Hanging out with orangutan advocates
Three orangutan activists stopped in the South Carolina Lowcountry this past Wednesday as part of their world tour on behalf of the great red ape. A small but enthusiastic group of primate supporters braved the late afternoon thunderstorms and flooding in downtown Charleston to “Hang Out for Orangutans.” Our three guest speakers, who collectively have many decades of experience learning about and caring for orangutans, shared what they are doing to counteract the desperate conservation situation facing these great ape cousins of ours.
Dr. Gary Shapiro, president of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, recently returned from Bali and Sumatra. He began by telling the audience about meeting with 12 students there who are the recipients of scholarships from his foundation; they will be going on to study biology, forestry, and veterinary medicine. He feels that it is very important to connect with the needs of the people in the countries where orangutans are native.
Gary went on to talk about the natural history of these primates. Part of the reason they are so endangered is because they are so slow to reproduce: the interval between births is eight or nine years for a mama orangutan in Sumatra, six or seven years for one in Borneo.
Orangutans are the world’s largest frugivores, so young orangutans spend those years learning about the hundreds of fruits that are part of a wild orangutan diet. Since some fruits are toxic when immature, learning about what is safe to eat and what is not is very important. They also learn to use tools and navigate the dispersed social structure typical of wild orangutans.
But these great intelligent apes are being driven to extinction, as logging concessions give way to estate plantations, especially for oil palms. About 90 percent of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, and the lowland forests that orangutans prefer are being decimated and replaced by uniform rows of oil palm trees.
Garry Sundin then spoke about his experiences as head of Orangutan Odysseys, a responsible eco-tour company that focuses on providing a true educational experience to travelers while benefiting the wildlife they’ve come to see. He is very excited about his upcoming Trans Borneo Challenge, a 900 kilometer, 24 day trek across the world’s third largest island. This tour aims to raise awareness about the orangutans who make Borneo their home. He already has a number of international trekkers signed up—hailing from Australia to Italy—who are ready to take it on.
Finally, the president of The Orangutan Project, Leif Cocks, spoke about the ethical and moral perspective of orangutan conservation. Orangutans are fairly solitary animals, but their native intelligence is, by some measures, second only to that of humans. They can recognize themselves in mirrors and can be taught a vocabulary of 150 words. By some estimates, they have the intelligence of a five or six year old human child.
As Leif said, “A society is measured by the way it treats those at its mercy.” Given the sentience and sensitivity of orangutans, how soon will we include them in our circle of concern? Will it be soon enough to save them from the widespread corruption that is destroying their habitat and turning wild orangutan babies into the orphaned pets of petty officials seeking a new kind of status symbol?
The next day, we took our guests on a tour of the IPPL sanctuary grounds and talked about apes great and small, about the challenges of caring for them in captivity, about relative dexterity and appropriate enrichment, and about the nature of the palm oil debate. We were sorry to see them go so soon, but we wish them well on their tour.
This is the first time that IPPL has sponsored a free public lecture about primates; since this is our 40th anniversary year, we were glad to have a special occasion to draw attention to the plight of a primate whose fate is so visibly being negatively affected by human activities. Hopefully, some of the people who are fortunate enough to see “Hang Out for Orangutans” in other cities will be inspired to do more for these magnificent apes.