Orangutans are great apes, native to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. They are among the most intelligent primates, making tools to construct nests using branches and foliage. Their diverse diet consists of fruits and nuts from over 400 different plant varieties. Orangutans spend most of their lives in trees, where they eat, nest, reproduce and seek refuge from predators. Diverse and dense rainforest is required to sustain a significant population of orangutans. The Bornean and Sumatran rainforests are two of the oldest rainforests in the world. Their tropical climate has no significant dry season and allows them to sustain an ecosystem for a host of unique flora and fauna. Rainforests are considered the ‘lungs of the world’ producing up to 20% of the oxygen in our atmosphere and removing carbon and storing it in trees.
However, orangutans are currently under threat of extinction due to the destruction of their habitats. Every year their habitats in the Bornean and Sumatran rainforests are shrinking more and more through legal and illegal deforestation. This involves activities such as logging, mining but primarily the planting of palm trees (to produce palm oil). It is estimated by the IUCN Red list, that these unsustainable activities have decimated the orangutan population on these islands by 50% in the last 40 years. If this trend continues, the orangutan populations will be driven to extinction in the next 50 years.
Palm oil is ubiquitous, it is found in 50% of packaged items in Irish/English supermarkets, from pizza and doughnuts to deodorant and shampoo. It is chemically stable and gives products a longer shelf life, without altering their smell or taste. The issue surrounding Palm trees is that they require a significant amount of water in addition to a tropical climate in order to grow. The rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra are a perfect fit for farmers to utilise. However, palm forests are uninhabitable for orangutans due to lack of food availability, unsuitable tree type for swinging or resting and no cover to hide from predators. The Palm oil industry also contributes to the release of greenhouse gases, through deforestation and therefore the loss of carbon sequestration tools, in addition to the exploitation of the local work force (through forced and child labour). The implementation of a palm tree monoculture reduces the biodiversity in the area greatly.
The Amazon Rainforest, in South America, is experiencing a similar issue. A significant proportion of its area is being cleared or scorched to make space for cattle ranching which contributes to Brazil’s thriving beef and leather industry and exports. The rainforest is also being deforested rapidly for land to grow palm oil and soybeans, the latter being used almost entirely as cattle feed to support the beef industry. More than 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned every day. That is more than 150 acres lost every minute of every day. More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and much more is severely threatened as the destruction continues. Since 1970, nearly 1 million km2 of the amazon rainforest has been lost. The impacts of this loss are already being felt with a disruption of Brazil’s fresh water supply and an increase of local temperature, resulting in droughts and wildfires. With the loss of such a vast number of trees, comes the loss of staggering amounts of wildlife and plants. In Western modern medicine, around 25% of all drugs are derived from rainforest plants. With less than 5% of Amazon plant species studied for their potential medicinal benefits, we are potentially losing them before even discovering them.
To combat the significant loss of rainforests around the world, scientists and organisations around the world are attempting to introduce methods for sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is defined by meeting the needs of the present, without sacrificing those of tomorrow. Many organisations are attempting to introduce sustainable farming to prevent the rainforests from being destroyed, while still producing the amount needed for human consumption.
In recent years there has been an increase in products which do not contain palm oil and an expansion in plant-based products due to a reluctance in people supporting these industries. It is important to note, that every time you spend money on a product, you are essentially “voting” for this product to stay on the shelves. The more support, and profit, that palm oil free/plant-based/sustainable products receive, the more the food industry will listen and continue finding new ways to establish more sustainable methods to produce food for a hungry population.
If sustainable agriculture is not implemented successfully and swiftly, the earth will suffer. As mentioned above, the orangutan is just one example of species that will disappear in this century if no action is taken. It’s up to you and me to decide if future generations will be able to see these magnificent creatures in person or in a museum.
- The Encyclopedia of Mammals