On Thursday October 18, 2012 NBC will air a progam about critically endangered orangutans on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The Sumatran orangutan, Pongo albelli, used to be considered a subspecies of the related apes (Pongo pygmaeus) which live on Borneo, but is now accorded full species status. The types diverged due to their geographical isolation about 400,000 years ago. But for how long will this newly classified species be with us?
The NBC preview story is Demand for palm oil, used in packaged food products, leaves orangutans at risk.
One of the Sumatran orangutan’s richest habitats, an area of swampland containing the highest density of the red apes on the planet, is being illegally slashed and burned by palm oil companies to make way for palm oil plantations.
“If we can't stop them here, then there really is no hope,” said Ian Singleton as we stood on the edge of what had once been pristine forest, home to hundreds of orangutans, but now reduced to a charred wilderness as far as the eye could see. As he spoke we could hear the distant sound of a chain saw.
Singleton runs the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Programme, an organization at the forefront of a battle to save what remains of the forest and the apes.
There are fewer than 7,000 of the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans left in the wild, according to a 2008 survey completed by Singleton and other scientists. The largest number live in a vast area of swampland and lowland forest close to the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
“Orangutan paradise,” Singleton calls the area — but it’s a paradise under threat. The key battleground for Singleton is the Tripa Peat Swamp Forest, much of which has already been converted to palm oil plantations.
The relentless march of the palm oil business is the biggest threat facing the orangutans.
A cheap, edible oil, palm oil is found in almost half of all packaged supermarket products, from instant noodles, to cookies to ice cream, and Indonesia is the world's biggest supplier.
If we can't stop them here, then there really is no hope says Ian Singleton of the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Program. The forests the last remaining Sumatra orangutans live in are being cleared to grow more palm oil. We can perhaps find no better example of what expanding human populations and consumption are doing to the natural world.
We could ask the humans which they would rather have — orangutans or palm oil? If you frame the question casually but carefully, sentimental humans will always side with these poor, endangered great apes. But when push comes to shove, not in the abstract but in practice, in what we so affectionately call the Real World, they will always take the palm oil. That's just the way it is.
This being NBC, there will be a short ad before Ian Singleton explains why he is being forced to move tranquilize orangutans and move them from one place to another.