We are a part of this world and this nature, and I so hope we can stop pretending like we are not.
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