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The Bornean Orangutan Population Has Fallen by Nearly 150,000 in Just 16 Years

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After spending eight weeks in quarantine, Amy was escorted to forest school to begin her rehabilitation, excited to meet her new friends and begin her journey into to the wild. International Animal Rescue

By Alan Knight

At the end of September, four rescued orangutans returned to their home in the rainforest after undergoing lengthy rehabilitation at International Animal Rescue's (IAR) conservation center in West Borneo, where I work as a chief executive. Amy, Kepo, Ongky and Rambo had been rescued by our Orangutan Protection Unit at various times during the previous eight years. They then joined 100 other orangutans at the center being meticulously prepared for life back in the wild by our dedicated team of vets and caregivers.


The majority of the orangutans at our center are victims of the illegal pet trade. They have all suffered terrible cruelty and neglect after being taken from the wild as babies. They likely saw their mothers being killed as they fought to protect their infants. The traumatized young orphans were then sold or kept as pets by their captors, often living as part of the family until they grew too big and strong to handle. Then they were chained or cooped up in small wooden crates and soon forgotten, left to languish in misery far from the forest where they belong.

Amy's story is a typical one. She was being kept as a pet by villagers in Jambi, Sukamarau, in Central Borneo. When our rescue team found her, she was slumped in a dark wooden cage with a heavy chain around her neck. She was thin, dirty and depressed, and her brown eyes gazed blankly at Dewi, our vet, when she approached her. Poor Amy had nothing but a filthy piece of old cloth in her cage to comfort her.

When the IAR rescue team found her, Amy was found chained by her neck in a dark wooden cage. International Animal Rescue

Amy's rescue was the first step on her journey to a new life. After spending eight weeks in quarantine, she was given a clean bill of health by the veterinary team, and her rehabilitation could begin. At 6 years old, she was too big to go to school for baby orangutans and so entered the next stage of rehabilitation at our center—forest school. Here, among others of her own kind, Amy gradually developed the skills she would need to survive in the wild. She spent her time climbing and moving around in the trees, foraging for food and building a new nest each night to sleep in. Our monitoring team gathered data on her progress, reporting that she was a fast learner, was making excellent progress and would soon be a candidate for reintroduction into the wild.

The day of her release was a joyful one. It is so uplifting to see an orangutan return to their rightful home in the forest. It makes all the team's hard work worthwhile. At the same time, however, everyone at IAR is acutely aware that our work rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orangutans only addresses the symptoms of the problem but not the problem itself. Habitat loss and illegal hunting are the primary causes of the decline in orangutan populations.

Amy just after her release back to wild. International Animal Rescue

Rapid and relentless deforestation for industrial-scale agriculture, particularly palm oil and timber plantations, leaves orangutans without food and shelter, exposing them to hunters who kill orangutans and capture their babies to sell as pets. The apes are also in danger of coming into conflict with local people as they stray into villages and onto farmland in search of food. Fires started on an annual basis as part of land clearance operations in Indonesia are also responsible for the loss of thousands of acres of rainforest and the lives of hundreds if not thousands of orangutans.

In 2016, the Bornean orangutan joined the Sumatran orangutan on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, an indication that the species is coming perilously close to extinction. Further evidence of the population's decline came in a report published in the journal Biology in February this year. Its authors concluded that the Bornean orangutan population had fallen by 148,000 between 1999 and 2015 and now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000 individuals. The numbers could fall by at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, the conservationists predict. What, then, can be done to pull the orangutan back from the brink of extinction?

In addition to supporting the work of groups fighting to save the orangutan, we conscientious consumers can all ensure our choices and purchasing habits are not contributing to the orangutan's desperate plight. "Buyer beware," as the saying goes, More than 50 percent of groceries contain palm oil, from toothpaste and shampoo, to ice cream and pizza. And it's frankly impossible to know for sure from a label whether something has genuinely been ethically and sustainably produced.

None of us wants the orangutan to pay the price for our lifestyle choices, and therefore it's better, wherever possible, to shop locally and steer clear of items whose origins are unclear. It is, after all, better for the environment as a whole—and better for our own health—to consume products grown closer to home that don't leave a giant carbon footprint on the planet as they travel to reach us.

Further action we can all take to help our critically endangered cousin is to raise awareness among friends, family and colleagues of their plight. And raising the alarm about the threats facing the species couldn't be easier thanks to social media.

The name "orangutan" is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words orang meaning "person" and hutan meaning "forest." What a tragedy it would be to let this precious "person of the forest" vanish from the face of the Earth forever. But if we all have the will and determination to step up and prevent that from happening, I do believe we still can.

Alan Knight is the chief executive of International Animal Rescue, a UK-based animal welfare nonprofit. Alan was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2006 for his services to animal welfare.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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