post by by Melanie J. Martin, special to mongabay.com
Sumatran Orangutan in Gunung Leuser National Park. Photo by Rhett A. Butler in May 2010
The Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF) and other conservation NGOs are celebrating November 7-13, 2010 as Orangutan Caring Week. The theme this year is “Back to Green,” which, according to OURF, implies returning orangutans to the wild while becoming more ecologically conscious. Meanwhile, Orangutan Outreach and other NGOs recognize November 7-15 as Orangutan Awareness Week.
On November 10, says Orangutan Outreach, people around the world sported orange outfits in honor of the orange primates who share almost 97 percent of our DNA. Orangutan Outreach and OURF provide resources to help zoos, schools, and individuals hold their own awareness or fundraising events. More than a dozen zoos around the world will participate in Orangutan Caring Week, says OURF.
The NGOs stress that action must follow awareness. The critically endangered Sumatran orangutans stand on the brink of elimination, numbering about 6,600, and Bornean orangutans are endangered as well, numbering roughly 50,000, according to Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Australia. Furthermore, their populations have been separated by forest fragmentation, leading to potential genetic decline. Widespread awareness of the issues affecting orangutans may lead to increased protections for the hairy primates, the NGOs hope.
According to Dave Dellatore of the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), palm oil poses the greatest threat to orangutans and the other species that share their habitat. Indonesia’s rainforests provide much of the world’s oxygen supply, and palm oil plantations are quickly claiming much of the natural forest. Logging, forest fires, and poaching, made possible by the easy access plantations and logging roads provide, also pose a serious threat, according to SOS.
Habitat destruction affects other species as well, like tigers, rhinos, and slow lorises. NGOs target orangutans because they’re a keystone species—when protecting orangutans, people protect vital habitat for numerous species, SOS claims. Plus, orangutans get people’s attention, as Andrew de Sousa of the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Project (GPOCP) in Kalimantan says. “We use the orangutan as a mascot,” he states, since people often identify with the orange primates.
SOS encourages people to help orangutans and their habitat by writing to governments and companies, asking them to support sustainable palm oil. Speaking out about the issue, and helping others to cultivate awareness, has a much larger effect than trying to boycott products with palm oil, SOS says.
In Sumatra and Kalimantan, awareness campaigns never cease. GPOCP, for instance, holds presentations in local villages in southwest Kalimantan, sometimes led by teenage volunteers. “We didn’t ask them to do this,” says field officer Frederik Wendy Tamariska of GPOCP. Jimy, a seventeen-year-old Kalimantan native, does puppet shows in elementary schools and lectures in villages, also showing a film about rainforest biodiversity. He does this, he says, “Because I have a great interest to care about the environment and the forest,” and outside school hours can typically be found at the GPOCP’s environmental education center. As a result of grassroots awareness programs, villagers are adopting more sustainable practices, Tamariska and de Sousa assert.
The Indonesian government has recently taken steps to support conservation of its forests. In 2011, a moratorium on logging will halt new concessions on peatland and natural forests for two years, according to a recent Jakarta Globe article. The Indonesian government has also vowed to release all orangutans in rehabilitation centers by 2015, although many conservationists believe the process will take longer. These pledges may only become reality if backed by widespread public support. “The idea is to enroll the public to participate in ensuring the future of one of our closest primate relatives,” says OURF president Dr. Gary Shapiro.