Orangutans and palm oil: What's the connection?

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In Willie Smits’ powerful TEDTalk, he describes his work to re-grow the rainforest in Indonesia — a triple-bottom-line effort that can benefit the local economy, the local orangutans and the green heart of the forest. The TED Blog asked Smits’ associate Richard Zimmerman, the director of Orangutan Outreach, to expand on the orangutan story:

In his TEDTalk, Willie briefly discussed the crisis facing orangutans in the wild as the Indonesian rainforest is cut down and converted into palm oil plantations. I would like to further elaborate on this, so that people might get a better grasp of what we’re dealing with in our quest to save the orangutans.

Orangutans are sentient beings who share approximately 97.8% of our DNA and express a range of emotions that is just as wide as our own. The forests of Borneo and Sumatra are the only two places on Earth where these gentle, intelligent creatures live. The cultivation of palm oil over the last decade has directly led to the slaughter of thousands of individuals as the industry has expanded into previously undisturbed areas of old-growth rainforest. The UNEP estimates that an area of Indonesian rainforest the size of six football fields is cut down every minute of every day. Read that sentence again.

The palm oil and timber industries are guilty of truly horrific ecological atrocities, one of which is the systematic genocide of orangutans. When the forest is cleared, adult orangutans are generally shot on sight. In the absence of bullets they are beaten, burned, tortured, mutilated and often eaten as bushmeat. Babies are literally torn off their dying mothers so that they can be sold on the black market as illegal pets to wealthy families, who see them as status symbols of their own power and prestige. This is not hyperbole, mind you. It has been documented time and time again.

Some of the luckier baby orangutans are confiscated and brought to sanctuaries such as Samboja Lestari, as Willie mentioned, or the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center, which is now home to nearly 700 orphaned and displaced orangutans in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). Many of these orangutans are only weeks old when they arrive, and all of them are psychologically traumatized and desperate for their mothers — who are no longer alive. And remember, these are the fortunate ones. For every one we rescue, at least six others are estimated to have been killed, along with their mothers.

Set up under Willie’s auspices in 1999, Nyaru Menteng is managed by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and run by a remarkable woman named Lone Droscher Nielsen. It is featured on Animal Planet’s award-winning series Orangutan Island as well as on the BBC’s Orangutan Diary. Willie and Lone are true champions in the struggle to save orangutans from a senseless and shamefully premature extinction in the wild.

Find ways to get involved (yes, you can adopt an orangutan) >>