Friday, 19 October 2007

Answers Sought to Save Asia's Orangutans

Answers Sought to Save Asia's Orangutans
US: October 19, 2007

CHICAGO - The remaining 62,000 orangutans in the wild could be wiped out within decades as forests in their Asian island habitat are decimated by loggers and palm oil farmers, conservationists said on Thursday.

American zookeepers met this week at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo with conservationists working on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra to sort through problems faced by the red-haired Asian apes and find solutions.

"There are quick and easy things everyone can do," said Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program on the Indonesian island, home to 6,700 of the critically endangered fruit-eating animals, distinctive for their thoughtful dispositions, strength, and lion-like mating call. Borneo, shared by Malaysia and Indonesia, is home to 55,000 orangutans.
"Don't play into stereotypes when buying a (greeting) card with an orangutan with his hair teased up. Education is one of the strongest components and one of the best ways forward," Singleton said.

Zoos can play a role educating the public to purchase foods or biodiesel fuel made only with sustainable palm oil, rather than from palm oil from plantations carved out of newly cut forests, Singleton and other experts said.

Do not buy furniture -- even toothpicks -- made from tropical hardwoods that is not certified, which could mean it was harvested illegally inside areas designated as "protected," they said.
And drop a contribution into zoo collection boxes destined for underfunded conservation efforts, they said.

"American zoos receive 180 million visitors a year -- an astonishing number of people. If all those people put in US$1," current funding of a few million dollars from The World Bank and other donors would be multiplied, said Serge Wich, who surveys orangutan populations for the Great Ape Trust.

The decline of orangutan populations has been "rapid," Wich said, though figures are hard to come by, and their remaining habitat is shrinking at alarming rates.

A report earlier this year from the United Nations' Environment Program said Indonesia's forest habitat for orangutans may be gone by 2022 without intervention.

According to conservationists, a license granted to cut down select trees is often followed by illegal clear-cutting, with palm oil planting close behind.

Male orangutans usually flee the area, but females, with their young, often stay behind and may be killed and their infants kidnapped for the pet trade. Hundreds of orangutans are rescued and taken to temporary sanctuaries, hopefully to be reintroduced into the wild.

Many attending the workshops expressed outrage at the exploitation for entertainment of the intelligent apes, which can grow to 300 pounds (136 kg) with a 7-foot (2.13-metre) armspan -- which often triggers demand for orangutans as pets.

"Orangutans and other great apes are not the only thing we are trying to protect here. These species stand for integrity of forests and ecosystems," Wich said.

The few hundred remaining Sumatran tigers, as well as elephants, languors, gibbons, and many other rare species are also threatened.

Wich said fires raged again last year over vast peat forests drained by canals that were dug on the islands a decade ago, further crimping orangutan habitat and releasing large storehouses of greenhouse gases.

Balancing the needs of impoverished local human populations on the islands against the animals' needs is a challenge, the experts said.

But government officials at both the national and local level have taken up the environmental cause, though they often lack the tools to direct development away from forested land.
"They don't have computers, they don't have satellite imagery of their own areas," Singleton said. "If you want them to not put palm oil estates on high-value forests, they have to know where they are."

Story by Andrew Stern